Just to show I don’t always know what I’m talking about, Rudy Giuliani remains firmly in first place for the Republican presidential nomination. Recent polls show that about a third of Republican voters say he is their first choice among the many contenders. The only other two candidates with double-digit support right now are John McCain and Fred Thompson. Mitt Romney, who is still being treated as a front runner in news stories, is running behind Newt Gringrich in most polls.
What’s remarkable to me is that none of the current top three — Giuliani, McCain, and Thompson — would seem to be a “social conservative” candidate. Thompson is on record as supporting legal elective abortion in the first trimester, although he’s being touted as a pro-life purist by news media. (On the other hand, as a senator Thompson “registered a zero rating from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America and a rating of 100 percent from the National Right to Life Committee,” according to this article. So maybe he is a purist.) Mitt Romney also was for legal abortion before he was against it. Meanwhile, the candidates with the purest social conservative credentials — e.g., Duncan Hunter, Jim Gilmore, Sam Brownback — are bouncing along the bottom of the pond with 1 and 2 percent support.
But the continued support for Giuliani surprises me. I assumed that once the Republican base found out about Rudy’s pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, pro-sequin and lipstick past, they’d drop him like a hot tiara. All of these issues have received considerable national media attention, yet there Giuliani still is, at the top of the heap. He’s down a bit from where he was in February, but he’s still way ahead of McCain, his nearest rival.
It’s way too early to assume this will be the order of finish when the candidates hit the nomination wire. About 60 percent of Republican voters say they are not satisfied with the choices. This suggests to me that support for all these candidates, including Rudy, is soft.
Also, as demonstrated in the last post, social conservatives have a remarkable proclivity for being oblivious. It’s entirely possible a large percentage of social conservatives still haven’t heard about Rudy’s liberal stand on values issues. If it isn’t being hammered to death in the Limbaugh-O’Reilly-Hannity echo chamber, it’s off the rightie viewscreen.
However, it’s also possible that a whole lot of conservative voters do know where Rudy stands on abortion et al., yet they have made a decision to overlook this for the sake of an “electable” Republican candidate. Rightie pundit Martin Frost speculates this is the case; he compares Rudy’s GOP support to the way Dems settled on John Kerry as the “electable” candidate in 2004.
George Will seems to be leaning in that direction as well:
Rudy Giuliani is crosswise with social conservatives, especially concerning abortion. Yet one reason he is in the top tier of the Republican field is that, according to Pew Research Center polling, he is supported by nearly 30 percent of social conservatives, who are 42 percent of the Republican vote. Perhaps some opponents of abortion are coming to terms with the fact that the party has written itself into a corner regarding that issue.
The corner that Will thinks the GOP painted (“written,” George?) itself into exists mostly in his own head. He thinks the GOP is losing traction on abortion because the GOP has been talking about a “right to life” amendment since the 1970s but at the same time says the life of embryos is already protected under the due process clause Fourteenth Amendment. Will must not have noticed that the same amendment defines citizens as “All persons born or naturalized in the United States.”
But I think the GOP has painted itself into a corner on abortion, which is the same corner it has painted itself into on a lot of other issues. The GOP base is way to the right of mainstream opinion. Thus, a candidate who perfectly reflects the values of the base would be toxic in a general election. The Republican leadership must realize this, which probably has a lot to do with why the leadership is sending signals to the base (through tools like George Will) that they’re supposed to be pragmatic and choose the “electable” candidate.
Much has already been written about the Republican hope for the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. Brendan Spiegel says they are really looking for another Dubya.
Of course, they don’t want the 2007 model W — the post-Hurricane Katrina and civil war in Iraq version. They want vintage 2000 W — a man adherent to the religious right’s social views, yet blessed with enough “regular guy” appeal for the political center. In two successive elections, Bush completely dominated the growing evangelical vote without alienating centrist voters. Bush built a unique political coalition that may never again be duplicated, and he has left his party scrambling for a candidate with similar potential. The problem is, this candidate doesn’t exist.
I think it can be argued that many thought Dubya was the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan, and only after Dubya’s poll numbers slipped under 50 percent did they realize he wasn’t. The first-term Dubya had St. Ronald’s genius for being all things to all (conservative) people. The Religious Right saw him as God’s representative on earth — if not Jesus himself, at least Jesus Lite. Corporatist conservatives knew he and Dick the Dick were in their corner, and of course they were right about that. To neocons and other jingoists, Dubya was their middle finger by proxy extended to the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter to them that Iraq is a quagmire and international terrorism is growing in leaps and bounds; as long as Dubya is telling the rest of the planet to kiss his ass, he’s their guy. That he actually shows a little compassion toward illegal immigrants — albeit if only so he and his friends can hire cheap household help — is an unfathomable betrayal to them.
The fruitless search for a successor to W is not a new development. Since Bush took office in 2001, several men have temporarily held the title of next great conservative hope, yet no one has held on to it for very long. Rick Santorum was once touted as the next presidential candidate of the religious right, but Americans found him way too creepy and Pennsylvania voters booted him from the Senate. Then there was Bill Frist, who quickly rose to Senate Majority Leader and just as quickly proved his irrelevance. There was also George Allen, whose presidential prospects unraveled the most dramatically when even voters in red state Virginia didn’t want him in Washington anymore. One after another, W’s would-be successors have burned out. The void in the Republican primary is so gaping that a large segment of the party has pinned their hopes on TV actor Fred Thompson, over-hyping the former Senator to ridiculous proportions, despite the fact that most Americans don’t even know who he is.
Those waiting for an electable, evangelical-approved candidate to materialize fail to realize how unique Bush’s political skills are (or were, at one point). Bush’s ability to convince religious fundamentalists he was one of them, yet appear acceptable to centrist voters was an unprecedented feat. An unlikely feat too, when you consider the very positions that allowed him to win a whopping 79 percent of the evangelical vote — complete opposition to abortion rights, intolerance of gay rights, denial of evolution and refusal to support stem cell research — are not values shared by a majority of Americans.
Republican politicians were in a better position to pander to right-wing voters without scaring away moderates in those long-ago times when a right-wing government was unimaginable. For example, in the 1990s abortion rights seemed nearly unassailable. Even when candidates made pro-life extremist noises, moderates assumed it was just talk and voted for them anyway. (Do you remember the way moderate Republican women in 2000 winked at us and claimed that Bush wasn’t really against abortion? It was just something he had to say to get elected, they told us.) Voters are finally waking up to the realization that if we keep electing whackjobs, we end up with whackjob government.
But if the New Conventional Wisdom among Republicans is that a candidate’s stand on abortion doesn’t matter, where does that leave the “right to life” movement? The old CW was that, somehow, being opposed to abortion gave Republicans an advantage because they would gain the loyalty and support of the “pro-life” crowd without paying a penalty from the moderate majority, who had other issues on their minds. It also gave the GOP “moral clarity,” in that they had a simple, easy-to-explain position (“I’m agin’ it”). Dems, on the other hand, had to be nuanced, since being enthusiastically for abortion is unacceptable and might give poor Wolf Blitzer the vapors. So Dems fell back on “I don’t like abortion personally but I think it should be a woman’s choice.” But any position that can’t fit on a standard bumper sticker is not “clear” in Mass Media Pundit Land and is held against Dem candidates even when it reflects a mainstream point of view.
Now that the front-running GOP candidate is making the “I don’t like it personally, but …” argument, expect the pundits to suddenly shut up about moral clarity and discover the virtues of nuance. And if the “pro life” movement loses its kingmaker power, expect the leadership of the GOP to stop taking its calls.