Rightier Than Thou

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conservatism, Republican Party

For a great many years, most Americans have found presidential elections to be a choice between someone they don’t like and someone they can’t stand. That’s largely because the early nomination process is less about capturing the public’s imagination than about running a gauntlet of activists and interest groups. The candidates are already bruised and bleeding, sometimes fatally, before active campaigning for primaries even begins.

Thus, the nomination process is less about vision and leadership than about picking the least objectionable positions on hot-button issues. Or, like George W. Bush in 2000, carefully maintaining blank-slate status so that voters saw in him what they wanted to see. Being the fair-haired child of party insiders didn’t hurt, either.

Considering the drubbing hard-right Republicans took in the midterms, it may seem odd that some Republican presidental hopefuls, notably John McCain and Mitt Romney, are moving further right. For example, both McCain and Romney have moved to the right of their former positions on abortion. Both politicians have been making nice with the religious right. Earlier this week Romney declared himself to be a “conservative Republican” as he attempts to position himself to the right of McCain.

David Bernstein writes in The Phoenix:

To woo those conservatives, Romney has staked out a position in the GOP presidential field akin to that of George W. Bush, without the taint of Washington. He supports the Iraq war as a necessary part of the war on Islamist-fueled terror. He has embraced social conservative causes by shifting to a strict pro-life position, denouncing stem-cell research, and, of course, bashing same-sex marriage. And Romney is on even steadier ground with what you might call the corporate wing of the Republican Party, which is looking for a pro-business, small-government, anti-regulation, low-tax candidate.

But, dude, the guy’s from Massachusetts.

That all looks good on paper, but not everybody’s buying it. “Nobody in the party movement establishment thinks of him as a conservative,” says David Carney, a political consultant with Norway Hill Associates in Hancock, New Hampshire, and former political director for George H.W. Bush. “You can’t be a conservative and take an inconsistent position on abortion.”

As for his economics positioning, Romney earned a mere “C” grade from the Cato Institute in its new ratings of governors’ fiscal conservatism. The report called Romney’s no-new-taxes claim “mostly a myth,” and warned of “massive costs to taxpayers that his universal health care plan will inflict.” Further, Romney’s limited government experience gives conservatives little to judge him by, and he’s never been the kind of intellectual heavyweight who builds a reputation by penning articles for right-wing think tanks.

As a result, he has tried to prove himself by association — getting people known to movement insiders to sign on with his political-action committee, Commonwealth PAC. Names like Barbara Comstock mean little to the average voter, but they matter to right-wing insiders. Romney also has two top former aides of Jeb Bush, as well as George W. Bush’s former top domestic speechwriter on his payroll. And many other solid conservatives populate his “steering committees” in early-voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Conventional wisdom says that John McCain is the most electable of the potential Republican presidential candidates. Too bad the righties can’t stand him.

“Movement conservatives” — the type who gather at Grover Norquist’s famous weekly breakfast meetings at Americans for Tax Reform headquarters on L Street in Washington — despise John McCain. Loathe him. Would do anything to stop him. …

… McCain’s frequent television appearances give the average viewer a distorted view of his relationship to the Republican Party. In fact, his well-cultivated image, so appealing to independent voters in 2000, has earned him the ire of movement conservatives.

“I find John McCain completely unacceptable,” says Peter Ferrara, senior policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Washington-based small-government think tank.

“He’s completely unfit to serve as president,” says David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, a powerful right-wing organization.

This hatred dates to McCain’s signature campaign-finance-reform legislation, co-sponsored with liberal senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, which severely limited the large-sum individual and corporate contributions that had previously fueled Republican campaigns.

But that’s not their only problem with the Arizona senator. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts (although he later voted for making them permanent). He has supported gun-control legislation. He led the “Gang of 14” senators in preventing the so-called nuclear option, a change in procedure that would have allowed Republicans to confirm conservative judges over Democratic opposition. He voted for federal spending on stem-cell research, and opposes a federal ban on gay marriage. He is one of the most pro-environment Republicans on Capital Hill, supporting the Kyoto Treaty and even co-authoring a failed bill to limit carbon-dioxide emissions. And, in a move tailor-made for attack ads, he co-authored the “amnesty-by-another-name” immigration-reform legislation — with Ted Kennedy, no less — that dominated right-wing talk radio much of the year.

