…is not only winning this debate, he is giving the most commanding debate performance we’ve seen from any candidate in either party since the beginning of this endless primary process.
Topic: Fred Thompson
John, Fred Thompson is tonight, as you suggest, giving one of the strongest performances of his campaign. Quite consciously, he is arguing to be Reagan’s heir. In debates, that is a winning issue. But I think any honest assessment of Republican challenges requires an admission that the
Republican party needs to go beyond the core Reagan messages (which, to be clear, I embraced with enthusiasm). David Frum’s new book, Comeback, makes a similar argument. At a certain point, these candidates have to set an agenda for the future, creating conservative responses to terrorism, health care, immigration, global competition. Reagan nostalgia is insufficient as an
Fred Thompson drank a lot of coffee before the debate, because he just gave the best answer on taxes and tax cuts and had the best 90 seconds of his candidacy.
Wasn’t it just last month that we heard how Iraq has faded as an issue, even among Republicans? Weren’t New Hampshire’s voters instead deeply concerned about taxes, immigration, health care? This was the great misinterpretation of the run-up to last night’s primary.
John McCain won because he stuck to the war in Iraq.
In this morning’s Wall Street Journal, we read that McCain has never stopped talking about the subject:
“The first reason I’m running for president is the war in Iraq,” Sen. McCain said when he took the microphone. “The final reason I’m running is the war in Iraq.”
McCain has never been a conservative favorite because of his “apostasy” on the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, and illegal aliens. Michelle Malkin expressed typical right-wing antipathy toward McCain when, a month ago, she called him an “immigration drag queen.” This perspective has effectively become conventional wisdom. Even Mickey Kaus, no conservative, as recently as two days ago headlined his Slate column with the question, “Will Amnesty Sink McCain?”
We have been hearing this for a year during which self-identified conservatives have been trying to create a post-Bush, post-Iraq agenda. Last summer, the venerable rightist weekly Human Events listed its top conservative issues. Illegal immigration was #1. The war on terror was #2. Iraq was #7. Before Iraq came federal spending, Supreme Court nominees, tax cuts, and the size of government.
Other groups built other lists. The Club for Growth argued that McCain could not be trusted on economic issues. Mitt Romney tried to capture the conservative mantle with much talk about free market health care and, in the fall, religion. CNN and the Washington Post insisted that immigration was the new driving force for conservatives and Republicans. Mike Huckabee’s surge was interpreted as a return of the social-values agenda. More recently, some assumed that if Romney faltered, Fred Thompson would be the obvious conservative choice with his Reaganesque gravitas and anti-Washington instincts.
In the end, though, the war remains the conservative issue.
For all the noise about amnesty, taxes, and Washington politicians, Iraq remains the most vibrant issue – and the one that distinguishes the GOP most from the Democrats. McCain’s role as Rumsfeld critic but earliest supporter of the Iraq surge gave him his most forceful and principled arguments. His best stuff with Tim Russert on last Sunday’s Meet the Press was all about Iraq. (Rudy Giuliani, too, has been making this case, but McCain’s detailed criticism of the handling of the war seems to give him more credibility.)
If conservative commentators don’t yet realize that staying power of the war in Iraq as an issue, some Democrats do. Listen to Hillary’s speech last night. She is already drawing a distinction between getting out of Iraq immediately (Obama’s position) and getting out “the right way.” She understands that, despite what everyone else says, Iraq will be an issue in the fall and the Democrats cannot look McGovernite, especially if McCain is the nominee.
Yes, the race is still wide open, etc. But the most important message emerging from New Hampshire is the re-establishment of George W. Bush’s signal issue as the uniting force of the GOP. How deliciously ironic that John McCain has become the torch bearer of the Bush legacy.
With John McCain projected to win New Hampshire on the Republican side, and Mike Huckabee having won in Iowa, and Fred Thompson choosing to make a last stand in South Carolina in two weeks, and Rudy Giuliani waiting for victory in Florida in three weeks, the story is that nobody is going to have any money. McCain is broke, and this victory isn’t going to improve his financial prospects enormously. There’s no evidence Huckabee is raising lots of cash. Thompson is out of funds. My guess is that Rudy’s December was so dreadful that he’s running low.
