The Presidential Prizefight ’08

Ideology Versus Electability in Both Parties (Part I: The Republicans)


As 2006 dawns, the presidential sweepstakes–or is it a lottery?–is taking on heightened visibility. Partly, it’s President Bush’s overall weakness, apparent or real. A lame duck residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue encourages early speculation about the Bush succession if only because political observers don’t believe George W. Bush can or will get much done for the balance of his term. (As usual, the political cognoscenti are probably wrong, but never mind…)

Then, too, the wide open nature of the 2008 party primaries is remarkable. This is only the fifth time since the dawn of the twentieth century that the incumbent President or Vice President has not been running–the earlier examples were 1908, 1920, 1928, and 1952. In 1908 and 1928, the incumbent Republican Party had obvious, winning successors in William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover, who filled the early void much as a Vice President in-line to succeed Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge would have done. There is no obvious Republican successor to George W. Bush in 2008, an electoral situation that only Woodrow Wilson (laid low by a debilitating stroke) and Harry Truman (crippled by devastating unpopularity) faced. Wilson promoted no Democrat because he clearly hoped for a third consecutive Democratic nomination, despite his illness. Truman eventually helped Adlai Stevenson become the Democratic standard-bearer, though he had no real influence to produce victory for Stevenson in the autumn of ’52.

With Dick Cheney obviously removed from any surprise presidential consideration after his chief of staff’s indictment, will Bush try to promote another GOP candidate, publicly or privately, before the crucial moment comes in the 2008 primary season? Even if Bush remains unpopular with the general population in early 2008, his endorsement might have critical influence with loyal Republicans unsure of what to do without a crown prince. On the other hand, Republicans could be looking for the un-Bush if they are convinced the electorate wants a change in direction after eight years. In this circumstance, Bush’s nod could backfire, and candidates may try to avoid close association with the President. It’s so early, who can say which scenario will play out?

For the Republicans, the early informed speculation has focused on the renewal of the McCain phenomenon. John McCain‘s possible ’08 nomination seemed unthinkable after his 2000 campaign imploded and he was left with backing only in moderate segments of an overwhelmingly conservative party. The last maverick nominated by maverick-averse Republicans was Wendell Willkie, who lost to FDR in 1940. McCain had also painted himself into a liberal corner, despite a fairly conservative Senate voting record. His support for First Amendment-destructive campaign finance reform, his transparent (and reciprocated) bitterness towards Bush, his attacks on Christian evangelical leaders, and perhaps most of all, his slavish fan club in the elite New York-D.C. establishment press corps were all counted heavily against him by rank-and-file conservative Republicans. McCain’s bouts with cancer and his age in ’08 (72 years) made his prospects even more remote.

Yet McCain has made many smart moves. The turnaround came first with his intense campaigning with President Bush when the President’s reelection was far from a sure thing. Bush needed McCain badly, and McCain showed up without attitude. Then, McCain’s fervent backing for the administration’s Iraq policy provided vital ballast when Bush was being buffeted on all sides in 2005. In addition, McCain has begun to reemphasize his conservative positions on social issues, such as gay rights and abortion. Amazingly, this has cost him little support from his legion of media friends who, while far more liberal than he, enjoy his free-wheeling company and the ‘bipartisan’ aura he extends to their shows. (No doubt, with Ben Bradlee’s JFK friendship in the early 1960s as a model, these anchor-elites and print impresarios hope and expect their tie to lead to rewarding White House access in the McCain administration.)

Underlying the McCain revival is a growing belief by senior Republicans that a candidate in the Bush mold will be unable to win the elusive “third term” for the GOP. The most reliable and powerful campaign theme in all of American history is, “It’s Time for a Change.” After two terms of George W. Bush, the public is likely to want a change of some sort, providing it’s not too drastic. A candidate who looks and sounds like Bush will be at a significant disadvantage, goes this line of thinking. Therefore, say the GOP’s high pooh-bahs, why not give the electorate a refreshing change via the Republican nomination? There may be no more convincing rationale for McCain’s nomination, but this assumes that Bush remains unpopular and that electability trumps ideology. The latter is never a sure bet with party activists, who usually hold to principle even with the prospect of defeat.

The polar opposite of McCain is the Beltway insiders’ choice for GOP nominee, Senator George Allen of Virginia. Allen has long been a conservative golden boy, and where he does not fit the Right’s requirements, he has been flip-flopping his way toward acceptability (changing his support of hate crimes legislation that includes sexual orientation to opposition, switching from opposition to support of the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and so on–not to mention finding religion on ethanol, Iowa’s quid pro quo for caucus consideration). The Allen image of charismatic cowboy-cum-tax cuts reminds his ardent supporters of Ronald Reagan, though critics see in him a re-make of George W. Bush: a very conservative, tobacco-spitting Southern governor with a misspent youth, a hee-haw demeanor, a lack of substantial foreign policy experience in a dangerous age, and ever-ready inarticulate bromides that substitute for sound policy. Nonetheless, if Republicans decide to stick with the tried-and-true, Allen could easily end up as the party’s presidential nominee. Having defeated women for both the U.S. House in a special 1991 election and then the Virginia governorship in 1993, Allen would hope for a Hillary Clinton nomination–his easiest path to the White House.

Other Republican candidates are in the hunt in this wide-open contest, and yet it is difficult to see a path for some of them to win. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is magnetic, articulate, intriguing, and close to New Hampshire, so he could surprise us. But how does a Mormon from Massachusetts–the enemy state for Republicans–overcome all the obvious obstacles in his path, such as only one term as governor, some moderate positions in his 2002 campaign, and his lack of foreign policy experience? New York Governor George Pataki is also underwhelming. He is surprisingly obscure for a three-termer, is leaving office unpopular in his home state, would be unlikely to carry New York in November, and has positions on social issues so liberal that he cannot hope to secure the votes of most GOP conservatives.

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee lost over 100 pounds, which is admirable, but it doesn’t make for much of a presidential platform. And can Republicans contemplate choosing a presidential nominee from Bill Clinton’s state so soon after the Clinton administration? Little known Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas has a geographic advantage, perhaps, in the Iowa caucuses, but he is perceived as a Sammy-one-note on abortion. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is a hard-driving, exceedingly bright man who has secured the worst reviews for his budding candidacy in the entire field. Maybe once he leaves the presidential candidacy hellhole called the Senate in early 2007 he will be able to regenerate his White House bid. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is eternally engaging and creative, but no one yet takes his potential candidacy seriously. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska might be a substitute for John McCain if McCain chooses not to run, yet he has most of McCain’s problems and few of his advantages. Oh yes, Nebraska is also close to Iowa.

Some of the arguably best Republican candidates aren’t running, including former Big Apple Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Could one or more reconsider? Could a hero or two from the 2006 elections emerge and take the party by storm? All possible, but not bloody likely.

Next Week, the Crystal Ball will examine the Democratic dilemma over ideology and electability. Stay tuned…