Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A rare Republican free for all

Now that erstwhile GOP frontrunner John McCain has become the political equivalent of Chinese toothpaste – yesterday, most of his top Iowa staffers joined the general exodus – it is worth pausing to reassess the ’08 Republican presidential campaign, and to ponder its ahistorical elements.

Those of you fortunate enough to be younger than I may not fully realize that this contest – especially now, with McCain clearly in eclipse – is quite unique in the annals of postwar GOP politics. It is exceedingly rare for Republicans to find themselves in the midst of a presidential election cycle without a virtually anointed nominee. The general rule, ever since 1948, is that the nomination should go to the guy who has worked his way up the party ladder, who has paid his dues by running for president in the past. Republicans, more than Democrats, prefer an orderly process; they respect the notion of hierarchy.

Tom Dewey, who ran against FDR and lost in 1944, got the nod again in 1948. Richard Nixon, who ran against JFK and lost in 1960, got the nod again in 1968. Ronald Reagan, who unsuccessfully sought the 1968 nomination at the eleventh hour, and tried again in 1976, got the nod in 1980. George H. W. Bush, who failed to get the nomination in 1980 and subsequently served as vice president, got the nod in 1988. Bob Dole, who tried and failed to win the 1988 nomination, got the nod in 1996.

(Rookie politician Dwight Eisenhower, the 1952 nominee, was arguably an exception, but the World War II hero was nevertheless the anointed frontrunner; and national newcomer George W. Bush was arguably an exception in 2000, but, in part because of his family pedigree and connections, he was nevertheless the anointed frontrunner long before the primaries began. The sole true exception, perhaps, was conservative insurgent Barry Goldwater in 1964 – but after he was clobbered in a landslide, the GOP learned not to take big risks.)

Anyway, McCain seemed (at first glance, anyway) to fit the traditional pattern, since he paid his dues during the 2000 campaign and had emerged as a popular senior figure with crossover appeal and 100 percent name ID. But his summer plummet has opened up the race and left grassroots Republicans feeling somewhat disoriented, as if they have somehow stumbled into an alternative universe. This is best evidenced by a new (and stunning) AP-Ipsos poll, released today. Its July survey of likely GOP primary voters reveals that the current frontrunner on the Republican side is a guy named Nota. If you haven’t heard of Nota, perhaps you know him by his full name:

None of the Above.

That’s right. The top choice for the ’08 nomination – and this poll was conducted before McCain’s top lieutenants quit the race, and before it was revealed that McCain was essentially broke – is None of the Above, with 23 percent. Rudy Giuliani finished second, with 21 percent (down from a leading 35 percent in March). The perpetually teasing Fred Thompson finished third, at 19 percent. The pre-meltdown McCain was fourth, at 15 percent. Mitt Romney checked in fifth, with 11 percent.

In recent decades, GOP voters have been generally happy with their choices and stable in their habits, while their Democratic counterparts have been dissatisfied with their choices and restive in their behavior. But in the alternative universe of 2007, the reverse appears to be true. The embrace of Nota was foreshadowed back in the spring, when a CBS poll reported that only 35 percent of GOP voters liked their candidates (whereas 59 percent of Democratic voters liked theirs). And, as I noted here yesterday, Republican disenchantment is also evidenced by the fact that the Democratic candidates are raising far more money.

The Republicans appear to have been struck by a perfect storm. This time, unlike in 1960 and 1988, the Republican vice president (who would normally be considered the anointed frontrunner) is taking a pass – which is probably just as well for the party, given the fact that Dick Cheney might win his native Wyoming but little else. Also this time, there is nobody else with anointed frontrunner bona fides – someone who can excite the conservative base and satisfy the party establishment. Arguably, that might have been Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but his bumbling brother has clearly damaged the family brand (at least until the voter amnesia of 2012 or 2016). Or it might even have been Condoleezza Rice, who could have trumped Hillary Clinton and Barack Obamas with a race/gender two-fer, but her complicity in one of America’s signature foreign policy disasters has dealt her out.

And that same disaster is weighing down the current GOP candidates. Aside from all their other fundamental shortcomings (Romney’s transparent flip-flops, Giuliani’s liberal track record on social issues, Thompson’s shaky conservative creds and Beltway lobbyist pedigree), their ongoing fealty to Bush’s war policy is a general election albatross. It’s true that most grassroots Republicans still support Bush on the war, and that any candidate who breaks with the president might well suffer the consequences during the primary season. But Republican voters also care a lot about finding a candidate who is electable, and many of them are well aware that any ’08 nominee perceived to be a Bush loyalist runs the risk of being slaughtered in November. I agree with the much-quoted uber-pundit Larry Sabato, who now says that “any Republican candidate is going to be held accountable for Bush’s policies, no matter how much the presidential hopeful tries to distance himself,” much the way Democrat Hubert Humphrey paid the price for LBJ’s Vietnam failures in 1968.

Bush fealty is one key factor in the John McCain meltdown. His staunch support for Bush’s war stewardship, his willingness to out-hawk Bush, and his rose-colored stroll through a war-torn Baghdad marketplace, canceled the “maverick” image that once endeared him to swing-voting independents. That, in turn, erased the argument that McCain was the most electable Republican. And he badly needed that electability asset, because he had scant sway with grassroot conservatives; they disliked his support for campaign finance reform and immigration reform, and never forgave him for voting against the Bush tax cuts back in 2001. (Given his inherent problems with the party base, McCain was never an ideal anointee anyway.)

So what we have is a uniquely unsettled Republican race, with candidates twisting in the wind. They will get no political guidance from their titular leader. Conversing last Friday with a hand-picked audience of conservative scribes, Bush said he remains convinced of his rightness; in his words, “it’s more of a theological perspective.”