What if they run a race without money? They will have to depend on media interviews and YouTube stunts rather than commercials. They will want to debate more. They will have to try to make news with speeches. Kind of exciting.
Only Mitt Romney, with his huge personal fortune, has the money he needs. The problem for him is that he has surely spent far more than we know already — and contrary to the blather of the last 48 hours, he evidently didn’t “close” well in New Hampshire with his new “Washington Is Broken” message. And with a cold eye, he would have to wonder whether he really has found his voice or has learned a hard lesson. He could double down and stay in the race and outspend everybody, but rich people tend not to set matches to their wealth when the prospect of return is questionable. New Hampshire was surely his best shot in the nation.
There is no way on earth to know who is going to win this, but Romney’s two losses make it most unlikely that he will be on the podium in Minneapolis in August.
On MSNBC, Rudy Giuliani is making a very smiley, happy showing of himself. The result in Iowa could not have been better for Giuliani tactically. Romney has been injured. Huckabee won, but did not apparently win by a huge margin, and there won’t be many other states where evangelicals make up fully three-fifths of the primary electorate. And John McCain did not, it seems, come in third with a surprising showing, but fourth with a very modest showing. If McCain beats Romney in New Hampshire, Romney will have a difficult time going on — but McCain clearly hasn’t yet turned the corner and brought conservative Republicans back in his corner. And Fred Thompson’s third-place showing wasn’t impressive enough to kick his campaign back to life. With no one especially strong on the Republican side through the first few states, the Giuliani strategy of betting it all on Florida on January 29 and the big states on February 5 is looking better than it did a week ago.
Conspicuous by its absence in this Iowa campaign is the absence of any single, leading “anti-establishment” issue. Sure, there is the usual anti-Washington blather from Fred Thompson and John Edwards. But where is the equivalent of Steve Forbes’ flat tax, Ross Perot’s budget ovehaul, Buchanan’s anti-NAFTA tirades, or even Pete DuPont and his campaign for “change.” The anti-corporate stuff at Democratic debates has become Iowa boilerplate. But no one has introduced a killer single, “damn right” issue, not even Huckabee. Will this be an issue-less campaign?
Of course Mike Huckabee can win the Republican nomination. I dismissed the possibility a few weeks ago by saying he had no “path to the nomination,” and I was foolish to do so. Huckabee’s path is evident — with surprising victories in early states, he steamrolls faltering campaigns and pushes them aside until he is the only guy left standing. This is precisely the Mitt Romney strategy, only instead of being manufactured at great expense with a campaign machine as Romney’s was, Huckabee’s path is being cleared for him not by money and media but but by an honest-to-God (or, perhaps, given Huckabee’s own sentiments about the role of Christ in his campaign, honest-to-Jesus) groundswell. So the Romney strategy is working, but it may not be working for Romney, in Iowa, at least.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Huckabee’s potential national success is his ability to drain the life out of the nominating strategies of other campaigns. First, he vampirized Fred Thompson — the candidate who was supposed to emerge relatively late as the socially conservative Southerner and overwhelm the other candidates with his capacity to unite core Republican constituencies. Thompson was half-hearted about it — wanted to talk more about the threat of Social Security, which no voter actually cares about — but Huckabee is not. Having subsumed Thompson, Huckabee is now in the process of trying to subsume Romney. And if Huckabee should actually win Florida on January 29 — the state that was supposed to confirm Rudy Giuliani’s sure march to the nomination — then Huckabee will have gone from swallowing Thompson whole to swallowing Romney whole to swallowing Giuliani whole.
In this scenario, that leaves McCain, the only candidate who doesn’t actually have a theory about how to win ever since his strategy to run as the party consensus frontrunner blew up so spectacularly over the summer. Right now it seems McCain is just winging it, trying to score better numbers than anyone expected in New Hampshire and seeing if that reignites mainstream Republican enthusiasm for him. If the race for the Republican presidential nomination has taken a turn away from theories, and if a guy with little or no money (Huckabee) can stage a dramatic race to the front of the pack, then a guy with little or no money (McCain) can begin to move on Huckabee in January.
