The Road To Hope, Part I: A Peril Of Their Own Design

Introduction:  As time ushers political victories from the realm of current events to the realm of history, the answer to one question seems always to change, simplifying itself with the passage of years, decades, and centuries.  Why did this candidate win, and why did his opponent lose?

The answer is never so simple as people make it out to be; Kerry didn’t just lose because of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Gore didn’t lose just because of the Supreme Court, George H. W. Bush didn’t lose just because it was the economy, stupid.

With each presidential election there must be one victor, a candidate that is swept into the White House through a combination of political skill, an ever changing political landscape, and a confluence of events beyond that candidate’s control.  The deciding of an election is never any one single thing, but instead an avalanche of factors, each one impacting the others, bouncing wildly around like a million pinballs in an American shaped pinball machine and freezing only on the first Tuesday of November when the people of America finally cast their ballot and leave their indellible mark on the history of a nation.

In this series of posts, my intent is to cast a scrutinous eye on the past two years.  In the beginning there were eighteen candidates from the two major political parties, not counting the sometimes quirky third party candidates such as the increasingly less sane Ralph Nader (whose ill fated serial presidential run this time included a recipe for hummus, and a disturbing conversation with a parrot), and my personal favorite presidential candidate, John “The Impaler” Sharkey, whose platform was laudable in wanting to end our presence in Iraq, but had a few rough spots such as punishing all law breakers by impaling them on a wooden pike.  In the end, we would be left only with the forty-fourth President of the United States of America; Barack Hussein Obama.

Over the course of these articles, my hope is that this series will serve as one part primer on one of the most amazing political races of our times, one part analysis of the political process, one part fond stroll down memory lane, and one part answer to that question we all ask after the conclusion of a political campaign; Why did the winner win, and the loser lose?

Enjoy.

In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, we are already talking about a time for Republicans to spend in the wilderness.  It is, for the GOP, a time for barbarism, cannibalism, and introspection.  After losing the White House and watching the Democratic party build steeper majorities in both the House and the Senate, it is a time for Republicans to reflect upon where they went wrong, and how to get their party back on the right track.

But what seems largely overlooked is the fact that in part the Republican party was already in the wilderness when this election cycle began in the early months of last year.  Just months before, in November 2006, the GOP was dealt a heavy blow when it lost control of both houses of Congress.

The leading factor to the shift in power was a public that had become exceedingly unhappy with the Iraq War.  Years after President Bush declared an end to major military operations in Iraq, we were seeing some of the bloodiest days in the country once under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

But also there were other things at play in the hearts and minds of voters in the fall of 2006.  The Republican party had in the previous two years made some major political missteps that were threatening to severely tarnish its brand.  There was the attempt to privatize Social Security, and the Terry Schiavo melodrama, and there was a string of scandals that allowed congressional Democrats to brand the GOP with the phrase “culture of corruption.”

In an ironic twist, the failures of the Republican party between 2004 and 2006 had come from the coalition that had allowed it to rise to unprecedented power over the course of the past few decades.  The Iraq War was a referendum on neoconservatism.  Social Security was the failure of the Friedmanite faction of the GOP.  And Terry Schiavo was a product of social conservatives.

Thus, when candidates began throwing their hats into the ring early last year, the Republican party was already facing a serious branding problem.  Over reaching had turned them into a party that was out of favor with the American people, but the heart of the party, the grass roots of movement Republicanism, was as ideological as ever.

The prime question for Republicans heading into the 2008 presidential election season was a simple one: do we push further to the right, or do we try and play for the middle again?  Much of the punditry was already saying this was the Democrats’ election to lose, but could the Democrats actually find a way to, as the saying goes, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?  And if so, how could the Republicans help them along?

As someone who watched all of the Republican debates, it didn’t take long to learn the answer to the first question in the last paragraph.  Debating in the Ronald Reagan presidential library, it was clear that of the then nine Republican presidential hopefuls, all of them were operating under the belief that Republicans were not ideological enough, that the only true path to the White House was to go more conservative, and to reserruct the ghost of Ronald Reagan.

