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2008 Presidential Election: the GOP in Search of Itself

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Ever since reading Theodore H. White‘s America in search of itself: The making of the President, 1956-1980, I have considered it the definitive study of the election of 1980. Not only does that celebrated political journalist study the seminal results of that year’s presidential election, but he also looks at its historical context, reviewing the presidential elections for the preceding 24 years, noting particularly the transformation of American politics from 1960-1979.

After my party has decided its presidential nominee for next year’s election, a similarly gifted political journalist may well write a study of the transformation of the Republican Party, The GOP in Search of Itself: The Making of the Republican Presidential Nominee 1988-2008. For it seems that after the incumbent president’s failure to promote (or even articulate) a consistent conservative domestic policy, our party is struggling to find the unifying message it had in the 1980s, occasionally in the 1990s and briefly in the current decade (but then primarily on foreign policy).

While my man Rudy Giuliani has consistently led in the polls for nearly a year, he has never topped 40% and, for the better part of the year, averaged just under 30% of the vote (in the RealClearPolitics average of polls). With former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s recent surge and Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s financial prowess, this race appears quite fluid, with at least six serious candidates (those mentioned and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and Arizona Senator John McCain).

Huckabee can clearly attribute his surge to the “power social conservatives continue to wield in Republican politics.” (Hat tip to John (AverageGayJoe) for alerting me to that article.) While others may see evangelicals as dominating the party, the fact that Huckabee has yet to break 25% in any national poll suggests that they represent no more than a quarter of the party.

The enthusiasm for Ron Paul stems in part from his strong anti-war stand, but I believe his commitment to fiscal discipline has been the primary impetus for his success. People are fed up with the ballooning size of the federal government. And of the candidates, Paul best articulates the vision Ronald Reagan had of a smaller government. That is, despite the domestic policies of the current administration, there still exists a strong voice in the GOP for “less taxation, less regulation, a better economic system.

From everything I’ve read (e.g., this) about Huckabee, he seems to favor quite the opposite, more taxation, more regulation and more convoluted economic system. The only thing he seems to have in common with Ronald Reagan is the (R) after his name — and the enthusiasm his candidacy generates among evangelicals.

Each of these two (Huckabee and Paul) represents significant constituencies in the GOP. But, neither could unite the party, Paul because his foreign policy is not in tune with that of a supermajority of Republicans while Huckabee’s social conservatism (combined with fiscal liberalism) puts off many suburban voters.

Back in the 1980s, evangelicals were far more libertarian than they are today. They might have rallied to someone like Paul if he had more conservative views on national defense and international relations. (The social conservative shift began with Pat Robertson’s run for the White House in 1988. He may have lost the contest for the Republican nomination, but he did gain an understanding of the political process and an appreciation of how social conservatives could influence the GOP.)

With six serious contenders for the nomination, four of whom have a chance at winning, it seems evident that my party is struggling to find a standard bearer. The continued strength of all six suggests that each has a significant appeal within certain segments of the party, as if they represent that segment’s pitch to be its dominant wing.

No candidate has yet emerged who has united the party’s various constituencies as did Reagan in the 1980s and as George H.W. Bush would do in 1988 when he ran as the Gipper’s heir. And as that latter’s son would do in 2000 with a mixed message (that amorphous term “compassionate conservative”) and in 2004 with a record of leadership in the War on Terror.

The volatility of this race suggests that our party is still looking for a leader and a platform to bring us together after the lack of focus of Bush’s second term. Let us hope that the candidate who leads the pack after “Super Duper Tuesday” can unite the party of Lincoln and Goldwater as Ronald Reagan did now nearly twenty-years ago..

There does seem to be one such man, a successful governor of a large state with strong conservative credentials, but probably because of his last name, he elected not to run in next year’s contest.

While it may appear now that none of the leading GOP candidates can unite the party, we should note that at the outset of the 1980 campaign, many Republicans were wary of the former California Governor. Then-President Carter was supposedly delighted at his nomination, believing him to be easy to beat.

Should our nominee next year succeed as did the Gipper, then not only will the tale of the GOP nomination battle be a story of our party’s search for itself, but also of the nation’s search for itself. And the book written about the various debates currently going on in the GOP will serve as a kind of a sequel to White’s masterpiece.