This scenario depends on Rudy Giuliani’s slide becoming permanent, and on Mitt Romney deciding he doesn’t want to waste any more of his fortune on a losing battle. But if Giuliani arrests his slide, and Romney goes all in with up to $100 million of his own money, then the three of them — Giuliani, Romney, and McCain — will be battling to make the case that he and only he can save the Republican Party from a Goldwater-level electoral disaster in November with Huckabee at the top of the ticket.
The debate is over. I think at the end, as I thought throughout, that it changed nothing.
Moderator Carolyn Washburn has just made the worst demand in the history of debating: Offer a New Year’s resolution for somebody else on stage. She is the editor of the Des Moines Register. It must not be a very good paper.
McCain is asked when he wished he would have compromised on his ideals. He says he can’t think of a time.
Completely pointless observation: For a very tall man, Fred Thompson still has an uncommonly huge head.
Duncan Hunter is attacking Mitt Romney for having a company that funded a Chinese corporation’s effort to buy an American defense contractor. I don’t know the case, and chances are Hunter is being unfair, but thank G-d somebody is going after somebody else at long last.
Romney says it’s incredibly important that the next president should be a conservative. We need to follow Ronald Reagan’s model: social conservatives, economic conservatives and foreign policy conservatives. I want to draw on those strengths. Very strong answer.
Huckabee’s faith means, he says, that the poor and the rich should have the same health care and education.
Quick call on the debate: Romney is very good. Huckabee is fine. Thompson is intelligent and thoughtful, but still not totally engaged. Giuliani is very fluid. McCain seems a little reduced in stature, for some reason. I don’t see much change coming out of this.
Character question for Giuliani: My government in New York City was very transparent. I’m used to it, I’m used to being analyzed, I haven’t had a perfect life and I wish I had. I’ve had an open transparent government and an open transparent life.
Giuliani: I’ve been tested by having to show leadership through a crisis — not just 9/11 but as a U.S. attorney and a mayor. We have problems we haven’t solved — terrorism, the border. We need an optimistic leader who can bring us solutions.
Romney: I know how to keep America strong. I know a lot about the economy. I know a lot about health care and the economy. And I know a lot about values. “And to the People of Iowa, I need your help, I’d like your vote.”
Alan Keyes says he would, upon assuming the presidency, instantly commit himself to an asylum. Okay, he didn’t say that.
John McCain: I can lead, I can inspire confidence and restore confidence in government.
Mike Huckabee: The first priority of the next president is to bring all the people together. We’re too polarized. The left is fighting the right — who is going to bring this country together again? We need to be the united people of a United States. This guy has a way of saying absolutely nothing and making it sound deeply meaningful.
Romney says we need to fight global jihad, reduce the size of government, and have stronger families with stronger values.
Thompson says he would go before the American people and “tell them the truth.” I’d tell them that we need to fight the enemy, that we’re bankrupting the next generation, that judges are setting the social policy in this country and that’s got to stop, and tell Congress we need to work together.
Rudy Giuliani says in the first year he would confront Islamic terrorism, end illegal immigration, and move to achieve energy independence. “You need bold leadership to accomplish that.”
Mike Huckabee says he has had the most executive experience of anyone on stage. Smart.
Thompson says the biggest obstacle to education is the National Education Association.
Alan Keyes inserts himself on education. He complains about how he is being treated unfairly. He is a deeply unpleasant buffoon.
Huckabee says we need to “personalize” learning for students who drop out because they’re bored to death. We need to build a curriculum around their interests. Unleash “weapons of mass instruction.” We need to teach the right side of the brain with the same energy as the left.
Romney gives an extraordinarily good and detailed answer on education.
Duncan Hunter cites Jaime Escalante as his model on education. This is like listen to an Oldies station. Twenty years ago, I wrote words of praise about Jaime Escalante as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan to speak.
