Will the GOP Make a Statement?

At this month's presidential debate in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the Republican presidential hopefuls struggled like 10 puppies trying to climb out of a box to prove who among them is the next Reagan. In future debates, or when they are campaigning individually, expect to hear each of the GOP candidates continue to assert that he is the one, true heir.

Of course, none are. With the exception of Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, and possibly former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, the seven second-tier candidates are generally more conservative if not more reactionary than Reagan. The deeper problem for the Republicans, as everyone on stage and viewing audiences well know, is that the troika of major candidates -- former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Senator John McCain, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney -- are perceived, fairly or not, as too liberal to stake any legitimate claim to the Gipper's legacy.

So allow me to dispatch with all the "it's way too early" disclaimers and offer a bold prediction about the 2008 presidential contest: Rank-and-file Republicans are going to throw the fight. Rather than make electability their primary criterion for selecting their nominee, GOP primary voters will opt to send a protest message to the party's establishment and Beltway insiders by nominating a statement candidate who is none of the Big Three.

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Right now, of course, the odds of this happening seem long. Each of the three big-name Republicans is a formidable politician in his own way. McCain is personable and articulate, and his compelling personal story is ageless no matter how old he is. Romney has a celebrity's look, has thus far raised the necessary cash, and has proven he can win in a blue state. And, as Michael Tomasky recently reminded us in the Prospect, Rudy Giuliani is a politician only a fool dares to underestimate.

Among these, Giuliani may turn out to be the party's best, if grudging hope. "After considerable thought I have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, the Republican Party primary voters will nominate Rudy Giuliani," Bill Lauderback, vice president of the American Conservative Union, told me. "Giuliani will in turn pick former Senator Fred Thompson as his running mate. Conservatives, both economic and social, will be excited about this ticket. The neo-cons will be taking a back seat." Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, seems to think one of the Big Three will be the nominee, and that their "Reaganism" will be decisive. "Whichever of the three … wins the nomination will have done so by arguing with the greatest credibility that they are the most Reaganite candidate [and the] most capable of leading the broader coalition -- including congressional candidates," Norquist wrote to me by email.

Yet, one need not be a conservative purist to imagine a script in which any of the Big Three becomes the party's standard-bearer, comes close to snatching the brass ring next year but, ultimately, stalls out at 49 percent. That threshold was good enough to re-elect Bill Clinton, and then squeeze George W. Bush into the friendly confines of the Supreme Court. But 49 percent can only put a Republican in the Oval Office if Democrats somehow stumble into another Ralph Nader problem. At this date, that scenario seems highly unlikely. Indeed, with aspirants like anti-immigrant Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo and Paul, the former Libertarian, lurking around, the Republicans are more likely than Democrats to have a splinter candidate problem next year.

Now consider the choice facing reality-based members of the conservative movement who reach the conclusion that 2008 is destined to be a close-but-not-enough moment (something, incidentally, the party has not experienced since 1976). As evident by the palpable anger at this winter's Conservative Political Action Committee conference, conservative primary voters may prefer to swallow a bigger defeat with a more authentically-conservative, second-tier, potentially lamb-to-the-slaughter candidate than see any of the Big Three candidates at the top of the ballot. "There is some disillusionment, some demoralization and a hope that other conservatives jump in the ring," bemoaned Steve Baldwin, head of the conservative Council for National Policy, the week of the CPAC convention. "I don't find a sense of excitement about the candidates at all."

Meanwhile, Political Media president Larry Ward confirms that a conservative group privately hired his consulting firm to develop a campaign to undermine the three frontrunners. Ward's team came up with the brilliant idea of "Rudy McRomney," a three-headed cartoon rhinosceros -- as in RINO, or "Republican in Name Only." (Ward, a Dick Morris protégé, assures me that his client is not one of the other presidential contenders.) If we're going to lose anyway, conservatives may ask themselves, why not stand on principle by putting forth a nominee who may lose big, but whose loss is meaningful and portentous?

Such a development ought not be all that surprising. Though Republicans normally apply cold, hard electoral calculus to picking their nominees, these are not normal times for a party grappling with identity and issue problems. And, whatever else might be said about the corporate and evangelical elements within the modern Republican Party, both sects have demonstrated a certain appetite for the concept of creative destruction. The party that believes war is peace may just come around to the idea that defeat is victory. To fix something, sometimes you first have to destroy it.

There is an obvious precursor moment. In 1992, with a Republican in the White House seeking re-election, the conservative wing of the party didn't have sufficient clout to nominate a statement candidate. So they did the next best thing: They re-nominated George H.W. Bush and then destroyed him. Within just eight years, the party responded with a newer, different model that, quite literally, was just one generation removed from its heretical parent. Though conservatives are now trying to rescue their movement from Bush 43's failed presidency by suggesting (falsely) that the son is, like the father, not a conservative, that's pure fiction. The truth is that the ideological leap from the first to the second Bush in a span of just eight years would make world-record holder Michael Powell blush.

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The 2008 nomination is the first, key test of the long-term consequences of this leap. Will it turn out to have been an off-course trip for the Republican Party, during which Gerald Ford-era politicians allowed James Dobson to steer the vessel toward conservatism's darkest waters and toward the possibility of minority status for the near term? Or was the Bush 43 era some strange, temporary deviation from the strong-management, secularized, and more socially moderate path that the second term of Ronald Reagan and Bush 41's lone term not long ago signaled?

The 2006 midterms may have already mooted the question. If the Democrats' conversion of northeastern and midwestern Republicans last fall is any indication, there may not be sufficient numbers of moderates left to elect a "Rudy McRomney" Republican, no less nominate one. Maybe former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson has enough conservative legitimacy to combine with his telegenic charms to push the revolving door of political celebritydom one more time and restore some law and order to the Republican primary. But Thompson is, at best, another Reagan-lite.

And so, the business-minded wing of the Republican Party may align with disgruntled, post-Mark Foley and anti-immigration social conservatives and take their chances by forfeiting the 2008 presidential election in favor of a four-year hiatus to rethink their message and regroup their masses. That leaves the question of which candidate to nominate. And that, obviously, depends on what sort of statement the party hopes to make.

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