REDSTATE ROUNDTABLE #1: CONSERVATIVES AND THE PRIMARY PROCESS
Did The Process Fail Us? Did We Fail It? And How Do We Do Better Next Time?
By Dan McLaughlin Posted in 2008 Presidential Campaign | 2012 Presidential Campaign | Elections | Redstate Roundtable — Comments (90) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
This is the first of what we hope will be a semi-regular occurrence, email roundtables among the RS Contributors. With a special appearance by the elusive Thomas Crown.
Dan McLaughlin: So, the great Mardi Gras primary day has come and gone, and while John McCain has not wrapped up the nomination, he seems now to be in a commanding position, with few realistic obstacles left to overcome. I think most of us Contributors, other than Adam, would agree that Sen. McCain is not our first choice, and that all things being equal we would prefer a candidate who takes more conservative policy positions and uses more conservative rhetoric than McCain on a number of issues. So I open the floor to a couple of related questions: Did the primary process fail conservatives? Did the GOP electorate prefer to pick a less conservative candidate this time around, and if not, why do we appear likely to get one? And how do we conservatives going about the business of ensuring that next time - 2012, 2016 - we get a more conservative nominee?
I'll kick off with five observations of my own.
1. I don't think it was inevitable that the primary voters in this cycle would choose a non-conservative nominee. I do think the primary electorate wanted someone visibly different from George W. Bush, and that was likely to mean less conservative on at least some issues, but there was room to run to Bush's right on others, like immigration and spending. McCain's rise has had more to do with the peculiarities of the people in this field than any shift in mood away from a robust conservatism. As I have said ad nauseum, ideas don't run for president, people do.
2. The people who did run were less a feature of the times than an accident of history: McCain, Romney, Rudy and Huck ran because of the points they were at in their careers (although in Rudy's case that was clearly influenced by the timing of 9/11). Only Fred was really pulled into the race by popular demand for his ideas, and Fred ran the most conservative campaign.
3. That said, the people did not run fell into three groups: those who were too personally tied to Bush to run (e.g., Jeb), those who were clearly not ready for the national stage (e.g,., Bobby Jindal), and those whose careers were derailed by 2006 (e.g., George Allen). Only the third group is really a feature of the ideological climate as opposed to personal circumstance.
4. You can't really blame the process for dictating the nature of the race, as McCain's really crucial victories came in two fairly conservative Southern states (South Carolina and Florida) that were hardly his natural turf. That said, I see three impacts from the calendar. First, Romney's hometown ties to New Hampshire and Michigan robbed Rudy of a natural starting point in the early states, and probably discouraged him from running harder there. I wouldn't suggest that that was the biggest factor in Rudy's demise, but it exacerbated his problems. Second, the short space between Florida and Super Tuesday made it impossible for the anti-McCain forces to rally effectively behind a single candidate, although I'm still skeptical that that was possible (I don't buy that Huck's voters would have preferred Romney to McCain by the substantial margins needed to unseat the leader). And third, the Northeastern states, by going to winner-take-all and ganging up on Super Tuesday while most other states divided their delegates, ended up having an outsize role in Tuesday's delegate count. It's probably wiser in the future for states to go to winner-take-all if they want their voters' preferences to have equal weight in the process.
5. Can we please get rid of caucuses? Romney kept winning small-state caucuses, but it never helped him. Huckabee won West Virginia when the McCain forces fell in behind him, leading to much gnashing of teeth about backroom deals from the Romney camp. If every state had a primary we would not have endless arguments about weighing the legitimacy of different states' choices.
Leon Wolf: I think - and I have made this observation before - that McCain got where he was in the same way that college football teams rise to the top of the season-ending polls: by being the candidate with the most distant loss, timewise. McCain has done much to grieve conservatives over the years, but he's done a pretty good job of keeping his nose clean recently, which is what seems to have counted. Throughout this race, we've had occasion to consider, in turn, Giualini, Romney, and Huckabee as frontrunners. As each gained a place of prominence in the polls, all of their weaknesses were dissected and screamed about by various factions of the party, until it came to the point that everyone came back to, "Hey, what about McCain?" And unlike Rudy, Huck and Romney, by the time people got their dander up about McCain, it was too late.
As to the primary system, I'm fine with it as it is, with a few minor tweaks. We could do a lot worse than having our earliest primaries be in five swing states (IA, NH, NV, MI, FL) and a state from the base of our party's support (SC). Like Dan, however, I would end caucuses, which I don't really even understand.
Moe Lane: I think we should be asking instead whether conservatives failed the primary process - more accurately, whether they are trying to destroy the point of it entirely, in order to reinsitute a system by which the nominee is chosen at the Republican convention. I do not think that this is a conscious goal, but judging from the way that we have watched every serious candidate except Fred Thompson get pummeled for their lack of conservative bona fides, I would not be surprised if we start seeing general anti-primary feelings.