Two years later, replaying all of this again in my mind and watching it through my own internal rearview mirror, it is apparent that the Republican candidates were caught in a peril of their own design.  They made a classic blunder; when they tried one thing and it failed, they did not stop to consider that they were going in the wrong direction but instead believed they just weren’t going fast enough in the wrong direction.  They crashed into a brick wall, and their solution was to back up and put the pedal to the metal.

In a way, it’s difficult to blame them for this flawed thought process.  The three-legged stool of neoconservatism, fiscal conservatism, and social conservatism had given them so much success in the past that it was difficult to believe the great Republican ideological coalition could ever fail them.

But this posed another problem for the Republican field; no one adequately filled the mold.  Sure, it’s possible that some of the lower tiered candidates like Tommy Thompson, Duncan Hunter, and Jim Gilmore actually could meet the requirements of the three legged stool, but they were relative no names going up against super stars.  They may have had the right ideological mix, but they were also boring and had the charisma of a slug (and not the kinds of slugs you kiss when you go to Science Camp).

Then there were the oddities.  Tom Tancredo had at least one deft skill in figuring out how to turn every question into a discussion on immigration, but nothing else.  Meanwhile Ron Paul, the libertarian, had some ideas that might have played well in a general election like pulling out of Iraq, but he was also running for the Republican nomination; the only place in American politics where staying in Iraq was still viewed as a good idea.

In truth, I feel as though I should say more about Ron Paul.  Though he didn’t make much of an electoral impact in this presidential election, I do think that he left a cultural impact even if it was just a small one.  The most notable aspect to Ron Paul’s candidacy was his online organization which was remarkable, perhaps even phenomenal.  Through innovative networking tools, Paul supporters could magnify their presence online to the point where they could even make it appear that Paul really did have enough support to propel himself into the upper tier of the Republican primaries.  The problem was that this magnification didn’t come close to reflecting the true scope of Paul’s meager support, and outside of his internet organization, the candidate himself just didn’t have hardly any other weapons in his political arsenal.

And so Ron Paul will go down as the political equivalent of a cult classic, a term that is even more relevant given the cultish qualities of an unfortunately vocal chorus of supporters.

One supposes that since we’re talking about oddities in the Republican primaries, one also must make mention of Alan Keyes.  Until the 2008 presidential election, Alan Keyes wasn’t known for much other than being the Republican opponent to Barack Obama’s senatorial run in 2004.  Keyes, a Christian fundamentalist that disowned his own daughter upon learning she was a lesbian, suffered a magnificent defeat at the hands of Obama.  He would be politically resurrected three years later as a short lived presidential candidate for exactly one debate; an African American forum hosted by Tavis Smiley.

With the also rans out of the way, this leaves us with the big dogs of the Republican party; Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and John McCain.  For a brief instant, before presidential candidacies were announced, it looked like John McCain was set to be the prohibitive favorite to be the Republican nominee.  It was almost an unspoken pact, an exchange between the Arizona Maverick and the sitting president.

Back in 2000, George W. Bush sunk McCain during the Republican primaries, stopping him cold in South Carolina through push polls suggesting that McCain’s adopted Bangledeshi daughter was actually a black girl McCain sired out of wedlock.  This would stand as one of the dirtiest of dirty tricks in presidential politics, and the general consensus was that in exchange for being a good sport about it, Bush, whose vice president had no presidential aspirations, would push McCain eight years later.

But this would be the beginning of McCain’s problems on the path to the White House.  Eight years later, Bush wasn’t an asset, he was an anchor.  McCain’s woes only worsened come the summer of 2007 when immigration reform became a major part of the national debate.  McCain’s stance on immigration was in direct opposition of Republican orthodoxy, and his attachment to the issue would turn a one time prohibitive favorite into what appeared to be an also ran long before the first vote in the primaries would ever be cast.

This was compounded by the very mechanics of the McCain campaign at the outset.  Top heavy, bloated, and fiscally careless, the McCain campaign simply couldn’t sustain itself, leaving a candidate that was inhabiting the cellar of the polls and creating a vacuum at the top of the Republican field.