Worse, McCain is “soft” on torture. He can forget the Freeper vote. And so far Romney has found far greater favor than McCain on the religious right.

By now you may see the GOP’s problem; any candidate who survives the gauntlet and passes a sufficient number of rightie litmus tests will be way far right of the general public.

In the current political climate I don’t think Rudy Giuliani has a chance, in spite of his current front-runner status in some polls. So far the Republican Party has maintained a rosy glow around “America’s mayor.” But if he does choose to run, the gloves will come off, and the other candidates will destroy him. Just watch.

So “movement” conservatives hate McCain, and “social” conservatives will never accept Giuliani. George Allen is already gone. Last year there were presidential noises coming from Sen. Sam Brownback who is, IMO, the wingnut’s wingnut. A space alien would make a less extreme candidate. If he does get in the race, he might pull social conservative votes away from Romney.

Senator Chuck Hegel could make a palatable presidential candidate in the general election, if he chooses to run, but I doubt he’s popular among the GWOT hawks. However, the Right Blogosphere for the most part pretends Hegel doesn’t exist. Considering the many stands he’s taken against Bush foreign policy, there’s not a lot of grumbling about him on the rightie blogs. So I’m not sure what they’re thinking. Hegel would be very competitive if he can survive the gauntlet — he’s McCain with less negative baggage — but it’s hard to predict how much of a gauntlet he’d have to run.

In any event, for years the pundiocracy has snarked that Dem candidates had to move left to get the nomination and then right to win the election. How true that might have been is, IMO, debatable. But now, I think the GOP may have painted itself into the opposite corner. To get the 2008 GOP nomination, a candidate may have to move so far right he’ll drop off the bleeping map. And the GOP base is so fractured, a candidate who makes nice with one faction might well alienate another.

After the midterms, the Usual Bloviators opined that the Democratic Party’s liberal base had lost the election. Many fingers were wagged at us liberal bloggers; we were warned that the new crop of Democrats were more conservative than we were. Never mind that these were the same politicians we had just helped elect, and we knew good and well who they were. The pundits assume that we liberal bloggers are just the next generation of the New Left, and we’re out here in bloggerland fighting over identity politics and applying our own single-issue litmus tests to the candidates. But in fact we’re less about ideology and more about building coalitions and dragging the Democratic Party back to its populist roots.

Conventional wisdom about who will be nominated by either party ain’t worth a bucket of spit, IMO. But if current patterns hold, expect the GOP to marginalize itself right out of the White House.

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11 Comments

10 Comments

  1. erinyes  •  Nov 24, 2006 @7:20 pm

    I expect another Bush to run….
    Jeb in ’08. The righties know he’s smarter than Dubya.
    He has the name recognition, good point/ very bad point.
    It may sound crazy, but expect Jeb to test the water, perhaps run in 2012 if not 1008.
    If they don’t run Jebby, they’ll get Darth Vader…
    Now there’s a dyed in the wool Republican in the Bush “tradition”!!
    ( “Bush tradition” is the new TM of the Bush Family crime syndicate)

  2. Doug Hughes  •  Nov 24, 2006 @7:45 pm

    Barbara, I agree with all your reasoning. I have been watching McCain ask for MORE troops – and AFTER the election. He has been in a kiss-and-make-up mode with Faldwell. It is WAY early, but I can’t see anyone but McCain getting the Republican nod. The only thing that could make his positions palatable to the independent voter is a terrorist attack on the same scale as 9/11.

    But the election will be a choice between two candidates. Who will the Dems put up? The selection of candidates for the mid-terms was the sharpest political strategy I have EVER seen the Dems pull off. If we don’t fall off the OTHER side of the map and put up someone who can be painted as an imbecile, we should get ALL the left end of the spectrum (with grumbling) and so much of the middle that we can claim a madate for real.

    We will not have a lot of successes to point to in ’08. Bush will veto any bit of progressive legislation he can. So we need the White House and at least 4 years of hard work JUST to undo 8 years of damage Bush has done to the constitutional balance of powers. I say, get that repair done and THEN look at ‘liberal’ objectives that a popular president can support in his second term. Example: health care.