Rudy Giuliani says parents should choose the school their child can go to. In America, higher education is the best in the world and there’s total consumer choice.
John McCain says on education, we need more choice and more competition. We need more charter schools, we need more vouchers where it’s approved locally, need more home schooling, need to be able to pay good teachers more and fire bad teachers. Odd praise for Mike Bloomberg’s work on public education, which doesn’t deserve much praise; is that a strange shot at Giuliani?
Mike Huckabee says Americans are looking for leadership, looking for change, want politicians not to be a ruling class, but a serving class. When we are elected, we are not elected to be elevated up but to truly remember what we’re looking for. Trying to help Americans be the very best they can be.
Mike Huckabee is doing very well in this debate so far, which means he is winning it in a walk.
The worst question so far: “Mr. Keyes, what do you think?”
Rudy Giuliani and John McCain say climate change is real and Giuliani says we need energy independence to deal with it. Note he doesn’t use the term “nuclear.” Nor does Mitt Romney, who uses the term “new technologies.” “Nuclear” must poll really, really, really badly.
Fred Thompson refuses to be bullied by the debate moderator, who wanted candidates to raise their hands in answer to whether they believed climate change was the result of human action.
Tom Tancredo says we’re losing our sovereignty because Mexican trucks can cross our border without being checked.
Fred Thompson makes a commitment to free and fair trade.
Rudy Giuliani praises NAFTA. America should think about “free trade, global economy as things we want to embrace.”
John McCain, the world’s least pandering politician, attacks agricultural subsidies in Iowa.
Mitt Romney wants to create a “level playing field” on trade. In this way, as in so many others, you can see how a brilliant businessman has become a compulsively pandering pseudo-populist.
Ron Paul wants to open Cuba to the American market, which would, according to experts, contribute roughly 11 cents to the U.S. economy.
Duncan Hunter says he would finish the border fence with Mexico in six months when he is president, which is impressive, and in every respect, science-fictional.
John McCain says he has devoted his life to making our country safe. Claims responsibility for the surge. Has one “ambition: To keep America safe and maintain our greatness.”
Rudy Giuliani says he wants a flatter, fairer tax, reducing corporate taxes, and eliminate the inheritance tax (death tax).
Fred Thompson just said Mitt Romney was really rich. Romney essentially said, “Aw shucks.” Thompson said he’s becoming a good actor.
Mike Huckabee just said that his lunatic “fair tax” plan for a national sales tax might help “make poor people rich.”
Alan Keyes is literally ranting and raving.
Thompson “takes a risk”: He says we can’t afford entitlements at the level they are offered now. He’s going for the “I’m the truth teller” spot.
Quick first impression: Everybody is talking very softly, in measured terms. It’s said Iowans don’t like negative campaigning. The problem is that unless the candidates engage each other in debate, there will be no change in the dynamic of the race.
Ten minutes in. How to lower our debt? Giuliani says we need to restrain government spending, an important message for him to deliver in order to convince conservative voters that he is not a liberal. Giuliani uses the term “nanny government.” Ron Paul says we can cut government spending by looking to foreign policy: Isolationism as budgetary policy. Huckabee wants to reduce health care costs by moving to disease prevention rather than curing ills. Romney says he worked in the private sector, and wants to bring efficient methods of management to government — he’s trying to show his command of data about government waste. That’s good, but as usual, Romney is packing his answer with too much.
Five minutes in. So far, the debate indicates the degree to which the American economic debate has shifted toward protectionism. A question about the national debt has become the occasion for candidates to complain about foreign investment. Mike Huckabee claims the United States is no longer feeding itself, which is an astonishing thing to say about the world’s leading exporter of agricultural goods. John McCain says he will bring America to energy independence in five years, which suggests he will bring a magic wand to the White House. Alan Keyes is saying…what a minute, what on earth is ALAN KEYES doing here?
Bill Kristol says flatly that if Mike Huckabee does as well in December as he did in November, he will win the Republican nomination for president. Two polls have Huckabee holding the lead in Iowa over Mitt Romney, and one national tracking poll now has him tied for the lead with a sinking Rudy Giuliani. What is going on here? How could this have happened?
