Friday, January 05, 2007

Insufficiently conservative candidates, and military musical chairs

This is usually the time of year when Democrats wallow in despair; witness the election aftermaths in January ’01, January ’03 and January ’05. But politics in America is cyclical, and today, with the Democrats running Capitol Hill and with the lame-duck liberator of Iraq posting 30 percent popularity, it’s the Republican conservatives who have to hunker down for a winter of discontent.

And what better way to gauge that discontent than to take a snapshot of the fast-evolving Republican ’08 presidential race? Social and religious conservatives basically control the nomination process, by voting in disproportionate numbers in the early primaries– yet, right now, there doesn’t seem to be a true conservative in the top tier of prospective candidates.

Hence, one of the top political stories of 2007: Can GOP conservatives make peace with candidates whom they don’t entirely trust? Or will they signal to other potential aspirants that the market is still wide open for a true-believer?

I thought about this yesterday, while noting that Mitt Romney had filed his “exploratory” campaign paperwork. Romney, now the ex-governor of Massachusetts, is clearly one of those first-tier guys. He has the money and the organization and the hair and the teeth and the jaw to make a serious run. And he has been making all the requisite moves, such as telling conservatives in early primary states that he too views gay marriage as a Trojan horse that would destroy American life from the inside.

The problem for Romney, however, is that a lot of conservatives suspect he is just saying these things in order to get the nomination. (They may be right). This week, for instance, new concerns were raised about whether he’s just another flip-flopping pandering pol. Deal Hudson, a conservative Catholic scholar who has also advised the Bush White House, detailed Romney’s long gay-friendly gubernatorial record, then wrote on his blog: “Romney’s recent conversion to pro-life, pro-family conservatism contrasts dramatically with his public record of speaking and governing as a social moderate or liberal, routinely backing down when the going gets tough, and accomplishing few conservative successes.”

One Romney quote, in particular, keeps circulating in the conservative camp. When he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. senator in 1994, Romney told a gay group that he, not Ted Kennedy, would be the best advocate for their interests: "If we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern. My opponent cannot do this. I can and will."

Meanwhile, a top conservative activist in Michigan (an early ’08 primary state) is now openly attacking Romney. Gary Glenn, who runs the American Family Association of Michigan, predicted: “There are going to be more and more pro-family legislators who had bought the Romney campaign's line of being supportive of our values, and that's proven not to be the case in terms of his record. I think you're going to have more and more people in Michigan - and beyond - disassociate themselves from this campaign."

But would conservative Romney defectors gravitate to Rudy Giuliani (assuming he runs)? That’s theoretically possible, as long as they overlook the fact that he supports gay rights, supports abortion rights, and that, during his breakup with one of his previous wives (the one who accused him in legal papers of “notorious adultery”), he roomed in Manhattan with a gay guy. Oh yeah, and he also has marched in gay parades and hosted gay pride breakfasts at Gracie Mansion.

But if conservatives stiff Romney and ignore Giuliani, are they prepared to warm to John McCain? Certainly, he has been slavishly pursuing them for the better part of two years now. But they’re still ticked that he voted in the Senate against a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and that, during his 2000 bid for the White House, he referred to certain religious right leaders as “forces of evil.” They suspect that his current wooing strategy is insincere.

They may be right. I highly recommend a new profile of McCain, which appears in the current issue of Vanity Fair. One priceless McCain quote stands out. But first, a little context: One ’08 conservative litmus test is border security. The GOP base wants to get tough on illegal immigrants by fencing off the southwestern U.S. border, and it wants a candidate who really believes that this is the right thing to do.

Anyway, McCain was speaking to some businessmen in Wisconsin last fall when the fence issue came up. He quickly acknowledged that the GOP base wants the fence. Then he said, “I think the fence is least effective. But I'll build the goddamned fence if they want it."

Clearly, this is not a man who is lusting to move rightward in his heart. And if the conservatives conclude the same, they will have to look in the second tier for a candidate. Maybe to Newt Gingrich, who is reportedly weighing a late entry. What better candidate for conservatives than the architect of the ’94 conservative revolution?

But, on the morality front, isn’t Newt the same guy who, two wives ago, served divorce papers to wife number one while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery?

What a year this is shaping up to be.


And next week should be newsworthy as well. President Bush is expected to unveil his troop escalation plan for Iraq. As we gird ourselves for that, consider these two recent statements:

There’s no question (that) locally, more troops will have some effect on the levels of violence, but whether more U.S. troops for a sustained period will get us where we're going faster is an open question.

That’s a pretty tepid assessment of the “surge” option – courtesy of General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, speaking last October at a Pentagon briefing.

But now he’s leaving. His retirement, originally slated for next spring or summer, has been moved up to now.

And there’s this: I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, “in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?” And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.

That was Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command, testifying on Capitol Hill two months ago…But now he’s leaving too.

Translation: Bush remains willing to listen to the wisdom of his commanders in the field, as long as their wisdom is in sync with his own. If their wisdom displeases him, they can always be replaced. That should at least reassure the 20 percent of Americans who currently believe that Bush has a clear plan for Iraq.