  3. moonbat  •  Nov 24, 2006 @8:53 pm

    We will not have a lot of successes to point to in ‘08.

    No, not in the sense of getting any significant progressive legislation passed, but lots of success in discrediting the regime in the eyes of many – even beyond the missteps they’ll do to themselves (and sadly to the rest of us + the world) in the next two years.

    I am looking forward to Henry “It’s hard to know where to begin” Waxman’s and others’ investigations into this corrupt regime. I’d be willing to bet that the meme “most corrupt adminstration in US history” will begin to enter the popular media by 2008, but this will take a bit of effort from the netroots to put it there.

    I also expect the left wing blogosphere to gain even more credibility as the MSM either reforms itself or becomes ever more irrelevant.

    I am hopeful that by 2008, with some effort, we will have a real Democrat to run against the right, someone who isn’t a Hillary Clinton style triangulator, ashamed to be liberal. I am glad that these wingnuts think they need to placate the religious right, and become more righter than thou, and more ridiculously out of touch with the rest of the country. If this dynamic continues, we might just enjoy another blowout in 2008 which will dwarf the victory we just had.

    Do I sound excited? You bet. Sort of related, do see Sara Robinson’s take on how the religious right is maturing and losing their extremism – there’s a trend here working in our favor and worth watching (and encouraging).

  4. Mike the Mad Biologist  •  Nov 24, 2006 @9:09 pm

    I wish someone would tell Romney that he can’t win the GOP nomination. Then maybe he would stop trying to turn Massachusetts into Mississippi.

  5. lafrance  •  Nov 24, 2006 @9:56 pm

    Moonbat, I’m with you on hoping the dems do not run that prepackaged, doesn’t stand for anything but herself, most boring speaker in the world Hillary.
    Can you imagine having to sit and listen to her give a state of the union address???
    I always think dems are too smart to do something so stupid but, then people do the strangest things in voting booths and then, those E voting machines….

  6. Miller  •  Nov 25, 2006 @3:28 am

    I remember being surprised prior to the 2000 election at how early conventional wisdom had solidified around George Bush as the Repuplican nominee. It had to be consensus opinion just about 2 years out. This time, not so much.

  7. Gordon  •  Nov 25, 2006 @10:27 am

    Maha – you’re a NYer, right? Wasn’t Guliani bored of politics pre 9/11? Wasn’t that even his excuse for his rather messy divorce?

    No, none of the pundit annointed candidates on either side will make it.

  8. JD  •  Nov 25, 2006 @10:29 am

    However, the Right Blogosphere for the most part pretends Hegel doesn’t exist.

    Maybe it’s mroe that they ,a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegel”>don’t understand him.

  9. JD  •  Nov 25, 2006 @10:30 am

    Maybe it’s more that they don’t understand him.

    Previw is for wmps.

  10. Cugel  •  Nov 25, 2006 @7:45 pm

    It’s clear that McCain would make by far the most powerful candidate if he could win the nomination.

    Movement conservatives hate him with a passion that is unmatched even by liberal distain for Hillary. In fact it’s not even close.

    But, these are Republicans we’re talking about! They are total SHEEP! They fight and argue, but then they will turn out and support whoever the GOP nominates period. If it’s McCain, he will have their robotic loyalty, especially if he’s running against Hillary! That alone would cause the Republican dead to rise from their graves to vote against her (quite literally — that’s a GOP dirty trick).

    I think the proof of this came this year with Rove’s GOTV effort. Was there EVER a time in the last century when a party’s political base OUGHT to defect or at least sit out the election more than in 2008?

    There was the failed war, the failed economy, the “anmesty” immigration bill that conservatives HATE, etc. They were mad at Bush and had every reason to sit this one out. But they turned out in record numbers equally matching the Democratic turnout across the country.

    That was an amazing accomplishment. Of course they got steamrolled, but that was only because independents went Democratic by better than a 2-1 margin. That likely won’t be the case in 2008. If it is say hello to a Democratic President and Congress.

    But, McCain is certainly doing everything he can to smoothe their feathers between now and nomination time. You can’t assume they will stick to their professed principles. They’re Republicans! That means they don’t have any!

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