Simple: Don’t think of Mike Huckabee as Mike Huckabee. Think of Mike Huckabee as Fred Thompson. Huckabee is filling the role Fred Thompson entered the race in September to fill. He is the socially conservative Southern pro-life candidate with a silver tongue and a pleasingly low-key affect. It was Fred Thompson who was supposed to overtake Mitt Romney in Iowa, and it was Fred Thompson who was supposed to be a force to reckon with in national polls in December. But as a candidate, Thompson has proved to have all the spark of a wet firecracker, and as John McIntyre points out, “What we have developing is Huckabee stepping in and filling the void in the GOP field that was available to Thompson in the summer.” Somebody was going to occupy that Thompson space.
The question was whether one of the three top-tier candidates — Giuliani, Romney, or McCain — would manage to convince that portion of the Republican base to make common cause with him. The answer, it seems, is no.
I said two weeks ago that the Republican race was down to two men, Giuliani and Romney. I still believe that is the case, because while Huckabee’s surge has given voice to an important segmentof the GOP’s electoral pie – pro-life evangelical Christians primarily – his candidacy does not offer much, if anything, to any mainstream Republican voter who is not part of that segment. Huckabee has a record of supporting tax increases, and his major domestic policy plank is his advocacy of a wild notion called the “Fair Tax” that would replace all imposts with a national sales tax. He has little of moment to say about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, or the war against Islamic totalitarianism.
If the Republican party is still a party of policy, then Huckabee stands somewhat apart (with the exception of his stand on abortion) from the policies that have been supported by the vast majority of GOP voters and that polling tells us still unite Republicans today. Let’s say Huckabee manages to take a substantial swath of the Religious Right vote for himself — 60 percent or so. That will still leavae 75 to 80 percent of Republican voters in play — especially since there is that huge 21-state primary on February 5 dominated by the Northeast and West, which are dominated by more secular GOP voters. In a two-man showdown between Giuliani and Romney for those voters, the victor will get enough support to secure the nomination.
I can, however, see one other scenario. Say Giuliani melts down this month, owing to more revelations about the intersection of his private life and his public duties. Or Romney melts down, in part because Huckabee’s rise means he will lose Iowa and therefore make it impossible for him to win every early state and thereby “slingshot” his way into the nomination. Huckabee won’t be there to pick up the pieces, because he speaks to a different electorate.
But John McCain will….
Fred Thompson, responding to a YouTube question posed during the CNN presidential debate last night, pledged to veto any bill containing amnesty for illegal immigrants. “A nation that cannot and will not defend its own borders will not forever remain a sovereign nation,” the candidate said.
The United States has not able to control its southern border. People—some poor, some honest, and some criminal—stream across an artificial boundary that is apparently indefensible. The Department of Homeland Security is building a “virtual fence” on some portions of the border with Mexico, but it isn’t working well. In some places, there is even an actual fence, often seen on Lou Dobbs Tonight with Latin Americans scampering over, under, and through it.
Nonetheless, the Mexican government calls the barrier “medieval” and compares it to the Berlin Wall. We shouldn’t be surprised that our neighbor to the south is so critical of our attempts to control immigration. As George Grayson of the College of William & Mary says, the Mexican elite “speaks with one voice and that is that Mexicans have a God-given right to come to the United States.” This attitude was evident during President Felipe Calderon’s State of the Union Message in September: “I have said that Mexico does not end at the border, that wherever there is a Mexican Mexico is there.”
As the son of an immigrant and the husband of another, I would like to see America extend an open welcome to people who want to move here and who are willing to follow established procedures. Yet favoring freer immigration is not the same as advocating uncontrolled borders and amnesty. Our President, so conscious of the security of the homeland, needs to say this in public to his counterpart in Mexico City:
We are a nation prepared to defend our sovereignty. You have no business telling us what to do about our own border. If I told you how to run your country, you would complain bitterly about interference. You have enough problems to deal with at home without spending your time worrying about ours. And by the way, don’t even think about repeating your claim to San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. There may be Mexicans living in those cities, but they are under our jurisdiction, and, if they’re undocumented, we’re going to deport them. Have a nice day.