I'll also note: while I'm happy to discuss the possibilities of junking the primary system entirely: we do have a current system of rules in place to determine the nominee; I am not impressed with the apparent willingness of some to only accept the results of the system when it's their candidate winning it; and if I remember my political history correctly the GOP was considerably more liberal before we started relying on primaries. I'm not sure if there's a link there, but I have my suspicions.
Dan McLaughlin: Moe, I think that first of all the serial attacks on the conservative credentials of McCain, then Mitt, then Rudy, then Huck happened for a reason: all four had real vulnerabilities on that score. I'm more sympathetic to the claim that Sam Brownback got pecked to death over comparatively minor deviations from the party line on immigration and Iraq, but Brownback wasn't going to be the nominee anyway.
I'll leave for another day the issue of how people should approach the general election, but I really think that other than immigration, where you had a genuine revolt of the base against Bush, the conservative disquiet over this field was mainly about who the people in this field were and are, rather than a hunger for absolute purity or a desire to return to boss-ism.
Moe Lane: From my quasi-outside viewpoint, it looked more like a dramatic re-enactment of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."
Neil Stevens: I like caucuses. I'd like us actually to go even further, and use more conventions. If we had 50 state conventions I'd be happy.
Why? This would ensure that conservatives (and any other faction that wants something) have to get involved in the state parties – from the bottom up – in order to get anywhere. Primaries inspire lazy dreams of Ronald Reagan coming and sweeping the party off its feet. Conventions, and to a lesser degree caucuses, snap us out of that and get us back to work.
Romney won some caucuses for the same reason he won Utah, largely. Look at the geography. He won caucuses in Nevada and Wyoming. He didn't win them in Iowa or Louisiana.
I will also speculate that there's a bit of a Bradley effect for Romney in caucuses versus primaries. That's a fluke of the candidate, not of the process.
Thomas Crown: Oh, Hell. Ok. It's my lunch break, anyway.
Insofar as there are conservatives -- or indeed, anyone who traditionally associates with the Republican brand -- threatening to sit out the general election, their existence is not relevant to the primaries as a whole. Heck, the freaking Ron Paul/anti-Semite/goldbug voters are still showing up, and God alone knows if they'll even be sober when the general is happening.
What Republican voters are doing is simply having a nationwide primary. Exclude the odd-ball states of Iowa and New Hampshire -- take my wife, please -- and I'd submit what we have is a national referendum vote in slow motion on the several candidates. Would John McCain seriously have won even a significant number of conservatives in South Carolina and Florida -- the latter of which is not remotely as purple as everyone outside the State believes -- but for the Huckasurge, Romney's collapse, and Giuliani's disappearance from the race elsewhere? Would pro-choice Republican voters have so assiduously flocked to a man whose only real shots at the pro-life movement were in the traitorous (let's call it what it was) BCRA and voting for Federal funding to slice and dice children for stem cell research?
What you have is a voting group with long memories -- conservative, moderate, liberal, rejects from The Silly Party -- who have watched how the race has developed, and how the candidates have picked each other apart, over time. As a result, the primaries (not the conventions) are more like an aggregate caucus, where the voters of each State see how each candidate does in the prior States before voting.
No one's failed anyone. I think this system is way too accelerated for our or anyone else's good, but the end result appears to be that the Party as a whole is picking a fellow who has been a fairly consistent conservative and who has generated an enormous amount of good press (that's a bad thing) for ten years. I think we're going to have a collective headache in a year, but the point of a primary process is to produce a candidate who either inspires or doesn't offend his Party, and who can compete in the general election. Seems to be working, to me.
I also dispute Dan's description of McCain as a non-conservative. St. John the McCain is an egomaniac of the first order, has some significant deviations from conservative orthodoxy, is only rhetorically opposed to pork and government growth, and gives the entirely justified impression that he'd sell us all down the river for good press; but on the whole, he's a pretty conservative guy.
Honestly, as second-tier candidates go -- which both Parties are running this year -- McCain ain't bad.
Adam C: The Thomas seal of approval: "McCain ain't bad." I think the election is now sealed.
Mark Kilmer: And I think those who have lately been flipping their lids at McCain's prospects are unfocused, with a few justified criticisisms but mainly a pile of emotional hollering and hissing -- dissonance -- which should not appeal to the more deliberate amongst us. We know McCain, we know what he's done, and we know what we do not like about him and his record. We do not need these people and their often hyperbolic fictionalizing.
Plus, there was no conservative alternative to McCain. Romney to be that again, but as Michael Steele told Bill Hemmer this AM: "Conservatives get the joke." We can see through Romney.
