The GOP race is great fun to watch -- if you're a Democrat. The uninspiring candidates wander hat in hand from state to state, each being ritually humiliated in turn. If this process continues right up to the convention, the whole snooze-inducing crew may quit in disgust and the GOP will have to hold a mass séance to conjure up the spirit of Ronald Reagan.
Let's go down the list. This week's frontrunner, John McCain, is trying to create an aura of inevitability after his victory in South Carolina, but he is still viewed with deep suspicion by his party's true believers. The wailing and gnashing of teeth over McCain on conservative Web sites makes the Clinton-Obama dustup look like a love-in. Their posters can't forgive him for his stances on immigration, campaign finance and the environment, but what really drives them crazy is that he says things that they don't agree with. Sometimes he even commits the ultimate sin -- he sounds like a liberal!Who knew that the tough-guy supporters of the war on terror were so sensitive?
Then there's Mitt Romney. Romney is pushed by the party establishment, was endorsed by the National Review, looks like a million bucks, and is worth a lot more than a million bucks. And if they amend the Constitution so that a paper doll dressed up in a Reagan suit can run for office, he could be a serious threat.
Yea, and verily we come now to Mike Huckabee, who combines pre-Darwinian religiosity, a down-home demeanor, and a remarkable ignorance of the world. And whosoever believeth that the Huckster shall become president shall have eternal life in a cheap plot of prime swamp land in Florida.
Then there's Ron Paul, whose antiwar libertarian policies attract the most passionate followers of any GOP candidate. Unfortunately, the fact that those followers constitute only a tiny fraction of the party, and that mainstream Republicans would rather have consensual man-on-dog sex than vote for Paul, severely impair his chances.
Finally, there's Rudy Giuliani, of whom Joe Biden said, "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence -- a noun, a verb and 9/11. " Giuliani could have been a contender, but he ran out of verbs and nouns early in the race and, despite federal matching words, could never form a coherent sentence thereafter.
(There is also alleged to be a GOP candidate named "Fred Thompson," but he has never been seen and is generally regarded as an Internet myth.)
As P.G. Wodehouse would say, it's a pretty C3 collection. But what really makes this group pathetic is that instead of trying to make up for their inadequacies and appeal to voters by taking new positions, these candidates are running on the same platform as George W. Bush -- the lamest of presidential ducks, whose policies have failed and whose approval ratings are abysmal.
With the exception of Paul, all of the GOP candidates agree with Bush on about just about everything. All of them vow to stay in Iraq until "victory" is won and to continue the "war on terror" indefinitely. All of them agree with him on taxation and healthcare. And they sing from the same pious songsheet on moral values. They are essentially running as new, improved clones of Bush.
This is not a winning strategy.
The GOP's campaign mess reveals just how big a disaster Bush's presidency has been for the party. At a time when the electorate is urgently demanding a new direction, Republican candidates, chained to a rigid party line and a ruinous war, can only flap their arms and pretend they're flying.
Of course, some Republicans are more zombified than others. McCain opposed Bush's tax cuts, voted for campaign finance reform, and is more pro-environment than other Republicans. Huckabee is playing the populist card and has criticized Bush's handling of the "war on terror." But those are minor differences, more of style than of substance. McCain is now campaigning as a born-again supply-sider, demanding that the corporate tax rate be cut and calling for Bush's tax cuts to be made permanent. Huckabee's economic policies are arguably even more right-wing than Bush's. And his criticism of Bush's conduct of the "war on terror" is extremely tepid: "The Bush administration has never ... convinced us of [Islamic terrorists'] ruthless fanaticism" isn't exactly a Ron Paul stump speech. And with Romney and Giuliani, there aren't even differences of style, except that both of them are running to Bush's right on foreign policy. Romney called for doubling the size of Guantánamo, and Giuliani virtually declared war on Iran.
The fact that the GOP candidates all hold similar positions but that none has become the establishment choice is highly unusual for Republicans, who normally close ranks early behind a candidate. This has magnified the always-existing fissures in the Republican Party, setting evangelicals against small-government libertarians against hawks and preventing any candidate from taking control of the race.
If any Democratic readers need to be cheered up, they should go to the right-wing Web site Townhall.com and read Dick Morris and Eileen McGann's column, then the reader responses. Morris and McGann assert that Michigan plunged the GOP race into "total chaos." "The scatter-shot outcome reflects deeper divisions among the GOP's three wings: Economic conservatives are moving to Romney; social righties rallying 'round Huckabee -- and the national-security types who started for Rudy have migrated to McCain in the voting so far," Morris and McGann write. "The various factions are growing ever more alienated from each other, demanding a level of purity from their candidates that makes consensus and unity less and less possible ... This is no way to select a nominee who can win."
The Townhall readers don't buy it. They make lots of legitimate points about the diversity of the party and the need to take politics out of the hands of the kingmakers and pundits. And then they inadvertently illustrate the authors' thesis, loudly arguing that Romney, or Huckabee, or Giuliani, or Ron Paul, represents true conservatism. (Few stick up for McCain.)