Should that happen, the debates currently going on in the GOP may well define the political landscape for the next two or three decades. A thought which does offer some comfort as that debate is far more serious than that undertaken by the opposing party.

– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)

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62 Comments

  1. ILC, not to argue, but just to point out Ahnuld has been flogging a huge HillaryCare-style health plan. Also, I have to wonder, how much of California’s budget goes to provide services to persons who should not legally be in this country?

    Comment by V the K — December 19, 2007 @ 11:16 am - December 19, 2007

  2. Again – Whose fault is that?

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — December 19, 2007 @ 11:18 am - December 19, 2007

  3. (I.e., I concede your point on Ahnuldcare, but no, he hasn’t exactly been one of the bad guys on illegal immigration. CA Democrats have.)

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — December 19, 2007 @ 11:21 am - December 19, 2007

  4. IIRC, Ahnuld avoided tax increases by issuing state bonds, which are now contributing to the problem.

    State spending also has increased by more than 40 percent since Schwarzenegger took office after the 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis.

    Schwarzenegger in August signed a $145.5 billion budget that increased spending 11 percent due largely to the increased cost of bond repayments and special funds. General fund spending for day-to-day operations increased less than 1 percent, from $101.7 to $102.3 billion for the budget year that began July 1.

    Comment by V the K — December 19, 2007 @ 11:22 am - December 19, 2007

  5. “IIRC”? 🙂

    And as I had said,

    CA voters wanted a centrist to solve it without tax increases. And Arnold largely did that. But, he had to compromise with Democrats in the Legislature, so it wasn’t completely solved.

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — December 19, 2007 @ 11:30 am - December 19, 2007

  6. Furthermore, V, if you look at it, Arnold took a $30 billion deficit and managed to pare it down to $14 billion by wise use of state bonds.

    But really, credit for the rest should go to the Republicans in the California Legislature, who, despite doing it for exactly the wrong reasons (mostly spite), pretty much blocked any meaningful spending increases.

    Meanwhile, what you’re going to see very, very quickly is Californians suddenly demanding enforcement of the laws preventing illegal immigrants from receiving welfare of any sort. Heck, we might even get what we need, which is a stiff tax on anyone trying to transfer money out of the United States who isn’t a citizen.

    Comment by North Dallas Thirty — December 20, 2007 @ 12:36 am - December 20, 2007

  7. 13. ILC: “What I had said, was correct. Even Paul’s defenders can’t deny he’s a porker, or defend him on the facts.”

    Well, I’m only speaking for myself, not the rest of the Borg (my tinfoil hat is out for repair, breaking my communication stream). I would wager, though, if you summed up his “pork” over his term in office, it adds up to an awful lot less than anyone else’s.

    “‘Every Republican candidate, except Ron Paul, will fight Al Qaeda and the Global War [with] Islamic Jihad…’
    [me] [Paul is] a conspiracy-mongering nut on foreign policy”

    Would like to give an in-depth response to this, but don’t have time right now (must…work…to feed…the state). See here if you want a dialog on the subject.

    Just a couple of thoughts:

    A) Security is composed of many components (economic, military (offensive), military (defensive), political, diplomatic, social, technological). You can’t have security by pursuing one of them to the detriment of the others indefinitely.

    B) You will never exterminate terrorists when doing so causes many times that number of people to be converted to terrorism. We are not talking about surgical strikes or black ops here, we are talking about invading, subjugating, and occupying entire countries, leaving hundreds of thousands of casualties (regardless of who actually caused them, they will be blamed on us by the families of those harmed, at a multiplier of, say x10).

    C) There are vested interests who profit hugely from keeping conflicts and wars going, no matter the cost to Americans or anyone else. In a world where people are killed for $100 sneakers, people find this hard to believe?

    “I notice you have no real answer.”

    Unlikely.

    “Your attempted answer is: what does George Bush have to do with this?… Translation: Time to wave hands… change the subject away from Paul.”

    No, actually, it was to equate your concept of “conspiracy theorist” with George Bush. I, honestly, do not feel that he is as simpleminded and boyscout-like as others do, merely working with “the best information he had.” And neither do I think that Ron Paul’s political philosophy is simple-minded, either. You may dismiss his ideas as you wish, but recognize that the same could be said of George Bush (“he’s a lunatic”), and that you haven’t really said anything other than “I disagree.”