The primary system should be what the States and the parties wish it to be, and perhaps we could have a symposium on that when this is all over. I do not want the federal government involved in any way.
Thomas Crown: For a second-tier candidate. Context, my dear Adam.
Thomas Crown: Incidentally, I have no problem with caucuses -- it's not like the Rudy guys were all going to get together and beat up the Huckabee guys -- but I have a serious problem with State conventions. Our nation is a Republic. I see no reason why our Party has to be, the name notwithstanding.
Thomas Crown: Really, the remarkable thing about this year is that the only more or less classic conservative in the race badly mismanaged his campaign, and as a result (or maybe because of other things -- I'm no Vis Numar), never caught on. As Dan notes, we have an awful gap in our farm team. It should close by 2012 or so, but it's a pain in the tush this year.
Academic Elephant: One thing I think we should consider is if 2008 is a good year on which to base sweeping conclusions about the Fate of the Republican Party and the Future of our Primary Process.
Every election cycle is of course unique, but this one is a little more unique than others. The lack of an ordained successor in the incumbent party has thrown everyone off, spawned an interminable, expensive lead up to the primaries and generally sown confusion. Is it any wonder that we're winding up with a candidate who is so controversial that he has created his very own breed of Derangement Syndrome in his own party--before he's even secured the nomination? I suspect that this is a result of bizarre circumstance. As we're considering our Fate and our Future, it might be worth pondering if we think this is likely to happen again, and if not, if it's worth recalibrating based on this freak of a cycle.
Adam C: For the record,
1) I think states should trash caucuses. I appreciate that they do not receive much media attention, hopefully that will encourage states to change. They may empower "conservatives" or "activists" but they hurt in making more people identify as Republican and they allow a small group of people to trump a candidate with wider appeal to all Republicans. Honestly, a caucus mid-day on a work day (WV) is a ludicrous way to let people be involved in the process and feel invested.
2) I think the current system is not that bad. It's mostly swing states. It allows retail politics. The delegates are small, but the momentum matters. It allows low-budget candidates to compete and surge (Huck). And then a functional national primary comes a few weeks later so allows most of the country to have a meaningful say in the result (although not me here in NC).
All that said, there may be better systems. I was fond of the idea of letting the most swingy state go first then the next closest margin in the past Presidential election, etc. There is also a good argument for the biggest R margin goes first, then second, etc. This encourages even solid red and blue state GOP state parties to get out the vote and move up the list. Not a bad little incentive.
Neil Stevens: The fact that is is a freak cycle that makes it the perfect model for why we need to be tweaking our system. We very rarely get a close race. Our system must be able to handle the event that we don't have an undisputed successor.
Any system can work when we largely agree on who needs to win. It's the hard cases, like this year, that prove the worth of the system.
Note that this is even more true for the Democrats than the Republicans. Their "proportional" by CD system, with uneven CDs, is turning their close race into a lottery. Our system may not be great, but at least it's bringing clarity.
Thomas Crown: Two things:
1) I like caucuses: They encourage the folks who are most involved in politics to actually feel like they have a real voice, once every four years. We reward the morons by letting them vote in primaries and general elections and having their votes count; I don't see why the people who actually expend effort on this slide into the Republic's dissolution don't deserve something for their efforts.
2) I wholeheartedly reject this idea, if only because what is a swing state? Florida was one until 2004, now it's not. Ohio has been for a decade and change, what happens if enough people move away? Is Iowa really a swing state? What is New Hampshire?
Where I'm going with that is that, following your plan, the primary system rotates every four years based on data from one event four years prior. Don't we have enough headaches and politicians doing retail politics without that?
Dan McLaughlin: The whole point of my mantra that ides don't run for president, people do, is that we should not overgeneralize about one cycle - but that said, I agree with Neil that an open field year is more representative than one where the choice is the incumbent or the highway.
And I side with Adam rather than Neil - a primary is a good way to build interest and enthusiasm for the candidate. That trumps the more indirect incentives to get people involved in caucusing.
Thomas Crown: Are you telling me that you were seriously jazzed about voting in New York's primary this year?
Dan McLaughlin: I was happy to have a chance to partcipate. Had NY had a caucus, I would have needed to take a day off work, which for a lot of people with jobs and families (who ought to be the GOP's core constituency) is easier said than done.
Thomas Crown: I'll concede that; but
(1) As someone with a job and a large family, I take participation in the process seriously enough that I'm more than slightly irked that my participation matters no more than someone who only knows about the candidates what they see on TV. Part of where we lag the left is in the number of folks we have seriously dedicated to doing the hard work of politics; why not reward those who match that description with a greater say come primary time? I don't see what else they get, really.