Former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, was eager to fill that vacuum and for quite some time he did.  Leading almost straight up to the Iowa caucuses Rudy was at the head of the pack in national polls by a breath taking margin, and had established himself as the true prohibitive favorite.

There were definitely some big guns in Giuliani’s control.  Depending on which Democrat won the nomination, Giuliani could make a realistic bid for New York in the General Election.  As a former New York City mayor, and someone who was not terribly conservative socially, Giuliani also carried with him the promise of at least some crossover appeal.  And of course the crowning jewel of his arsenal was the esteem he had earned in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

But this crowning jewel would ultimately end up being a part of his downfall.  Initially his status as mayor during the 9/11 attacks gave Giuliani credibility among the neoconservatives in the party, but he overplayed the hand, and when I mean overplayed I don’t mean he just barely crossed the line, I mean he bombarded anyone who listened to him with the phrase “9/11” until Rudy became a walking talking example of self-parody.

With his neoconservative credibility dashed, Giuliani’s other weaknesses opened up.  His more liberal roots fatally wounded his credibility among fiscal and social conservatives, and this in turn led him to a catastrophic electoral strategy which would result in the one time front runner for the Republican nomination not netting a single delegate before dropping out of the race.

Though leading in the national polls, Giuliani suffered from an inability to gain traction among most of the early states.  The only state in which Giuliani would have a prayer of performing well was Florida.  There was some merit to focusing on Florida as it had the highest delegate yield prior to Super Tuesday and could put Giuliani back into the game, but it was also one of the later pre-Super Tuesday primaries meaning that any one of his opponents could build up a head of steam and crush Giuliani with momentum.  In truth this is essentially what would come to pass.

Because Giuliani had no early state strategy, this also ended up leaving a vacuum for someone to come along and sneak early wins to take the nomination which was exactly what Mitt Romney planned to do.

Knowing what we know now, one could easily make the case that had Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination, he could have performed better than John McCain, potentially even won.  The reason why is because I believe Romney would have responded far better than John McCain during the economic crisis given his strengths on the economy and his history in business.

Indeed, it was this fiscal acumen that had earned Romney the support of the conservative intelligentsia.  Here was a guy who seemed to be at least a little bit of an aberration from the current Republican politician mode; a guy who was intelligent and didn’t necessarily try to hide his smarts.  But just as Giuliani had no credibility outside of the neoconservative sphere, Romney had a severe problem with the socially conservative sphere of the Republican party.

Romney, who never led Giuliani nationally, did have a relatively smart plan to win the nomination.  Build momentum in the early states, and ride that tide to the nomination.  It could have worked with one problem; the further south one traveled, the worst Romney performed because he was a Mormon.

As I’ve said before, Mormons are the red headed step children of the Religious Right.  They are among the most dependable voters on socially conservative issues, however they get little to no credit from other sects of Christianity, and this was on full display during the Republican primaries.  Especially in Iowa.

Iowa was central to Romney’s plan.  If he could win the Iowa caucuses, he could build up steam, potentially win New Hampshire, win Michigan, win Nevada, and establish himself as the new front runner for the Republican nomination.  But Iowa Republicans have a social conservatism streak a mile wide and didn’t trust the Mormon.  Instead they went to minister and governor Mike Huckabee, propelling a former lower tier candidate up to the lead pack with surprising quickness.

Few saw this coming, but it became quickly apparent that the Huckster was the Religious Right’s guy.  Yet Huckabee had a problem very similar to that of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney; he had great credibility within his own sphere of the Republican coalition, but everyone else in the party had very little faith in him.

To be fair, I liked, and still do like Huckabee.  I would never want to see him in government, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t fond of the guy.  On top of being socially conservative, Huck is a truly charismatic person, a genuine nice guy leading to one of my favorite one liners of this presidential election, “I’m conservative, I’m just not mad about it.”

But while Huckabee had the ability to charm many, the intellectual elite saw him as a poison pill for the party, a symbolic take over orchestrated by the Religious Right that had gotten greedy.  Republicans were in need of a candidate, one that could unify the three parts of its winning coalition, one that could make a solid case that he was a true conservative through and through, and still show the kind of crossover appeal that was needed to win a general election.

