Monday, November 20, 2006

The '08 GOP presidential race: "base" ball and hardball

The 2008 Republican presidential race is in full swing already, as evidenced in recent days by the behavior of all the top contenders. Clearly, their first priority is to look rightward, in the hopes of nailing down early conservative support in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina:

1. Consider John McCain. He badly wants to establish his bona fides with the suspicious conservative base, even if it means taking the wheel of his purported “Straight Talk” Express and weaving all over the road.

Yesterday, on ABC News, he basically stated that it would be fine with him if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and thereby erased the 33-year-old federal right to an abortion. McCain said: “I do believe that it’s very likely or possible that the Supreme Court should — could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support….I do believe that we would be better off by having Roe v. Wade return to the states. And I don’t believe the Supreme Court should be legislating in the way that they did on Roe v. Wade.”

Oh really? Here’s what McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999: “Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations.” He then reiterated this argument on CNN: "We all know, and it's obvious, that if we repeal Roe v. Wade tomorrow, thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations."

In other words, McCain was for it before he was against it. In politics (or at least when someone like John Kerry acts this way), this is known as a flip flop.

But it’s easy to understand the McCain flip flop. Six years ago, when he was wiped out by George W. Bush in the pivotal South Carolina primary, McCain strategist John Weaver diagnosed the defeat this way: “We lost the religious right by 57 points, proudly.” But the McCain camp has concluded that if he really wants to win the ’08 primaries, he has to consider pride to be a luxury. And that means throwing Roe v. Wade under the Straight Talk bus.

2. Consider Mitt Romney. He too is fixated on the base. He has some centrist credentials, as the blue-state Massachusetts governor who has crafted a universal health care program, but two moves in the past few days are aimed at the right. Yesterday, for instance, he demanded that state officials put the same-sex marriage issue on the ballot so that Bay State citizens can vote for themselves on whether gays should be allowed to wed.

Three years ago, the state supreme court (with its Republican majority) ruled that gay marriages were consistent with language in the state constitution, but grassroots opponents in Massachusetts have long been demanding a ballot referendum that could allow the voters to overturn the judges. Romney said yesterday that, unless the secretary of state puts the issue on the ballot, judicial “tyranny” will have prevailed. In political terms, if Romney expects to garner sufficient support among conservative primary voters, he needs to demonstrate that he has done all he can to push traditional values in his blue backyard.

Meanwhile, he sent another signal to these voters last week, by hiring Alex Castellanos as a media consultant. Castellanos is hardly a household name, but within activist and donor circles, his hiring is a sign that Romney means business, and that Romney is prepared to play hardball in order to win. Because Castellanos is a famous (some would say infamous) hardball practitioner of conservative TV messaging.

He’s so aggressive that even some of his most prominent clients have refused to put his ads on the air; for instance, during the ’96 campaign, when he produced some spots that directly called President Clinton a liar, GOP candidate Bob Dole nixed them. In 1999, when Hillary Clinton was doing her early spadework for her first Senate race, Castellanos called her “a cross between the Kennedy agenda and Nixon’s ethical judgment.” In 2000, he produced an ad that equated the Democrats with “rats,” by allowing the final four letters of the party name to linger on the TV screen. To quell the ensuing controversy, the Bush campaign yanked the spot. And in 2004, he produced a spot claiming that John Kerry would raise taxes by $900 billion, whereas Kerry had said no such thing and the budgetary issues were far more complicated than what was portrayed in Castellanos' ad.

The bottom line for Romney, however, is that Castellanos knows to talk to the base.

3. Rudy Giuliani, who, like McCain, filed papers this past week for an “exploratory” campaign committee, is also fixated on the base. He can’t talk about his stance on social issues (because he is pro-gay rights and pro-abortion rights) and he can’t really talk up his personal story either (because he has dumped two wives, and, after the second dumping, moved in with a gay couple). But he has been relentlessly plucking the base’s heartstrings by invoking 9/11 – the visuals of Giuliani, coated with dust and striding through the rubble, are potential grist for TV ads – and tying his behavior on that tragic day to a broader narrative about being tough on terrorists.

As he put it on the eve of the ’06 elections, “Five years ago, our nation learned a painful lesson about the dangers of an inconsistent approach to dealing with the evil of terrorism. In his speech to Congress on September 20th, 2001, President Bush declared that we would go on offense against terrorists, and he has made good on that promise. Terrorists have been destabilized and put on defense around the world - including Afghanistan and Iraq.”

For the conservative base, the Giuliani message has potential visceral appeal. And if he does run, his 9/11 visuals will presumably trump the actual factual details of his spotty anti-terrorist record, pre-9/11. Because as a well-researched new book makes abundantly clear, Giuliani made a number of regrettable decisions prior to the attacks:

He put the city’s emergency command center inside the World Trade Center, defying the pleas of his security advisors who (citing the 1993 attacks on that building) wanted the command center placed elsewhere; he dragged his feet on establishing any plan for interagency cooperation in the wake of a high-rise terror attack, even though his own emergency management director was insisting on such a plan; and he failed to act on evidence, going back to 1990, that the fire department’s emergency radios were so outmoded that lives would be lost in the event of a major disaster operation.

But only a fraction of conservative primary voters will know about any of that…and even if a rival brings it up, it may well be dismissed as ancient history. To quote a line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a classic western: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”