(2) Maybe I was insufficiently clear: How does the primary as opposed to the caucus process generate enthusiasm for a candidate?
Pejman Yousefzadeh: Better late than never.
1. The primary process did not fail conservatives. As Victoria pointed out, we are in a unique circumstance where there is no organized successor to President Bush and there has been a lot of chaos as a result. However, it should be added that what we are seeing is the result of market forces at work. This is widely perceived to be a bad year for Republicans and as a result, some otherwise strong candidates--Sanford, Pawlenty, Jeb (who is burdened more by being a Bush than being a Republican)--sat out, thinking that the electoral market was bad for them. As a consequence, we got candidates of the moment; Rudy, who wanted to capitalize on his heroism in the aftermath of 9/11, Mitt, who is ambitious, Huckabee who is . . . well . . . the less said the better, and McCain, who after 2000, is the heir apparent since he is "next in line" as it were. The philosophical divisions that we are experiencing are a consequence of this situation. By contrast, the Democrats got a lot of good candidates--from the standpoint of the Democratic electorate--because this is widely perceived to be a Democratic year. As the Marginal Revolution folks often say, "markets in everything."
2. Following along this thread, the GOP electorate did not want to choose a less conservative candidate, but given the choices, it appears to have cast its lot with McCain. As Dan points out, the only conservative candidate was my guy, Fred Thompson, and alas, his candidacy imploded.
3. Again, following along the thoughts above, we get a more conservative--or perhaps, a libertarian-conservative--candidate the next time around assuming that the market appears to be favorable. I am not one of those who believes that we ought to pull an electoral Eight Men Out and throw this election, but there are plenty who are and who believe that if we do throw this election, we will set ourselves up to be rejuvenated for 2012 or 2016. If Hillary becomes President, there will be a strong impetus, at least in the beginning, for quality candidates to get into the race and take her on in four years, though again, I caution that once they get a hold of power, the Clintons like to keep it, so we shouldn't even travel down this road.
Adam C: Pej, following up on your second point. I think, despite the current gnashing of teeth, that Rudy and Huck could have truly lost a wing of the Party. Mitt, Fred and McCain have some appeal to each wing even if there were levels of distrust and dislike against McCain and Mitt. I think the Party again choose the most conservative candidate who has a chance of being elected. That's what it has usually done in my estimation. There's just a disconnect between the party/voters and activists. Activists have memories of M-F, the Gang, etc. Regular voters don't have the feeling of a knife in their back. This is why I think McCain has a better chance of winning 90% of the R vote than Mitt did and the fav/unfav ratings among Rs back that up.
Thomas Crown: That's probably right as far as it goes; I'd add that the voting public has a memory of years of glowy stories about St. John the McCain to incline them favorably to him.
Brad Smith: Three questions are asked: Did the primary process fail conservatives? Did the GOP electorate prefer to pick a less conservative candidate this time around, and if not, why do we appear likely to get one? And how do we conservatives going about the business of ensuring that next time - 2012, 2016 - we get a more conservative nominee?
Did the primary process fail conservatives? Obviously. McCain is an extremely dangerous candidate for Republicans to embrace, because McCain has self-consciously (and in my view rather cluelessly, but Marshall Whittman told him it was a good idea) sought to recreate GOP Progressivism. Progressivism is fundamentally unconservative – Progressives were largely contemptuous of the Constitution with its constraints on government power, and openly sought to drastically amend or even repeal the entire Constitution. This is why there has been the near-hysteria over McCain not being “conservative.” You can go through votes and make an argument, as Adam diligently does, that McCain is really conservative, and in a very cramped way that is true. But what the Limbaughs and Ingrahams and some others recognize is that deep down McCain is anathema to the idea of limited government, regardless of his positions on particular issues. McCain’s dalliance with liberal issues (big government response to global warming, campaign finance, efforts to regulate personal habits such as smoking, boxing, steroids, eating, etc.) – and most importantly, the fact that these always seem to be the issues he finds of “transcendent importance,” is a reflection of his deep rooted progressivism, which shows up in the corporate bashing, in the “patriotism vs. profit” nonsense, and in his constant demands for self sacrifice to the state. That all this takes place while calling us all “my friends” and vilifying in nasty, obscene, and very personal terms all those who disagree or stand in his way is indicative of the anti-conservative (that is, anti-limited government) mindset at McCain’s core. Many thoughtful conservatives of the limited government stripe recognize this deep down, but it is very difficult to articulate in the context of a campaign, hence the claims of “liberalism” that, on an issue by issue basis, seem over the top. Did the primary process fail conservatives in 2008? Might as well ask if there’s ice in Antarctica. Obviously it did. That does not necessarily mean that the process is bad, however, or generally set up to “fail conservatives.”