Rudy Giuliani has either stalled or fallen some in the polls over the last month, and questions are being raised about his campaign’s “theory of the race” — which is, basically, that he can successfully wait to win a state until Florida’s primary on January 29 and use his victory there to rack up a huge number of delegates a week later when Republican voters in 21 states go to the polls to select a nominee.
Friend and foe alike ask whether Giuliani can really afford to lose the first three states of the primary season — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — especially when those states may all be won by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Why won’t these losses cause the bloom to fade from the Giuliani rose? Why won’t Republicans then transfer their affections to Romney? Why wouldn’t those Romney triumphs put the former governor in a position to win the crucial Florida primary on January 29, thereby effectively putting an end to the Giuliani candidacy?
These are all very good questions, and there is something notable about them. They suggest that the Republican primary is a two-man race.
Romney has a coherent plan for victory: He is fighting like mad to win early states in the hope that those victories will catapult him into the big primary as the leader. So he is leading in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina but is trailing badly in national polls.
Giuliani has a coherent plan for victory: Use his persistent standing at the top of the national leader board and his deep popularity in Florida (land of ex-New Yorkers) to his advantage by allowing him to bypass the earlier, smaller, more eccentric states where he has less of a chance to prevail.
The other three contenders for the nomination seem to have no plan for victory. John McCain is refusing to go gentle into that good night, and his brave advocacy of the Petraeus surge has given him renewed standing among Republican primary voters — but he has no money and has just made too many enemies. Fred Thompson got into the race in September to test the notion that dissatisfaction with the choices on hand would cause a wave of support to flow his way. Interesting idea, but it didn’t work, and now the support that did flow to him is flowing away. Mike Huckabee, Baptist preacher turned politician, has taken Thompson’s place as the Southern conservative to watch, but while he is conservative on social issues, on economic and political matters he seems more in the populist traditions of the Democratic party, and he has no plausible path to the nomination.
That leaves Giuliani and Romney. So, knowing what we know today – Giuliani leading in the national polls but slipping and Romney leading in the early states, slipping in Iowa but gaining in New Hampshire and South Carolina — which candidate is in a better position?
I think Giuliani is, and I do not say this as an advocate. In all three states where Romney is leading, he is facing distinct challenges. Huckabee is gaining on him in Iowa. McCain has advanced in New Hampshire even as Giuliani has faded some. And he is in a statistical dead heat in South Carolina with Giuliani and Thompson.
Under these conditions, Romney might win in all three, but do so in a less than commanding fashion that allows the media to focus attention on those who come in second — Huckabee, McCain, and even Giuliani. After all, the only time a win isn’t a win is in primary politics. (Quick — which Democrat won New Hampshire in 1992? No, it wasn’t Bill Clinton, the self-declared “Comeback Kid.” It was Paul Tsongas.)
Meanwhile, Giuliani still leads by an average of 16 points in Florida. If he wins there, he erases every advantage Romney might have attained, including a delegate lead. And heads into the big primary as the name in the headlines.
All that said, with Romney feeling the heat from Huckabee in Iowa and forced therefore to concentrate on the state in December (the caucuses are on January 3), it is plausible that Giuliani will decide to shift gears a bit and make a far more substantial push in New Hampshire. Because if he wins there, or comes very close, the Romney theory of victory evaporates and then the only man left standing is Giuliani.
(All this theorizing, of course, comes to naught if somebody makes a huge blunder or is the subject of an unflattering revelation.)
Yesterday in Florida, Fred Thompson announced his immigration reform plan. The plan is in some ways fairly run-of-the-mill in this Republican primary season: Thompson opposes amnesty, wants tougher enforcement of existing laws, calls for cracking down on employers, and wants to tighten the rules governing legal immigration without reducing the number of legal immigrants. But Thompson’s approach does stand out in a few ways, and also highlights a potential Republican advantage on immigration that the Democrats have yet to notice.
