Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Wide Open GOP Nomination Race

Time has an interesting article this week on the turbulent Republican presidential nomination process. The frontrunner so far? None of the above! Here's a snippet:

Watching the G.O.P. search for a nominee has been a little like going to dinner at one of those mock medieval-jousting shows, where knight after knight appears in shining armor, only to be knocked rudely off his horse and into the dirt. Early White House favorites George Allen and Bill Frist quickly fell by the wayside in 2006. John McCain — too much of a maverick to ever be a G.O.P. favorite, and yet a year ago the presumptive front-runner — crash-landed his campaign this summer and is only now showing signs of an unlikely resurrection. His friend Fred Thompson materialized in midsummer to catch McCain's crown, but he fizzled fast. Romney became the party's default darling, spending his way to the top of several polls. But now he too has taken hits for being slippery, and what counts as momentum has passed to Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher from, of all places, Hope, Ark. The way the recurring nightmare has been going, Huckabee is likely to be unhorsed right about ... now.

Even Giuliani, the national front-runner — a title that normally means something in a G.O.P. race but this year is the equivalent of "honorary chairman" — is slumping in polls. Republicans have no experience with chaos like this, except in history books. "It is without a doubt," says G.O.P. strategist Ralph Reed, "the most unpredictable roller-coaster ride we've seen in a Republican primary since the rise of the primary in the 1960s." Party-history buff Newt Gingrich went further: he called the G.O.P. contest the most wide-open race the party has held since 1940 — the year Wendell Willkie needed six ballots to capture the nomination before losing to F.D.R. in a third-term landslide.

It's improbable that someone named George Bush, the most visible beneficiary of the G.O.P.'s longtime bias toward primogeniture, would be responsible for bringing its era to a halt. But he is chiefly to blame for leaving the party of his father and grandfather without a healthy male heir. Bush tapped Dick Cheney seven years ago to be his Veep in part because he did not want a Vice President whose loyalties were divided between the Oval Office and the Des Moines Register. Cheney ran once before and could have jumped in again (he will be only 67 in January) had things gone differently. But Cheney is even less popular than Bush, whose ratings move in a narrow band between the high 20s and mid-30s and have been dragging down fellow Republicans. Even if the war in Iraq continues to simmer down or the economy firms, Republicans aren't likely to get much credit.

The disarray can't be blamed on Bush entirely; he may even deserve credit for postponing it. Some students of the G.O.P. have argued that the revolution that brought the party to power in Congress in 1994 was pretty much a spent force by 2000. Under this theory, Republicans should have lost that election but survived thanks to Bush's qualities, the butterfly ballot and five Supreme Court Justices. Then 9/11 happened, which enabled Bush to win reelection, despite the fact that the G.O.P.'s sell-by date had long since passed. The past seven years, in this view, were an anomaly that postponed the reckoning and made the G.O.P. crash even more severe.

Still, it is hard to overestimate the moral and intellectual power outage that now darkens the G.O.P.. Long out of step with a majority of voters on such secondary issues as outlawing abortion and narrowing stem-cell research, Republicans have more recently managed to get themselves on the wrong side of popular trends on what were once old reliables: foreign policy, economics, energy, even health care. Iraq is still somewhat taboo in Republican debates, so fearful are the candidates that the situation in Baghdad might again deteriorate. Thanks to Katrina and several war-contracting scandals, the party has squandered its bragging rights on running a more efficient government. "We've lost, clearly, some of the moral high ground on the larger issues of taxes and spending," says South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.
Perhaps, but I wouldn't put too much stock into the notion that the GOP is already sunk for 2008 - the notion of GOP disarray is overblown.

The lack of a clear frontrunner has forced the party to think about its core identity: What will
a post-Bush conservatism look like? Small-government ideology? A Reaganite foreign policy?

Who knows, although it's fair to say that Republicans will solidly unite behind the eventual nominee, and conservative priorities on immigration, social issues, and taxes will form key planks of the eventual GOP party platform.

It's going to be a great year. Republican candidates have fared well in recent elections,
with Bobby Jinal winning the governorship of Lousiana, and two GOP candidates winning special elections to Congress just this week.

Continued progress in Iraq - and the Democratic Party's own policy blunders - will work to the GOP's advantage in 2008.