But it's much too early for Democrats to start gloating about the meltdown of the GOP. The iron discipline that prevented any deviation from the Bush line in Congress may have an equivalent among Republican voters. Whether out of pragmatism or us-vs.-them solidarity, once a nominee is chosen, no matter how bruising the process, rank-and-file Republicans will probably support him -- even if it's McCain. Evangelical Christians, in particular, are more pragmatic than they are often taken to be; if McCain emerges as the GOP candidate, most are likely to swing behind him.
But aside from the twice-divorced, socially liberal Giuliani (whose decline has greatly benefited McCain), the Arizona senator is still the hardest candidate for die-hard Republicans to swallow. Part of the right-wing worldview is a sense of injured grievance, a feeling that "they" (liberals, do-gooder elites, p.c. academics, feminists, race-card-playing minorities, nanny-state-worshipping hypocrites) are locked in a war to the death against "us." Once the world is defined in this way, it's extremely hard to accept shades of gray. McCain, for various reasons (calling Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" didn't help) is regarded by many orthodox conservatives as a black ant among red ants. It doesn't matter what he does -- his bitterest enemies will never accept him.
The irony, of course, is that the very things that make McCain anathema to some of the party faithful give him the best chance of beating whomever the Democrats nominate. For the race will not be decided by the GOP's base: It will be decided by independents, moderate Republicans and crossover Dems. And McCain runs strong with these groups. Perhaps even more than his policies, his reputation as a maverick has allowed him to differentiate himself from Bush and his policies in a way no other GOP candidate has. Considering that McCain crawled back into the bosom of the GOP four years ago and supported Rumsfeld's management of the war, it's remarkable that McCain can still sell himself as an outsider.
Indeed, McCain's last-honest-man image appears to be partly responsible for one of the more intriguing revelations to emerge from the primaries: In New Hampshire and Michigan, McCain was supported by more GOP voters who disapproved of the war than any other candidate -- including Ron Paul. This despite McCain's declaration that he wouldn't be concerned if the United States were still in Iraq in 10,000 years.
It's hard to know what to make of this peculiar vote. It could be that McCain's maverick image makes it possible for Republican antiwar voters to project their own beliefs on him and magically ignore his actual positions. Or, more likely, they simply don't care that much about getting out of Iraq. That's certainly possible: The economy has now supplanted the war as the most important issue for voters.
If McCain wins the GOP nomination and antiwar independents and moderates across the country are as forgiving of his hard-line hawkish position on Iraq as New Hampshire and Michigan voters were, McCain could give the Democrats a real fight. But it's unlikely voters in the general election will be so kind. McCain is tied irrevocably to the war, and barring a miracle, that is not going to be a winning position in November.
McCain and the GOP got a little lift from the downturn in violence in Iraq after the U.S. troop "surge" (and the more significant factor, the rise of anti-jihadi Sunni forces), but the public's opposition to the war has not changed. According to a January 2008 Rasmussen Poll, 58 percent of Americans want all troops home within a year. Twenty-seven percent want the troops brought home immediately; 38 percent want them to stay until the mission is completed. These numbers have held more or less steady for a long time.
Moreover, even many GOP voters have turned against the war -- bad news for McCain or any other Republican candidate. Only 63 percent of New Hampshire Republicans supported the war; 35 percent disapproved of it. In Michigan, a remarkable 39 percent of GOP voters said they wanted U.S. troops pulled out within six months. These figures are higher than national ones, but they still spell bad news for any pro-war candidate.
Right now, it's easy for primary voters to tune out the war -- everyone knows it's going to continue until Bush leaves office, and there's really nothing anyone can do. This may also explain the apparently paradoxical antiwar vote for McCain. But when the general election rolls around, and the idea of troops coming home in mere months, not "10,000 years," becomes real, McCain will have a much harder time persuading voters to support an unreconstructed hawk.
The development that could help McCain on Iraq would be a decisive breakthrough on the political front. That would vindicate the "surge" in the eyes of most, allowing him to claim victory and support bringing the troops home. But sadly, that isn't likely to happen in the next 10 months -- maybe not even in the next 10 years, if we are to believe the Iraqi defense minister, who said U.S. troops would be needed until 2018. More likely is the same slow-motion nightmare that Iraq has been living in for almost five years -- one step forward, one step back, a steady drip-drip of American casualties, occasional suicide bombings, and all the heavily armed players and their backers waiting to see what the United States does before making their move.
If there is no political breakthrough, a clear majority of the American people will decide once and for all that the war is unwinnable and endless, and demand that we simply get out and let the Iraqis sort out their own country. And since they'll have a real alternative, they won't elect a president who wants to extend the war.
In fact, this outcome was predicted by William F. Buckley last spring. The father of modern intellectual conservatism wrote that if Americans come to see the enemy as "in the nature of a disease," they will realize that fighting it head-on is useless. In a remarkably audacious passage, Buckley compared the terrorists in Iraq to the Christians who caused the Roman Empire to fall, and concluded, "There are grounds for wondering whether the Republican Party will survive this dilemma."
It seems like just yesterday that Karl Rove dreamed of a permanent Republican majority. If Buckley is right, the Bush presidency may not only result in the Democrats' taking power, perhaps for years, but could also force the Republican Party to fundamentally redefine itself. Judging by the candidates on offer right now, it's high time.