Thursday, May 03, 2007

GOP debate tonight is really Reagan v. Bush

If you tune in tonight for the Republican presidential candidate debate (8 p.m. EST on MSNBC, live from the Ronald Reagan Library), here’s a tip on how to keep score:

Take a blank sheet of paper. Draw a vertical line down the middle. Write “Reagan” on top of the left side. Write “Bush” on top of the right side. Then listen to the 10 GOP hopefuls, and tally how often they favorably invoke either president.

Odds are high that Reagan will win, and the reasons are obvious: (1) He’s dead, and that fact alone is bound to ratchet up the nostalgia factor, (2) His ‘80s tenure is firmly ensconced in conservative mythology as a golden era, (3) A lot of tonight’s TV viewers are likely to be next winter’s GOP primary voters, and they love Reagan, and (4) The current Republican in the White House is…shall we say…a far trickier sell at the moment.

I’m not suggesting that the 10 candidates will purge President Bush from the discussion; that would be bad form. Republicans generally have an abiding respect for hierarchy, and they tend (arguably more than Democrats) to stick with their leaders, no matter how embattled. In the latest polls, roughly 75 percent of Republicans still support Bush; that’s down 15 points from his peak-popularity period, but still strong. The conservative base won’t warm to any candidate who appears to be bailing on Bush for political purposes (such as a desire to connect with swing-voting independents).

For those reasons, I expect that most candidates will praise the Bush tax cuts (one of the only issues that still unites all conservative factions); and many will praise Bush’s work to create a more rightward U.S. Supreme Court by tapping John Roberts and Sam Alito (an issue of particular interest to social and religious conservatives). I also expect that they will find ways to tiptoe around Iraq by praising the president’s broader efforts in the war on terrorism, and reminding viewers that a 9/11-style attack has not occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11.

At the same time, however, it’s highly unlikely that these 10 guys will try to sell themselves as the next George W. Bush.

The president has inflicted too much damage on the Republican brand – those aforementioned swing-voting independents bailed on the party last year, as evidenced by the ’06 election results – so I expect that the candidates will distance themselves, albeit oh so subtly, from the lame duck. Perhaps by talking about the need for “a new direction.” Or “a return to our most basic values.” Or “a reaffirmation of the beliefs that we Republicans hold most dear.”

I expect to hear Mitt Romney laud his record as Massachusetts governor, thereby advertising the competence issue without needing to specifically mention the certain someone whose competence has been widely questioned. Ditto John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, doing subliminal riffs on how they would provide effective leadership in the future.

It’s a delicate dance, but Republicans have long been anticipating that it would be necessary. Fourteen months ago, at a Republican confab in Memphis, Tennessee, I sat in a hotel lobby with New Hampshire GOP power broker Tom Rath, and he laid the whole thing out for me: “Unless things improve (for Bush), you won't see any (’08 candidate) running back to embrace the mother ship. Nobody is running as his natural political heir.” I asked why not. Choosing his words carefully, Rath replied that there was a broad concern within the party about “competence,” about Bush’s "democratization" crusade abroad, about his "execution" of the war in Iraq. Most of all, said Rath, “there is really a concern about being adrift from our basic principles."

Indeed, legendary conservative fundraiser and activist Richard Viguerie recently told Time magazine that Bush simply doesn’t measure up to Reagan. Referring to the Iraq war, Viguerie said that, among conservatives, “there is a growing feeling it was a mistake. It’s not a Ronald Reagan-type idea to ride on our white horse around the world trying to save it militarily. Ronald Reagan won the cold war by bankrupting the Soviet Union. No planes flew. No tanks rolled. No armies marched.”

It’s also true, of course, that this Reagan nostalgia is at odds with reality. When the candidates tonight offer their requisite praise, no doubt they’ll neglect to mention that, during Reagan’s tenure, federal spending rose by 25 percent, that the size of the federal workforce actually grew, that he raised taxes in 1982, that the size of the federal deficit doubled, and that, on the social front, he rarely gave more than lip service to the anti-abortion movement. In fact, at the time, conservative activists often joked, “It’s not that Ronald Reagan lacks principles, it’s just that he does not understand the ones he has.”

No matter. Reagan – not Bush – is the lodestone for conservative voters who feel a tad disoriented these days. The question, however, is whether anyone in the current GOP field has the requisite qualifications to be viewed as Reagan’s natural heir, and whether they can begin to close that sale tonight.


But don’t expect to get a definitive answer. Ten candidates will compete over a span of 90 minutes. That’s a mere eight minutes per candidate, once you subtract time for questions. No wonder we’ll generally hear scripted sound bites; there’s scant time for anything else. The Democrats had the same problem in a debate last Thursday night.

I wouldn’t want to argue that Republicans with no hope of winning (Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Jim Gilmore, Tom Tancredo) should be barred from all debates. Suffice it to say, however, that Fox News and the South Carolina Republican party, in preparations for another debate on May 15, appear to have discovered a rational way to clear the stage for the big boys.

It’s simple: If a candidate isn’t registering one percent support in the polls, he’s out. That yardstick would indeed help cull the field. The Democrats haven’t yet come up with anything similar - which should come as a relief to Mike Gravel and to those who believe that a former senator from Alaska, out of office for 26 years, deserves equal time.