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 â€œconservative Republicanâ€ as he attempts to position himself to the right of McCain.
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 guyâ€™s from Massachusetts.
That all looks good on paper, but not everybodyâ€™s buying it. â€œNobody in the party movement establishment thinks of him as a conservative,â€ says David Carney, a political consultant with Norway Hill Associates in Hancock, New Hampshire, and former political director for George H.W. Bush. â€œYou canâ€™t be a conservative and take an inconsistent position on abortion.â€
As for his economics positioning, Romney earned a mere â€œCâ€ grade from the Cato Institute in its new ratings of governorsâ€™ fiscal conservatism. The report called Romneyâ€™s no-new-taxes claim â€œmostly a myth,â€ and warned of â€œmassive costs to taxpayers that his universal health care plan will inflict.â€ Further, Romneyâ€™s limited government experience gives conservatives little to judge him by, and heâ€™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 â€” 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. Bushâ€™s former top domestic speechwriter on his payroll. And many other solid conservatives populate his â€œsteering committeesâ€ 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 canâ€™t stand him.
â€œMovement conservativesâ€ â€” the type who gather at Grover Norquistâ€™s famous weekly breakfast meetings at Americans for Tax Reform headquarters on L Street in Washington â€” despise John McCain. Loathe him. Would do anything to stop him. â€¦
â€¦ McCainâ€™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.
â€œI find John McCain completely unacceptable,â€ says Peter Ferrara, senior policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Washington-based small-government think tank.
â€œHeâ€™s completely unfit to serve as president,â€ says David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, a powerful right-wing organization.
This hatred dates to McCainâ€™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 thatâ€™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 â€œGang of 14â€ 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 â€œamnesty-by-another-nameâ€ immigration-reform legislation â€” with Ted Kennedy, no less â€” 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.