The Problem with the Republican Candidates
The GOP has three major problems going into 2008: The war in Iraq, the exhaustion of the Reaganite "tax cuts and small government" domestic agenda, and the fact that the party's culture-war agenda, long a winner for the party, looks increasingly hard-edged and bigoted to many moderate voters. Therefore, what the party needs for the general election is a candidate who can plausibly distance himself from both the failures in Iraq abroad and Grover Norquist at home, and who can find a way to reach out to cultural moderates without abandoning the party's principles on issues like abortion. It needs a heterodox conservative, in other words, and it has a bunch of them in the primary campaign - but the leading contenders have heterodox records on precisely the wrong issues.
For instance, the party needs someone who’s solidly right-wing on issues like immigration or gun control or campaign-finance reform – issues that matter more to the base than to swing voters – and who can use this credibility to be more ideologically innovative on, say, taxes or health care or even foreign policy. Instead, it has a collection of candidates who are heterodox on immigration and gun control and campaign finance reform, and who are therefore rushing to embrace the party line on taxes and the Iraq War in an effort to gain cover for their deviations elsewhere. It needs someone whose pro-life convictions are a given, and who is therefore free to distance himself from the Jerry Falwells in the party without forfeiting the support of most social conservatives. Instead, it has candidates with dubious pro-life convictions who are rushing to embrace the Falwells of the world to cover over their weaknesses on that front. And so on.
The major contenders, in other words, have a worst-of-both-worlds problem. Their ideological untrustworthiness will give them fits in the primary season without winning them many swing voters come the general election. (John McCain, should he get the nomination, isn’t going to pick up blue-collar voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania because he broke with his party to champion campaign-finance restrictions. Rudy Giuliani isn’t going to win over any of the Montanans who went for Jon Tester or the Virginians who went for Jim Webb because he split the national GOP on gun control or welfare reform.) And because they’re considered ideologically untrustworthy, they’re vulnerable to a dark horse challenge not from the kind of creative reform conservative that the party desperately needs, but from a candidate whose principle qualification is a solid record of party-line votes, and not much else. Someone like, say, Fred Thompson.
The result, if such a party-line conservative challenge to McCains and Giuilianis should succeed, will be a nominee who won’t embarrass the party in November, but whose ceiling of support – unless the Democratic nominee is exceptionally bad – is probably around forty-eight percent of the vote. Which is to say, a loser.