More than most other Republicans this year, Thompson has addressed the state of legal immigration in his plan, as well as the quandary of contending with the millions of immigrants now here illegally. He calls, for instance, for the narrowing of family immigration categories, by permitting new Americans to obtain immigration status only for their spouses and minor children—not, as is currently the case, for siblings, parents, and adult children. This would cut down dramatically on so-called “chain immigration,” which accounts for an enormous portion of legal immigrants to America, and distorts the aims of our immigration system. (I discussed this problem at some length, and called for the same kind of reform, in the May issue of COMMENTARY.)
Thompson also calls for an end to the utterly senseless visa lottery program, and for a greater preference for labor-based immigration—both of which make good sense (and which I also discussed in that same essay).
Broadly speaking, the political mood of the public can be gauged in terms of its shifting calculation of risk and reward. If, as in the period from about 1980 to 2004, the promise of new rewards outweighs the fears of accompanying risk, the market-oriented Republicans will be the beneficiaries. But if, as in the period from 1932 to 1966, the fear of risk is more salient than the hope of enhanced rewards, the result will be movement away from free-market policies and towards the presumed protections of government regulation.
For all its benefits, globalization (and the accompanying issues of massive illegal immigration) has brought to an end the period that privileged risk over reward. The Republican Party seems unable to face up to this shift. Some of my GOP friends blame it all on Bush. They rail at the failings of the Bush administration with the kind of vitriol usually reserved for leftists. Others, taken aback by the plunge in Republican party identification, trot out consoling ploys along the lines of “You should have seen the other guy!” Take, for example, Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma. While he acknowledges the unpopularity of the GOP, after a wave of scandals, the setbacks in Iraq, etc., he also emphasizes the misfortunes of the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Cole sees the 2008 election as shaping up like the one in 1992, when incumbents of both parties had a hard time. It’s true that Congress as a whole has only a 29 percent approval rating, lower than that of President Bush. But the problem for the GOP is that, as Washington Post columnist David Broder notes, half of the voters blame Bush and the Republicans; only 25 percent place the onus on the Democrats.
Another excuse Republicans are likely to make is that America is still, largely, a center-Right country. That’s true—but the center has shifted towards the Left. On a range of key issues, from trade to health care to economic inequality, the number of Americans who share some classic Democratic concerns has risen, notes the Wall Street Journal. A recent Pew poll found that “Three-quarters of the population is worried about growing income inequality. Pew also showed that two-thirds of those polled favor government-funded health care for all.” At the same time, Pew reports that “Support for a government safety net for the poor is at its highest level since 1987.”
The summer trailers are about to end. This week, after several production delays, The Candidate, starring Fred Thompson, will open at a theater near you.
Senator Thompson faces stiff challenges, from a late entry to disappointing fund-raising figures to the fact that he has spent time recently outside the world of politics. The other candidates have been at this for a while now, honing their messages and building organizations. They are a debate-tested and impressive—if far from invincible—group. Thompson has almost no opportunity for a learning curve and very little margin for error. He’s got to be good, very good, right from the start.
At the same time, Senator Thompson has some advantages. At the start of the summer, he was considered one of four top-tier candidates; at the end of the summer, he’s one of three (McCain having dropped like a stone in the sea). Nationally, Thompson is running second to Giuliani and is doing well in some key early states.
In Sunday’s GOP presidential debate, Senator Sam Brownback went hard after former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for changing his position on abortion. Governor Romney explained his recent shift to a pro-life stance, adding: “I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they’ve been pro-life longer than I have.” This exchange raises a larger question: in what instances should changing a position on issues be held against a candidate? When does it help, and when does it hurt?
One way to answer is to examine the explanation for the change. Is it plausible and serious? Another has to do with the magnitude of the change. Are we talking about an evolution in views, or a dramatic alteration? Yet another factor has to do with timing. Did the change in position coincide with other (higher) political aspirations and the political calendar?
