Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A Divorce in 2008? (Or Inside Politics-The GOP Edition)

The “unhealthy marriage” between free market liberalism and cultural conservatism that defines the modern Republican Party has been a source of great debate on this site (see Sunday, Feb. 27th post) and on other liberal (and even some conservative) blogs across cyberspace. On the left, there is a mix between frustrated admiration for the success of the GOP in bringing two seemingly disparate constituencies together and hopeful predictions that this precarious alliance will fall apart soon. But when? Liberals have pointed out several apparent conflicts between the interests of Wall Street and Main Street that should divide the Republicans, but don’t. On illegal immigration, corporate profiteering on adult entertainment, outsourcing, and several other issues, the Republicans would seem to face the same dilemma that the Democrats had in 2002-2003; a party at war with itself. Still, due in large part to a disciplined message machine and a strong grassroots organization, the Republicans largely avoided these disastrous intra-party fights during Bush’s first term.

Many of the cleavages in the GOP are now masked by Bush’s immense popularity with his own party, but in 2008 the scenario will be different. With no apparent heir to the Bush legacy (except a non-committal Florida Governor), the Republican Presidential primary will be wide open, and many of the divisions in the party could finally be exposed. For moderate Republicans looking to recapture their party, and for Democrats looking for a little schadenfreude, 2008 could be a pivotal year. But which of the contenders has a real chance to change the status quo? And which of the candidates will seek to run on the Bush legacy?

Senator Bill Frist has an impeccable resume, strong conservative credentials, and lots of political capital from his time as Senate majority leader. Frist is increasingly torn between his legislative duties and his Presidential ambitions, and has announced that he will retire from the Senate after this term. Look for Dr. Frist to make health care the central issue of his campaign, and watch for feel good stories about Frist doing relief work in Africa, helping car accident victims on the side of the road, and even reviving the Capitol Hill shooter a few years ago by massaging his heart. (Great compassionate conservative fodder all around) Frist will reach out early to cultural conservatives and that’s why his success on getting Republican judges confirmed is so important right now. Some have suggested that if Karl Rove got involved, Frist would be the natural choice.

John McCain certainly won’t have Karl Rove’s services, but he will have a large national following and a maverick reputation still intact. McCain inspires many moderates and some Democrats, but I wonder if his uneasy relationship with Bush has hurt him at all with the Republican base. McCain can certainly raise money, and will return to the themes of his 2000 campaign, with added emphasis on national security, a sign of the times and an ideal tie-in to his biography. McCain will also get adoring treatment from the press, until they turn on him again sometime midway into the primaries.

Rudy Giuliani may be America’s mayor, but he doesn’t hold an elected position right now, and was tarred a little bit by the Bernie Kerik scandal. Giuliani’s entire campaign will be based on his actions during and after 9/11, and while I might be in the minority, I don’t think that’s enough. Giuliani is still too liberal for Republican primary voters, and given so many strong alternatives, I don’t think he could win. Also, he has never successful ran for state-wide office, much less national.

His in-state competition will be from George Pataki, who has been surprisingly successful in getting elected and reelected in New York, but has languished in the shadow of Giuliani, who is more charismatic and controversial. Pataki cannot win but has nothing else left to do except run for President and then get appointed to some high profile post in a future administration. Pataki and Giuliani also have a rivalry, so I look for Pataki to run briefly and then support another moderate like…

Arnold? Yes, it could happen, and if you’re a Democrat, you ought to hope for it. Schwarzenegger could win in the general election easily, despite what anyone else might tell you, and if he could survive the GOP primary, he could radically change the Republican Party. The amendment allowing him to run is being conceived now, but I wonder who just might be fighting against it in the shadows?

Jeb Bush said he wouldn’t run, but now he sounds less sure. Jeb was always pegged as the Bush son to go the furthest, but his brother beat him to the Governor’s Mansion and to the Presidency. Jeb has seen the Presidency up close through his father and his brother, and maybe he doesn’t want it. I am not sure what Jeb Bush will do as of now, but if he runs, he will be a major factor in the race.

Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, will not be a factor. He wrote a book and floated the idea of running to get publicity, but he has no natural constituency and no chance. He may be angling for a future administration job, but I don’t think he will end up running a serious campaign.

There are a few other intriguing possibilities, like Senator Chuck Hagel, who has repeatedly challenged the Bush administration on foreign policy, and could seize the moment if the situation in Iraq deteriorates. Governor Bill Owens is a sold conservative in Colorado, but the field may be too crowded for him to gain a foothold. Look for Owens, or someone else to get traction on immigration. Governor Mitt Romney has been making waves as well, but can a slightly less liberal Massachusetts rich guy really win the Presidency? I can’t believe Romney is even thinking about running after only one term as Governor.

How might it all play out and what will it mean for the GOP? Bush and Rove will stay publicly neutral and inflame speculation about who they really want. I imagine Bush slightly disengaged and disinterested at this point; it always seemed to me that he enjoyed the competition of politics as he was participating in it rather than having a passion for it more generally. And unlike Clinton, Bush doesn’t seem like the type who is really going to care much about who succeeds him.

My Prediction…..

Frist will be the early front-runner, but cultural conservatives, recognizing their power, will make him work for it. Owens or Gingrich or someone else from the bottom of the pack will make immigration their central issue, and lambaste the pro-business conservatives who turn a blind eye to illegals. This issue is a hot button one in the GOP grassroots, and has the potential to divide the Republicans. Arnold’s amendment will be passed, but too late for him to run this time, so Giuliani and McCain will inherit the moderate spoiler role. Both will be summarily dismantled by the right wing attack machine, and Frist will be left standing, but after a bitter primary. If Jeb runs, he could challenge Frist as well.

Under this scenario, the right wing will be emboldened and the moderates tempered, but not before Americans see the ugly divisions in the party over immigration (and don’t forget the required visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina) and the obligatory swipes at gay rights. With a possible slate of well-known and well funded moderates like Giuliani, Pataki, Schwarzenegger, Romney, and even McCain (who I don’t consider a moderate), the social issues will be hit hard by the conservative contingent and some distasteful rhetoric is bound to come out. So, while moderates might not take over the party in 2008, their presence could radically alter the competitive landscape, and hurt the eventual nominee’s chances in the general election.

And that’s why assessing the would-be candidates in 2008 is even more interesting than usual. Both the Democrats and Republicans will campaign in 2008 with different identities and new standard bearers (unless Kerry wins the nomination again). Depending on whether foreign policy, immigration, social issues or something else entirely dominates the agenda, we could see some interesting dynamics.

R.C.

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