    Comment by cowb0y — December 20, 2007 @ 12:49 am - December 20, 2007

  8. Tyree: “The misinformed liberal said…”

    No, you’re confusing me with my twin brother, kowb0y. You yourself are misinformed if you think that “conservative” means “brainwashed.” I thought that was a “big-D liberal” characteristic?

    Comment by cowb0y — December 20, 2007 @ 12:56 am - December 20, 2007

  9. 24. Paul: “But [Ron Paul’s supporters] are neither Republicans, nor a force in Republican politics.”

    To a certain extent, I agree with you. However, a couple of things: A) What is “a force” in Republican politics these days? B) I think the fluidity of the Republican polls indicate that the majority of “most likely to votes” are grasping for some substance within the party, and not finding it (or, like an eel, they have there hands on it, but the slime, the slime, so slippery).

    I really think this is what happened: The protoneocons saw the success that Reagan had in marshalling conservative democrats, and saw that as a way to expand the party’s support base. But instead of drawing those voters in by strength of character and principled stands (even if those principles were somewhat abused at the end), they basically ended up becoming Democrat Lites, with a dose of “Christian morals” and some warhawking thrown in.

    I don’t mean to oversimplify things. I think there is a common perception among Ron Paul supporters that the Republican mainstream just isn’t very Rebublican anymore, which is why there are so many formerly apathetic people involved, who in years past would have been inspired by the traditional Republican platform of “more liberty, less government, more prosperity through free markets, more security through a strong-but-not-aggressive military.”

    It’s the party’s failure to convince these “floaters” of it’s commitment to its own principles that is to blame, not some explosion of libertarian consciousness among independent voters.

    Comment by cowb0y — December 20, 2007 @ 1:18 am - December 20, 2007

  10. You will never exterminate terrorists when doing so causes many times that number of people to be converted to terrorism. We are not talking about surgical strikes or black ops here, we are talking about invading, subjugating, and occupying entire countries, leaving hundreds of thousands of casualties (regardless of who actually caused them, they will be blamed on us by the families of those harmed, at a multiplier of, say x10).

    Oddly enough, that wasn’t the case with Germany, Italy, Japan, or any of the other countries we invaded and occupied in World War II.

    That logic depends on the Democrat and now Ron Paul-co-opted belief that people actually LIKE living under a brutal dictator such as Saddam, and are upset when said dictator is removed.

    As has been said here by others, nine-tenths of the problems in Iraq come from the fact that two groups — al-Qaeda and Iran — have been trying, often in conjunction with each other, to sow as much discord as they possibly can.

    Comment by North Dallas Thirty — December 20, 2007 @ 1:55 am - December 20, 2007

  11. NDT, for the stuff you quoted at the top of #60: if any of that were applicable to Afghanistan or Iraq, their people should be rising up against the U.S. Instead, they have been rising up against al Qaeda. So whoever said it (I haven’t followed the whole thread) is off in la-la land.

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — December 20, 2007 @ 12:11 pm - December 20, 2007

  12. 61. NDT: Oddly enough, that wasn’t the case with Germany, Italy, Japan, or any of the other countries we invaded and occupied in World War II.

    I don’t think that many students of history would agree with your analogy.

    That logic depends on the Democrat and now Ron Paul-co-opted belief that people actually LIKE living under a brutal dictator such as Saddam, and are upset when said dictator is removed.

    Speaking only for Ron Paul (if I may) and his Mindless Zombie Minions Who Have Never Read a Book and Don’t Actually Know Anything About the REAL WORLD Because They Disagree With Your Point: That’s a pretty lame attempt at a straw man, don’t you think? So

    As has been said here by others, nine-tenths of the problems in Iraq come from the fact that two groups — al-Qaeda and Iran — have been trying, often in conjunction with each other, to sow as much discord as they possibly can.

    Again, I don’t think that’s really being argued (and certainly not by me).

    Since the U.S. supported Saddam specifically to oppose Iran in the first place , it doesn’t really come as a surprise that, once he was removed, the problem remains.

    Comment by cowb0y — December 21, 2007 @ 10:45 pm - December 21, 2007

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