Friday, April 13, 2007

GOP 2008: Big Mess or Desperate Measures?

As a follow-up to my recent post on the Democratic presidential race, I would say there really isn't any dominant conventional wisdom about the Republican contest at this point.

Some observers think the field is a big mess, with the Big Three candidates (Giuliani, McCain and Romney) all sporting gigantic liabilities that could theoretically take them down before Iowa, but with no one else emerging or likely to emerge from the weak second-tier pack to win the nomination and unite the GOP.

Yet some observers (in both parties) think the biggest of the Big Three, Rudy Giuliani, can pull off a miracle by winning the nomination despite his rich history of ideological heresies and marital issues, and then win the general election based on his personal charisma and his reputation and "America's Mayor" on and after 9/11. And a few think a dark horse--most recently Fred Thompson--can snuff all the front-runners.

The Giuliani issue is indeed fascinating. He's totally kicking butt in the polls. Real Clear Politics' average of GOP polls since March 21 shows Rudy up in the 30s, while McCain has collapsed into the teens, with Romney (the other member of the Big Three) stuck in the single digits, actually trailing Thompson and barely ahead of Newt Gingrich.

But Giuliani's manifold liabilities, especially on cultural issues, seem to be multiplying, given his recent reiteration of support for public funding of abortions (his lame-o follow-up pledge that he wouldn't try to repeal "current law" radically restricting such funding was cold comfort to Right-to-Lifers, whose main raison d'etre is to overturn the "current law" making abortion legal in the first place). Now some analysts seem to think that cultural conservatives will look at Rudy's overall record and platform and give him a pass on issues like abortion and gay marriage and immigration. But as I never tire of pointing out, these aren't negotiable issues to culturally conservative voters, many of whom think legalized abortion is a second Holocaust; that gay marriage is a fundamental threat to the institution of the family; and that current immigration policies threaten the basic cultural integrity of the nation. At a minimum, Giuliani is going to face a nasty, scorched-earth demonization effort far more intense than the one that brought down John McCain in 2000, while providing a lot more raw material to work with than McCain ever did. You can count on it.

An alternative argument, made most persuasively by Mike Tomasky, is that Rudy's mastered dog-whistle politics, and might well, in office, give the Cultural Right whatever they want, despite his public positions. That may be true, but I doubt it will do him much good in running for the nomination, since (a) Rudy built a long record of untrustworthy behavior towards conservatives in New York, and (b) the Cultural Right has repeatedly been gamed by past Republican presidents, including those who publicly agreed with their demands, making conservatives vastly less likely to accept bare promises, much less dog whistles.

The final argument you hear is more basic: today's Republicans, like Democrats accepting Bill Clinton in 1992 or even GOPers Liking Ike in 1952, are simply so desperate to hang onto the White House that they'll plunk for Rudy simply because he might win the general election.

The analogy to Clinton is reasonable in one respect: like Clinton, Rudy faces a very weak field. Many people may have forgotten the grand irony of the 1992 nominating process: the same New Hampshire primary that threatened Clinton's campaign and ultimately made him "the Comeback Kid" also croaked the candidacies of Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey, leaving Clinton to face two underwhelming rivals, Paul Tsongas and (later) Jerry Brown. It's possible that Giuliani could win the nomination in 2008 simply because no one is strong enough to beat him, though this outcome would run a high risk of creating a conservative third-party candidacy.

Indeed, as Tomasky pointed out in his (above-cited) article, there's no way that Clinton was as far from the Democratic mainstream on major issues in 1992 as Giuliani is today. As for Ike--well, aside from the fact that the GOP was far less ideologically conservative in 1952 than it is today, there's this small matter that Eisenhower, having supervised the defeat of Nazi Germany, was vastly more popular than anyone in public life in this day and age, definitely including "America's Mayor."

Meanwhile, Rudy's strength in the polls has fed the other boom, the otherwise unlikely effort to catapult Fred Thompson into the role of the "true conservative" in the race. The Thompson proto-candidacy really does make you wonder if George Allen might be headed towards the nomination if he hadn't disgraced himself en route to losing his Senate seat last year. He was a lot more acceptable to conservatives than Thompson has ever been, and had at least an arguable record of accomplishment as governor of Virginia, whereas ol' Fred warmed a chair in the Senate between stints as a mediocre character actor and a lobbyist. Maybe he'll manage to run a campaign that strikes a chord stronger than "I'm not those other guys," but until then, it appears his sudden double-digit position in the polls is simply a sad reflection on the field.

There is a pretty firm CW about two other candidates: Romney and McCain. Despite his powerful fundraising numbers, it's almost universally accepted in GOP circles that the Mittster has flunked his first audition as "the true conservative candidate," mainly thanks to those toxic videotapes of his earlier protestations of cultural liberalism, along with exceptional hostility in conservative evangelical circles towards his Mormon faith. He may get a second audition before it's over, but he's so far shown no reason to believe it will go better than the first. Unlike Giuliani, he doesn't have the positive national image that makes him look good in general election trial heats. He's actually afraid to talk about his main policy achievement, his role in Massachusetts' health care plan. So it's hard to see what, exactly, would convert his money and on-paper strengths into actual votes.

And there's also general agreement that John McCain is in deep trouble. He's lost about half his early GOP support in the horse-race polls; he's actually running behind Thompson in at least one. And his one big gambit to regain conservative support, his increasingly visible support for the "Bush surge" in Iraq and his abrasive slurs on the patriotism of Democrats who are opposing it, may help him with the GOP base, but only at the price of all but eliminating his already-decimated positive image among independents and Democrats. And given just about any alternative, few conservatives really want to support McCain if he looks like a weak general election candidate harnessed to the GOP's worst issue.

Little needs to be said about the GOP's other candidates. Tancredo will continue his bid to become the new Pat Buchanan of presidential politics, probably forcing other candidates to get shrill on immigration, which will help solidify the Democratic advantage among Latinos in the general election. Sam Brownback will serve a similar destructive function on abortion and gay marriage. Gingrich, if he runs despite a very late start, will be the ultimate fallback candidate, sort of Bob Dole with a lot of baggage, offering the party the option of just taking a dive in 2008. And Mike Huckabee doesn't have two nickels to rub together. Nor does Tommy Thompson. Hagel shouldn't be mentioned until he acts like he's running.

And don't forget this: Republicans don't have some Ultimate Savior out there who could run a credible campaign if push came to shove. In the extremely unlikely event that all of the Democratic Big Three crashed and burned, the party still has Al Gore, who would probably accept a real draft. The only person on the GOP side that could theoretically offer that is Jeb Bush, whose last name is almost certainly a disqualifier.

So count me as a member of the "big mess" faction when it comes to an analysis of the GOP field. Rudy makes no sense; Fred's got no game; Mitt's stuck in neutral; John's mired in a lose-lose relationship with the conservative base; and the rest of the candidates seem to be going nowhere fast.
-- Posted at 2:34 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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