The other matter that comes into play is the reputation of the candidate. Ronald Reagan changed his views on abortion, and he even violated his own administration policy when he sold arms for hostages. Yet Reagan was seen as a man of deep and admirable convictions. He had been a warrior for conservatism, especially during its wilderness years. And so he had stored up a great reservoir of trust and good will, which he had to draw on from time to time.
Romney is in a different place. He is seen (with justification) as highly intelligent and competent. But he has not yet established himself as a person of unshakeable convictions. On abortion, Romney’s change has been especially dramatic. That’s fine; better he embrace a culture of life than distance himself from it. But when you combine this with his shifts on guns, gay rights, and (to some degree) immigration, you can’t help noticing that he has created a stress fracture that could turn into a clean break—which was exactly what Senator Brownback was trying to investigate during Sunday’s debate.
Mitt Romney is still in good shape. He’s done reasonably well in the debates, he’s raised a lot of money, and he’s in a strong position in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He is clearly trying to position himself as the conservative alternative to Rudy Giuliani (a position Romney will soon share with Fred Thompson). Many conservatives like Romney, but are a bit wary. A candidate’s shifting on issues is not unprecedented or disqualifying. It may even be understandable. But Romney has just about used up the number of times he is able to do so before permanently alienating his constituency.
Hypocrisy is an abiding weakness of most politicians. Republicans tend to specialize in hypocrisy regarding sex and family—think of Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, or Robert Livingstone—while Democrats go in for financial or class hypocrisy—think of John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or John Edwards.
Recently, I went with friends to a talk by former Senator Edwards at New York’s Cooper Union, to hear, in the candidate’s words, how he plans to “dramatically reduce poverty.” Laudably, he wants to cut the current poverty rate of 12.6 percent by a third within a decade. But he offered few specifics. Those that were trotted out, such as more job-training programs, sounded like leftovers from the Great Society days. But if Edwards is retrogressive about poverty, he’s been very progressive in building up a fortune of as much as $62 million.
Tim Middleton of MSN, evaluating the former Senator’s new financial disclosure statement, describes Edwards as a man “of the people and profits” with “substantial investments in limited partnerships, sub-prime mortgage lenders, and an offshore hedge fund.” Edwards has (to some degree rightly) criticized offshore hedge funds as unpatriotic, and sub-prime lenders as piratical. He’s described the sub-prime lending business as the “wild west of the credit industry, where . . . abusive and predatory lenders are robbing families blind.”
President Bush seems determined to expend what remains of his dwindling reserves of political capital on his overwhelmingly unpopular (but Senate-supported) immigration bill. Directing his criticism at part of the very coalition that had elected him, he recently explained his reasoning:
I’m deeply concerned about America losing its soul. Immigration has been the lifeblood of a lot of our country’s history. And I am worried that a backlash to newcomers would cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers.
Those are worthy thoughts. But they’re disconnected from middle- and lower-middle-class voters who feel that the very size of the current, largely single-source immigration is forcing them (and not the newcomers) to adapt.
Despite the considerable efforts of Bush and the bi-partisan group of senators backing the bill, public support remains stuck at 26 percent. And Bush’s popularity on this score will only be further weakened by the loud and lusty booing of America’s entrant in the Miss Universe contest by a Mexican audience recently.
How serious a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination is Fred Thompson?
Apparently quite serious indeed. Last week GOP insider pundit Robert Novak assured readers that Thompson isn’t just toying with running—he will declare his candidacy early next month. This rumor has generated outsized buzz, including a highly negative column by George Will. But a great many conservatives, dissatisfied with a field in which none of the three leading contenders is a down-the-line conservative, seem to be fans.
The former Senator’s most salient attribute is his persona. He has a large, comforting, commanding presence that Hollywood directors have seen fit to cast as an admiral, the director of the CIA, and even the President. His slow drawl, big eyes, and wrinkles make him the very image of the respected Southern lawyer. He is an excellent communicator, sympathetic, easy to watch, and never grating (which is not true of, say, Rudy). Some go so far as to call his qualities “Reaganesque.”
But what about substance?