Sunday, February 24, 2008

Republicans Emerge As Country's Coalition Party

Fred Barnes makes the case for a reversal of roles between the two major parties. The Democrats have long been a party of fissiparous interests, pulling and tugging their candidates every which way. The Republicans, on the other hand, are known for their small number of key contingents who pull together to rally around a frontrunner.

The parties have traded places this year:

In 2008, the parties have reversed roles. You merely have to watch a Democratic presidential debate to realize Democrats are now the consensus party. On everything that matters--Iraq, taxes, immigration, health care, the war on terrorism--Democrats basically agree. Their debates sound like an echo chamber.

In contrast, Republicans have become a party of squabbling ideological groups that John McCain must bring together if he is to win the presidency this fall. With McCain as their nominee--one with whom many conservatives have disagreements-- Republicans have become the coalition party.

I've made similar arguments (see especially, "McCain Forging New GOP Coalition), but I particulary liked Barnes' discussion of Barack Obama's sheltered political existence in the Democratic Party's ideological echo chamber:

In his brief political career, Obama has experienced the easy life. He's rated by the National Journal as the most liberal member of the Senate, but he's never had to defend his liberal views. Certainly in the 18 televised Democratic debates this year, including last week's Texas faceoff with Hillary Clinton, he hasn't. The debates have been liberal lovefests.

Hillary Clinton argues that she'd be a better Democratic nominee because she has been forced to deal with what she calls "the Republican attack machine," and he hasn't. She has a point. Perhaps Obama, if he's the Democratic nominee, will be able to dismiss Republican attacks as easily as he's brushed off Clinton's criticism of him on minor points and peripheral issues. But I doubt it.

Obama has barely had to respond to Clinton at all, since their disagreements are so trivial. She says some of his words are "change you can Xerox" because he plagiarized a tiny portion of his stump speech. His answer in last week's debate was, "C'mon." That won't suffice when McCain insists Obama's plan for Iraq would amount to pulling defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Iraq is an example of a major issue that Obama has not been forced to think through because of the Democratic party's consensus. He has made no adjustment for the success of the surge in Iraq, scarcely even acknowledging that the violence-wracked, politically polarized country of a year ago is no longer the Iraq of today.

The surge isn't a problem for McCain. Getting Republicans to coalesce around him is. Since Ronald Reagan was the party's presidential candidate in 1980, Republicans have lined up reflexively behind their usually conservative nominee. But McCain is anything but a reliable conservative.

So he must, first, attract strong conservatives, including the talk radio hosts who've often zinged him for being insufficiently conservative. McCain has little margin for error. He needs to win the overwhelming backing of social and religious conservatives, too. He must attract the relatively small contingent who've supported Ron Paul to prevent Paul from running as a third party libertarian candidate for president. (Paul says he has no plans to do this.)

It took no effort for McCain to round up Republican moderates. He's their guy. And he's gotten the George Bush wing with endorsements from Jeb and the elder George.

Conservatives may not admit it, but their failure to nominate one of their own may turn out to be a godsend in 2008. It's precisely the things they don't like about McCain--things I'm not crazy about either--that make him a tough target for Democrats: torture, Guantánamo, global warming, guns, stem cells.

Then there's bipartisanship or, as Obama puts it, bringing us together. This is the core of Obama's appeal. It allows him to campaign not from his ideological home on the left but from somewhere above the fray, somewhere in the heavens.

McCain, alone among Republicans, can bring him back to earth. Obama talks about crossing the partisan aisle and ending polarization, but he's never done it in any serious way. McCain specializes in it--one more thing infuriating many Republicans. He's joined with Democrats on campaign finance reform, immigration, global warming, judicial nominations, and a lot more.

Imagine a presidential debate this fall between McCain and Obama, the coalition candidate versus the consensus candidate. McCain, for sure, would skewer him on national security, the war on terrorism, taxes, and spending. Would Obama dare invoke his signature response and claim McCain is being divisive and partisan and we must rise above such disagreements? If he did, would it work?

Many hardcore McCain opponents among the conservative base hate to admit this, and many remain committed to sitting out the election.

But on the key issues faces us this year - on fiscal policy, healthcare, personal responsiblity, and the war in Iraq - the differences between the candidates are stark.

The left hoped for a Mitt Romney nomination, a candidate they could have torn to shreds on ideological inconsistencies and inexperience. Not so with the Arizona Senator: McCain's an endless nightmare to the big government surrender forces of the America-bashing, nihilist left.