The GOP electorate was inclined to choose a less conservative candidate, at least, again, if we define conservatism as conserving the traditional core American political values, which are the values of classical liberalism (which is why “conservatives” in the U.S. share similar view to “Liberals” in Europe). We know that because roughly two-thirds of the GOP electorate rejected limited government conservatism on Super Tuesday. People are correct in noting that there is no strong reason to think that Romney could consolidate the conservative vote even if Huckabee dropped out, because much of Huckabee’s message is the same conservative progressivism of McCain. Now, the reasons for rejecting limited government conservatism were not purely ideological – many conservatives simply did not believe Romney, and let’s be honest, some didn’t like his Mormonism, and some were just envious of his success. But it is still interesting that as Thompson and Rudy fell by the wayside, many of their supporters chose McCain’s overt appeal to progressive, big-government values over Romney’s appeal to conservative, limited government values, on the grounds that they just didn’t believe Romney. Ultimately, they were more comfortable with progressivism than what they perceived as dishonesty. And that in itself indicates the atrophy of the limited government base within the GOP, and the way in which limited government advocates have taken their eye off the ball. Now we hear that those who support limited government must now “grow up” and support McCain. That comes from many of the same people who refused to grow up and support Romney when a candidate professing adherence to limited government values could still have won. (Aside: the deeper adherence of Romney and Rudy to limited government in a way McCain does not have – as opposed to the superficial description of McCain and Rudy as “moderates” – also explains why Rudy supporters did not break strongly McCain).
Beyond all that, we didn’t get a more conservative nominee because of particulars of the process and the candidates, in addition to the atrophy of limited government belief in the GOP. McCain should have been anathema to conservatives (at least limited government conservatives). However, Rudy, the other early frontrunner, was seen as unable to break McCain, because of his pro-choice stance. For many Republicans, the pro-life issue outweighs all other issues (and these voters are also often less attached to the limited government ideals of Ronald Reagan than the typical Republican), and though Rudy was respectful of right to life (and McCain was often not), in the end, McCain voted generally pro-life and Rudy did not. At the start of the year Romney saw an opening – all he had to do was get slightly to the right of McCain and Rudy, and he ought to sweep up all the conservatives over weak opposition of Huckabee and Brownback. But these conservatives wouldn’t buy it. So Romney emphasized it more. And the more Romney sought to recreate the old Reagan coalition, the more many decided he was not sincere.
In short, as McCain sought to tear asunder the GOP coalition to remake the party away from Reagan ideals, into a party of aggressive nationalism and big government progressivism, Romney sought to unite the party around the traditional appeals to limited government, at least in the atrophied form in which those ideals still command adherence within the party. For this, Romney was endlessly excoriated, including by many who favor limited government but lacked the wisdom to see the stakes at issue, as a “hypocrite,” a “liar,” a “panderer,” a “phony,” and an “empty suit.” McCain invoked Reagan at every turn while betraying his core and making the most disingenuous distortions of others comments, and for this he was rewarded as a “straight talker.”
Additionally, in a variation of Arrow’s Theorem, the order of matchups mattered. Had Florida come after Iowa, McCain probably would not have won it. Same for South Carolina. Had Maine led off instead of Iowa, Huckabee might never have caught fire, and Romney’s original, early strategy might have worked. Thompson simply disappointed on the trail, but his biggest mistake was not getting in aggressively in the spring. No one wins the presidency who waits around to be drafted. By the time Thompson jumped, he was too far behind, and too many volunteers had already committed to other armies. So the three major candidates who sought, to some measure or another, to be true to the party of limited government – Rudy, Thompson and Romney – all came up short. McCain simply picked up the pieces.
How do we go about getting a more conservative nominee next time? First, we make sure McCain loses in the fall, because otherwise he’ll be the nominee next time. Beyond that, if what you mean by conservative is people dedicated to limited government – which, as should be apparent by now, is what I mean – then there are several things to be done. One is the intellectual rebirth of limited government conservatism. When I was coming of age, smart young conservatives read meaningful books, such as Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” Murray’s “Losing Ground,” Thomas Sowell’s works, or Nozick’s “Anarchy State & Utopia.” Now they read pulp books that just attack Democrats and liberals. I haven’t read either Amity Schlas’s book on the New Deal, or Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” yet, but from what I’ve heard maybe they are a step in the right direction. Generally, our think tanks have become too immersed in minutiae, not enough in the big picture. Limited government is an inspiring vision, but it has not been presented in inspiring ways, and its intellectual roots have been forgotten by its leaders.
