Anyone surprised to learn that The Arizona Republic judges U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona the best Republican choice for president in 2008 simply hasn't been paying attention.
In recent months we have extolled McCain's virtues and defended him against his many critics. In our judgment, McCain is the class of the GOP contenders, and we are proud to encourage his pursuit of the nation's highest office.
This is not to suggest we are blind to the senator's flaws, or his drawbacks compared to his competitors. He is less a master of economics than, say, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Far inferior an orator than former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. And he presents less of an executive's resume than former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
And, of course, he is imperfectly conservative - if someone with an American Conservative Union ranking nearly the equal of conservative icon Fred Thompson's can be judged imperfect.
But as a candidate who embodies the only characteristics of Ronald Reagan that really matter in these troubled times - personal integrity and commitment to principle - no other candidate comes close. Any comparison of the candidates that sets other attributes on the same plane as these is simply derivative. The outstanding example of those attributes, of course, is McCain's commitment to pursuing a successful, positive outcome to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Voters scarcely need to be reminded how cruelly that commitment has been challenged. A year ago at this time, Iraq was an unstable, bloody mess - destined for the chaos of civil war, if not already swept into it. American casualties were approaching the intolerable. For a presidential candidate committed to supporting the Bush administration's decision to send more troops to that roiling cauldron, prospects were dim, to say the least.
Much has changed in Iraq since then. The "surge" has routed terrorists and insurgents from most of their lairs. And, as a result, the Iraqi government, however slowly, is beginning to make some progress toward political compromise among its factions. Baby steps? Certainly. But without the committed support of a tiny group of principled supporters like McCain, even this much progress would not have been possible.
With his candidacy again on an upswing, McCain has been battered in recent weeks by Republican hard-liners in the media. A few words on their critiques.
Contrary to the impressions left by his critics, McCain has never voted to raise taxes. He opposed the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 because they arrived with no commensurate spending cuts. And, for the record, he now supports making those cuts permanent. McCain is a career-long defender of lower taxes and less federal spending.
Further, the claim that his participation in the bipartisan "Gang of 14" somehow undercut Republican judiciary appointments is completely spurious. Without the intercession of McCain and his "gang," the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court would have been seriously jeopardized. More likely, thwarted.
John McCain presents the Republicans with their best opportunity to retain the White House in November. But he offers them more than just a chance at victory.
He gives his party integrity. And principle. They cannot improve on such attributes. And they should not try.