In the End, There Can Only Be One

I completely understand Ross’s point, but I don’t agree that the current crop of nominees is a bad ideological fit for the GOP. They are only a bad ideological fit if your ideological straightjacket fits really, really tight.

Romney and Giuliani would have been “moderate Democrats” anywhere but in their respective hyper-liberal homes? Really? Romney got elected by running as a clean-government technocrat. So did George W. Bush when he ran his first race for governor of Texas. He ran a competent, business-oriented administration, and also became a vociferous culture warrior on religious-right issues. Giuliani, meanwhile, ran as the enemy of crime and welfare dependency, and governed as (depending on who you ask, and both views could be true) a forceful and notably successful conservative or a narcissistic megalomaniac. Calling these guys “moderate Democrats” effectively means: if you operate in any way within the context of the politics of your time and region, you are tainted. By that standard, Ronald Reagan, who signed a huge tax increase, cut and ran in Lebanon, preserved middle-class entitlements, appointed Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, and signed the only Cold War agreement with the Soviet Union to actually scrap a class of weapons, was a moderate Democrat, too.

Romney, plainly, is a business conservative. If he had been running for governor of Arizona, he would have fitted his cultural identity to suit that state, and would have prioritized pro-business technocratic governance just as he did in Massachusetts. Giuliani, plainly, is a law-and-order conservative. If he had grown up in South Carolina, he would have been just as much of a pro-lifer, and just as much of a philanderer, as, say, Strom Thurmond. If being very solid on some issues, and trying to make nice with other parts of the coalition on other issues, makes someone a bad ideological fit, then something has gone very wrong with the party.

In fact, there is no ideological fighting going on, except between Ron Paul and the rest of the field. Instead, the GOP is engaged in an identity-politics-driven contest. The GOP is not debating what it stands for, nor is it a party that knows what it stands for and is looking for the best candidate to win a general election and/or to effectively carry out the party’s program. The GOP is not trying to find a leader for the party. It is looking for a candidate who is the incarnation of the party. No wonder they’re having a tough time.

I mean, think back to the Democratic and Republican fields in 1988, 1980, and 1976, the last few times there was a serious contest for the nomination of each party. (1992 should have been such a contest on the Democratic side, but then Cuomo didn’t run so there was “Old Democrat” candidate that Clinton or Kerrey could contrast themselves with.) There was real ideological argument going on inside those contests – and it was displayed pretty openly. More notable than their heresies in this campaign is that none of the candidates – Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney – has the stones to fight for them with actual policy disagreement. (The only one who does is Ron Paul, but “Libertarian” is just another word for nothing left to lose.) Giuliani is not running on re-orienting the party away from social issues – he’s trying to muddy the question. Huckabee is not running on re-orienting the party away from “economic royalism” – he’s claiming to be a champion of the little guy while advocating a tax policy that is a Jude Wanniski wet dream. Everyone is behaving as if every ideological group in the GOP tent legitimately has a veto on their candidacy. Well, when you make it that pathetically clear you’ll do anything to get her, of course she’s going to play hard to get!

But she’s got to take somebody to the prom, so the field will narrow. Candidates who perform terribly in the early contests will lose staff, will fail to raise more money, and will see their voters defect to other candidates in subsequent contests. Within a few weeks, it will come down to two and, shortly thereafter, to one.

Right now, Giuliani is not leading in any state before Florida. He is fourth or fifth in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, third-and-falling in a statistical three-way tie in Michigan, third in Nevada, and somewhere between second and fourth in South Carolina. If no new dramatic event changes the dynamic in Iowa and New Hampshire, Rudy will lose badly. That cannot possibly help him in the subsequent batch of states. And the party is not going to wait around for him to make his last stand in Florida. He has got to win something before that. It doesn’t have to be New Hampshire – the eventual GOP nominee hasn’t won a seriously contested New Hampshire primary in 20 years (Buchanan won in 1996, McCain in 2000, and while Bush won in 1992, Buchanan claimed a moral victory for doing as well as he did against a sitting President who had the firm support of his party establishment). But it has to be something.

If he pulls it off, and wins at least one pre-Florida contest, then this is a two-man race between Rudy and whoever comes off best in the early primaries – which right now looks like Huckabee but could be Romney if he wins New Hampshire and Michigan. If he doesn’t, then if nothing changes this is a Huckabee-Romney contest. All three have vulnerabilities, but any one of those three is a credible general election candidate, and all three are pretty obviously in the Republican mainstream. It just seems like the collective commentariat can’t believe the fix isn’t in, that we genuinely don’t know who’s going to win. That’s very different from saying that these candidates are terrible fits for the party.

Moreover, while each of these possible two-man contests could turn into an ideological struggle within the party, and it’s possible that fear of such a struggle is one thing that has professional partisans anxious, I don’t think it’s actually likely, because none of the candidates is acting like they think engaging in such a contest helps them. There is no struggle over ideology – just a struggle to prove who’s most ideologically pure. If it’s a Giuliani-Huckabee contest, that could turn into a real struggle over whether the GOP remains the natural home of conservative Christians. But, then again, Rudy could lose, or could win after promising to run all appointments by James Dobson first. A Romney-Huckabee contest could turn into a real struggle over economic populism in the GOP. (Or it could turn into a fight over whether nominating a Mormon will annoy too many evangelicals, or nominating Huckabee would tell too many Mormons that Romney was unacceptable to the new GOP – but that wouldn’t be an ideological fight so much as an identity-politics fight.) But then again, Huckabee could mend all fences with the Club for Growth in order to smooth the path for the nomination. A Giuliani-Romney contest doesn’t sound very ideologically potent, I’ll admit, but I would expect Romney to try to make it seem like one – and seem like Giuliani is the heretic – as a way of gaining the upper hand.

So, basically, I don’t expect a brokered convention, and I don’t expect a long, drawn-out struggle for a nominee, and I don’t expect a nominee that has espoused any meaningful heterodoxies. Maybe that’s why this contest has been so maddening: because it could be about something, but the major candidates are determined to see that it isn’t, and yet this contest about nothing still has an uncertain outcome.