Second, we need to articulate a true conservative agenda. Rudy’s 12 points were a decent start, but neither Rudy nor Romney really articulated an overarching vision of limited government. Both, rather, seemed to operate a sort of check-list conservatism – tax cuts; check; WOT – check; Free trade – check, etc.. Thompson came a bit closer, but his message was almost wholly reactionary. No one aggressively took the Reagan position - government is the problem, and here is where we should prune it.
Third, we ourselves need to recognize the stakes. Many limited government conservatives supported McCain, often from fear of Hillary, chasing the elusive “electability.” Sometimes you get what you deserve.
But the first and most important step will be to admit what a serious mistake has been made. I’m not sure most conservatives are prepared to do that – at least not all those who backed McCain, or swung to him rather than to Romney late in the day.
It will be a long road back.
Dan McLaughlin: Well, of course I don't agree with Brad that we should work to defeat McCain; the result of that not only leaves us battling an entrenched incumbent in 2012 (Republicans have defeated an incumbent Democratic president only twice in history), but with the likely prospect that Democratic-appointed Supreme Court justices in the interim will create permanent barriers to limited government, or at least barriers that will take many more decades of work to remove. Whereas if McCain does win, his age and issues with the base may yet make it possible to push him into settling for one term. But to some extent that's another day's topic.
It's true that one of the problems here is defining conservatism; Brad's limited government axis does cleave the field with Fred on one side of the line and to a lesser extent Rudy and Romney, and McCain and Huck on the other (except perhaps on health care mandates and entitlements, where McCain and Romney switch places). But of course there are other axes along which you can split the field. For example, the traditional conservative idea that government should reflect the moral traditions of the people puts Huck on the far right side and Rudy at the left edge. It was the nature of the individuals involved in this field that scrambled the primary electorate by splitting the conservative/moderate lines along multiple different axes at once.
Brad Smith: I didn’t say we should work to defeat McCain. I said, if you want to get a conservative nominee next time you must work to defeat McCain this time. That was the question – how do we avoid a conservative nominee next time. It’s one more interesting conundrum the conservatives who went with McCain have locked themselves into, though – they either must hope for the candidate’s defeat, or recognize that they’ll have a bad candidate (from a conservative perspective) again in 4 years.
Also, I think Dan’s numbers on defeating incumbents are misleading. In the meaningful sense of the word we defeated an incumbent in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson did not seek re-election; and again in 1952, when Truman did not. So
1952 – Defeated Dem incumbent
1964 - Lost
1968 – Won
1980 – Won
1996 – Lost
That means over the past half century plus, three of the last 5 times a Dem incumbent has been eligible for another term, the GOP has taken the White House.
Hunter Baker: Just a couple of observations:
1. I continue to be amazed at what a non-factor George W. Bush is in this primary. Nobody wants his endorsement. Nobody wants to be his heir. If you want a sign of a failed presidency, I think this qualifies.
2. McCain is a beneficiary of this failure. Not only does he make a much more convincing military leader than he-who-looked-great-in-that-flight-suite, but he also was the guy with the right opinions about how to conduct the war. There have got to be people who have looked at their vote in 2000 and wish for a do-over.
Leon Wolf: I am not even close to being one of those people, and my opinion of Bush is not that great. Which should tell you the enthusiasm I am going to have for this campaign.
You know, I'm almost certainly going to grudgingly cast my vote for McCain, but when I got Ruffini's well-meaning plea for donations to the nominee (the only candidate who could possibly have held that mantle by then being McCain) on February 7th, I actually laughed. Give money to McCain? Not in a zillion years. Not even five bucks. That's almost two cups of coffee.
Brad Smith: Let me also add to Dan’s “government reflects morals” that I think that is wrong. What Dan seems to mean is that the “candidates reflect moral principles,” of the people, not that government does. After all, Rudy did call for a government reflecting the peoples morals, so far as I could tell. Of course, Romney tried to pull the two together, as Reagan did, for which, I’ll note again, he was excoriated as “fake,” “phony,” a “liar,” “a “panderer” and whatever else. Maybe he was. But the worst that can be said, then, is that he was our panderer, asking to do what we claimed we wanted. Much is being said, again, about the need for people whom McCain has insulted and belittled for years to “suck it up” and “grow up.” But we have McCain as the nominee precisely because too many Republicans were unable or unwilling to “grow up” about the alternatives and understand that politics requires compromises and choices.
Moe Lane: There's also the fact that if conservatives actively attempt to stop McCain from winning the general election, they lose either way: either they succeed, in which case the moderate wing of the Party will ruthlessly purge them and proceed to woo back the independents, and just woo national security Democrats; or they fail, in which case the McCain administration will do the same thing. And in either case, the Party will be right to do so, as the ultimate objective is to serve the country best, not to serve a particular ideology best. Put another way: many people seem determined to conflate .conservatism for the Republican Party, when the reality is that the Republican Party stands for a set of ideals, which are currently best served by a conservative viewpoint.