Enter the savior of the Republican party; former senator and Law & Order star, Fred Thompson.  Or maybe not enter.  Okay, enter now, wait, wait, no not yet!  Alright NOW enter Fred Thompson.

For all the excitement that began to brew about Fred Thompson throwing his hat in the ring, the slow speaking giant of a man seemed almost determined to botch a candidacy the party was willing to hand him with deep and sincere gratitude.  The first mistake was that he waited too long.

Waiting is not always such a bad thing, and initially holding off was looking to be a good idea.  Anticipation was building, and Thompson had the benefit of watching his poll numbers go up while not actually having to debate his opponents.  But anticipation eventually evaporated into apathy as people got tired of speculating as to when Thompson would enter the race, if ever.

When he did eventually announce his candidacy, the announcement would prove to be as anti-climatic as the rest of his short lived campaign.  Sitting across from Jay Leno, Thompson practically mumbled, “I’m running for president of the United States.”  This would spark a series of sleep inducing debate performances, awkward campaign events where he had to actually ask for applause, and one of the least energetic schedules of anyone in the race.

The savior of the Republican party turned out to be one giant dud.

Which brings us full circle to John McCain.  Since his campaign imploded earlier in 2007, he had streamlined the whole thing, purged staff to a skeleton crew, and ramped up his campaigning efforts.  At around the same time Fred Thompson was getting tagged for such a light schedule, McCain’s schedule was so heavy it would have worn down a politician thirty years his junior.

But the lean, mean, fighting machine that the Straight Talk Express had become may have looked pathetic in the eyes of many pundits, but it would turn out to be in fighting form and just in time too.  McCain’s resurgence was coming just as the former giants of the Republican field began to undergo total catastrophic collapse themselves.  Giuliani was done in by his own idiocy, Romney was taken down by the Religious Right, and Thompson was done in by lethargy.  By the time Super Tuesday had come and gone, the Republican primary was now a lopsided contest between John McCain and Mike Huckabee.  Thanks in large part to the fact that in Republican primaries states assign all of their delegates to the winner of the state (as opposed to proportional distribution the Democrats use), Mike Huckabee also soon fell by the wayside.

In the end, McCain’s winning of the Republican nomination was due to the fact that he was the domino that didn’t fall.  From the very beginning it seems as though the rest of the competition was destined to fail like dominos stood on end in a pattern.  Once the first domino was knocked over and everything was set in motion, each candidate fell in accordance to their position and their own fatal flaws.  That McCain did not lose meant that he ultimately won.

There was another part to it as well; McCain was a maverick, and in an election year that seemed more and more likely to go the Democrats’ way, McCain’s crossover appeal could wind up being a great asset.

But after a years’ worth of campaigning, the newly annointed Republican nominee was now facing a question as a candidate that his party faced as a whole a year earlier.  McCain’s crossover appeal may give him a leg up among independents and disaffected Democrats, but his Maverick appeal did not extend to his own base.

The enthusiasm McCain received from his own party was disturbingly low, and what he was seeing in the Democratic primary that continued long after he locked up his spot on the November ballot held ill omens as well.  Sure, there was much for Republicans to cheer at; there was definitely a chance the Democratic party would be fractured come November 4th, but at the same time the battle between Clinton and Obama was drawing record numbers of voters to the polls, and they were stuffing record numbers of dollars into their coffers.  If his eventual Democratic opponent could unify the base once the battle was done, that candidate would be an imposing force indeed.

Thus, with McCain set to accept the nomination officially in September, the presumptive nominee had a question to answer.  Push to the middle and try and scoop up the independents while the Democrats bloodied each other up, or push to the right in an attempt to mobilize the base enough to be able to stand toe to toe with his soon to be decided opponent?

In the end, the choice McCain made would have a lasting impact on the race, and play no small part in deciding the 44th President of the United States.

Next: Part II: The Inevitable Fall of Inevitability

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