Ruffini’s analysis implies that in the long run, McCain may need some version of the alliance with Huckabee that keeps being bandied about, because “to start racking up victory margins in the 40s … he’ll need to add votes from the Christian conservative base.” The difficulty, of course, is that this would create “an alliance of opposites — of pro-life and pro-choice, of liberal and conservative, of secular and evangelical” behind McCain’s candidacy. It would be a deeply peculiar state of affairs: You’d essentially have the party’s rightward and leftward factions uniting in a joint insurgency against the “movement” establishment. Handled with great finesse, it could work brilliantly, creating an ecumenical reform coalition within the party and delivering a much-needed jolt of creative destruction to the GOP. But John McCain isn’t exactly a finesse politician, and it’s just as easy to imagine it blowing up in his face.
Here’s another peculiar state of affairs. Way back at the beginning, Mitt was the most credible/safe change candidate in the Republican field. Rudy was post-9/11 Bush squared, McCain was post-Iraq Bush squared. Even later, Fred Thompson offered roughly zero deviation from the administration inheritance, and Huckabee still remains the new and improved avatar of what Bush was supposed to have more successfully been. Yet the patriotic pressure of McCain and the evangelical pressure of Huckabee threatened to wipe out, as conditions in Iraq improved, the central logic of Mitt’s early campaign: that regular Republicans all around the country knew how badly Bush had blown it and wanted a major turnaround. They wanted a guy who could speak like an adult and could make the East Coast Corridor function correctly and who sat at the front of his class at Harvard Business School. They wanted him to look good and fly right, and Mitt had all those credentials, and it didn’t matter if he suddenly agreed to adopt conservative social policies because, as someone put it, everyone gets to change their mind once.
Unfortunately once was in like July. And here we are today, with the putative ‘establishment’ guy, Romney, looking more like the insurgent candidate. His core constituency — well-adjusted, regular Republicans, conservatives that want to dump Bushism and the formula that kept it going — is in disarray, led all too often by movement conservatives that hate Bush only to the extent that he’s made it somewhat more difficult to win another national election campaign. McCain’s and Huckabee’s core constituencies — Reagan Democrats who don’t do retreat and evangelicals sick of lip service — are pumped up. But uniting these forces is likely to create only a more intensified version of the Bush coalition, with more religiosity, more Iraq, more leniency for resident illegals, and so on. Some or all of these might be good outcomes, and to that extent the ecumencial rehabilitation of the Bush coalition would be cool, but with Romney Republicans most likely to straggle to the polls regardless to keep the Dems out of office, the election would turn once again on turnout. Another replay of 2000/2004, with virtually no change in either party’s practical platform? This recipe for ‘creative destruction’ could easily wind up serving us the opposite: the total disaster of business as usual.