And there is nothing so ultimately useless as a principle that prevents you from doing the right thing.
Ben Domenech: Primaries didn't fail conservatives - conservatives, particularly fiscal conservatives, failed the primaries. They failed by being unable to coalesce around a single feasible candidate; they failed by following the lead of many who don't understand the direction of politics post-W; and they failed in many ways because of a complete lack of an ability to educate and guide the next generation of under-30 voters.
The direction our party is moving, in my opinion, demands that a shift be made - either toward state conventions early, or toward a more closed primary system which is functionally more representative of the base. This is not said because of the 2008 field, but because of the changing demographics of Republican voters, and the need to establish a more clear line of activity. I think Huckabee and McCain have shown us that early wins do still matter more than money or endorsements, and that's a good thing. I think moving to a more rigid schedule would help that continue to be true, and in most years - though not in all years, as this cycle showed - that's a good thing for conservatives.
The worst thing about this year's situation was not that none of these guys could seize the moment: it was that the schedule strongly encouraged them to "skip" states entirely. Republicans in South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa deserved to have a real decision before them, and to have candidates who invested time to earn their vote. Forget Romney's choice to skip SC for Michigan and NV as a tactical matter: I don't think that's a decision that ANYONE should feasibly be able to make going forward. If they can do so without consequences, it destroys the whole point of having to appeal to different states and communities, building a well rounded candidacy instead of just one that panders based on location. Primaries or conventions or even caucuses, the important thing is having a schedule where these states actually matter - needless to say, if Rudy had actually succeeded in his Florida strategy, it would've blown the whole thing up.
To give you an example of what I mean: clearly, WV mattered enough for Romney to leave California and haul his way all across the country to speak to them. Early small states should demand that kind of attention, or the whole thing is pointless and we should go to a national primary day.
The 2008 GOP Primary is a perfect storm of a wide range of uninspiring candidates uniting in a year when there is a clear lack of direction in the Republican primary. Go back to the elections of the past 30 years, and it's fairly easy to sum them all up - to identify the biggest issues at hand - with one exception: 1996. This really IS 1996 all over again, with Fred as Phil Gramm - best policies in the room, but failing to live up to conservative hype; Huckabee as an eloquent evangelical version of Pat Buchanan; and Mitt as Teve Torbes ("Millionaire Teve Torbes was a maverick candidate who had Washington insiders running scared. He also had an undeniable animal magnetism that drove the ladies crazy. It was clear Teve Torbes had it goin' on."). McCain is the default Dole-esque angry old vet with "his-turn" written all over him, but it doesn't fit him as well because he spent so many years needling his own party.
The one exception here, obviously because there's no comparison for what he represented, was Rudy. And it's another sign of how unique his candidacy would have been, and the opportunity he had to sweep in had he made some small strides in the right direction. But Rudy's campaign was built to stop McCain; it was built for an epic throwdown where Giuliani would establish himself as being to McCain's right on several key issues, and to be a guy who - when the Democrats are in charge - instead of making deals with Ted Kennedy, he would tell them to go shove it.
For a wide variety of reasons, as Dan and I have detailed, this Rudy never emerged. His campaign didn't know what to do with itself after McCain imploded over immigration policy (an implosion that was as much the White House's doing as anything else), and was like one of those Yankee teams that hires a bunch of players who just don't care if they lose in the Wild Card round, so long as they get their playoff bonuses. Without him putting McCain down for the count, none of these other guys had the opportunity to surge, because each of them seem less electable than McCain.
As for how we succeed in the future: the marketplace will be very different next time around. Only Huckabee is likely to run again in 2012; our field next time will in all likelihood consist of Sanford, Pawlenty, possibly Jeb, and possibly Thune. Any of these new candidates is at the end of the day perfectly acceptable to Reagan conservatives, and none of them split the base in the way that the odd group of misfits did this cycle. If this expected crew of candidates goes to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, I believe we'll get a very clear view of who the next candidate will be, and as long as our system is focused on enabling Republican voters as opposed to interloping Democrats, that next candidate will be a conservative.
So ultimately: make some tweaks, close the system a bit more, but there's no need to blow this up. The problem lies with the conservative movement, particularly fiscal/limited government conservatives, not with the system.
Mark Kilmer: And at long last, a bloc of the conservative wing of the GOP will have repudiated Ronald Reagan and moved on to the 21st Century. This will leave
me feeling a relic, but at least I will not be miserable.
Times-in-the-wilderness forced from within the party are dangerous. The wing and the party, having lost its power and efficacy, will cease to matter.
Mark Kilmer: Romney did not skip South Carolina. He spent more time and more money, had more TV ads there than any other Republican candidate. Just because he dropped out a few days early, when it became clear the voters would reject him and that he'd be competing against only RonPaul in Nevada does not alter that fact: Mitt Romney did not skip South Carolina. This was never his narrative to write, no matter how much his team treated it as such.
Ben Domenech: True, but: Mitt has spent more money and run more TV ads in every state than any other candidate.
Kevin Holtsberry: A couple of things:
- Brad's disquisition on McCain depressed me deeply and will require mush more thought on my part.
- Yet on another level it is simple for me: I think McCain was/is best positioned to win and keep Hilary from power. I will take center-right rather than left-left.
- I have yet to hear a explanation that convinces me that Romney really is a Ronald Reagan conservative rather than a non-ideological politician who tried to win by capturing the base. I just don't see how his history can lead to anything but doubt. He never ran as a conservative nor governed as one. How can he be the standard bearer of conservatism?
Leon Wolf: I agree with this assessment of Romney, and have from the beginning. A lot of the "base" rejected him for that reason, with the end result being that we are likely to nominate a guy with a record of stabbing the base in the back that is three miles long.
Not, in my mind, the wisest strategic choice. I have never understood why in the world anyone would prefer someone who "honestly" tells them that he's their enemy that someone (like Romney) who is a question mark. By that logic, we should all prefer Hillary to any of our current candidates.
Hunter Baker: This whole weeping and gnashing of teeth by many suggesting that by rejecting Romney we have rejected true conservatism is one of the dumbest things I've ever seen.
Leon Wolf: I agree. I think the valid criticism is that the voters have made an ill-fated strategic choice w/r/t conservatism.
Adam C: Have you seen McCain's ads, speeches, or heard his robo-calls? He isn't running as "I poked you in the eye." He's running as the guy who can Win the War, the guy who will Cut the Pork, the guy who understands DC is Spending Too Much and the guy who will Appoint Good Judges. My guess is very few people choose the guy who "told him he's their enemy." They choose the known quantity who was trustworthy and who agreed with them on a lot of their issues.
Those who put immigration #1 went for Romney. Those who care about Iraq, the GWOT, the economy, etc. went McCain.
Moe Lane: OK, gotcha Brad - which is to say, I understand more fully now.
Charles Bird: Late to the party as usual. We had five viable candidates, all of whom are conservative in varying degrees. Since I'm a McCain supporter, I think the voters made the right decision and picked the best conservative who could win. So from that perspective, the process worked, but I'd make a few changes such as removing "winner take all" and adding a western state to the pre-Super Tuesday slate. That said, I think the GOP system for picking its standard-bearer is superior to the Dems. Judging by the numbers, their race is going to go to convention and it's going to be ugly watching Clinton trying to lawyer her way to victory.
But in a larger fundamental sense, the process hasn't worked. We haven't nominated a viable movement conservative since 1980. Bush 41 was a coattail rider and Bob Dole is a right-of-center moderate. The closest was George W. Bush, who unfortunately sold us a bill of goods and governed in a distinctly non-conservative fashion.
What can we conservatives can take from this? To me, we haven't adequately sold conservatism to the other segments of the GOP and to independents. We need to sharpen our arguments and work harder at persuading. Of course, we need better candidates who want the job, but I have no idea how to make that happen.
Judging how the races in both parties have evolved, 21st century politicking is going to be dramatically different. Accessibility, authenticity, exemplary communication skills and a solid TV persona are much more important attributes than they used to be. Obama tries to make every stump speech into "I have a dream!" and it works, for example. And for all of McCain's flaws and foibles, he did better than his rivals in those four areas. Huckabee did as well as he did because he's an outstanding speaker and he does it well on television. When Romney was put to the test on television, he looked awful. Anyone see his comments about hunting squirrels and rabbits? Oy.
I have to say that I disagree with Brad, not just because I support McCain. I don't think we have to dump McCain in order to get a more conservative candidate the next go-round. McCain could help in this by selecting a conservative-friendly running mate. The bottom line to me is that we are a nation at war and we have liberal Supreme Court judges who are trying to stay alive long enough for Hillary or Obama to get elected. That is reason enough to win now. I think we're taking for granted the bully pulpit that we have right now, no matter how much it is ineffectually used by this president. It was supremely frustrating to not have that voice in the 1990s, and we're going to miss it big time if a Democrat gets elected.
To me, the better answer is to work within the system for change, not dump the guy altogether. McCain has made some serious pledges in order to secure his probable nomination, and it's our job to hold him to his word and raise holy hell if (or when) he goes off the reservation. If he sticks to those pledges, we'll have a conservative president who will give us the best chance of winning both this war and future elections.