I remember the heady days in early 2005 when it appeared that Republicans had a limitless future and the Democrats were the party of burnt toast and rancid eggs. It appeared that there was no way that the recently defeated Democrats would be able to pull their party together in time to challenge for the 2006 mid terms. And while everyone knew Hillary Clinton was preparing for a presidential run, most viewed that prospect with a certain relish, convinced that Mrs. Clinton’s high negatives would make taking her on a relatively simple task. (Most still prefer Hillary today but don’t see the job of beating her quite as easy.)
But if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to political success can often be boobytrapped with the sins of arrogance and overconfidence. If any of us had bothered to think about it seriously in the first months of 2005, we would have discovered precious few truly conservative candidates available to run for president – and none who stood out as real Commander in Chief material. As it turned out, several potential candidates met ignomious ends during the Mid Term Massacre of 2006 while others, like Newt Gingrich, showed little interest in running.
Now, with the continuation of the candidacy of Fred Thompson in question, the brutal truth is hitting home; the GOP standard bearer could very well be John McCain; a candidate with impeccable national security credentials but little else to offer conservatives save a promise that he will be better than his record indicates. The prospect of a McCain candidacy has set off flurry of pledge takers – as in, conservatives taking a pledge to stay home on election day if McCain is the nominee.
Stephen Bainbridge is one of them:
But itâ€™s not just Bush. The deeply corrupt K Street gang discredited the GOP Congressional leadership, who proved to be concerned solely with clinging to power for powerâ€™s own sake.
God made the people of Israel wander in the desert 40 years so as to remake the Israelis Israelites into a people fit for the tasks ahead. The GOP seriously needs a time out so that it can rethink its role in American democracy. There are a lot of legitimate questions facing the GOP. Do you adhere to the limited government principles of Reagan and Thatcher or do you follow the lead of UK Tory leader David Cameron? As the Economist recently opined, â€œit seems likely that the Republican Party, as a number of its members are already urging, will have to embrace environmentalism and cuddly economics as the Tories were forced to.â€
Fred Thompson was a more than acceptable Reaganesque conservative who offered the GOP a chance to delay having to face those tough choices. Indeed, to borrow a football metaphor, a Thompson presidency offered the GOP a chance to reload rather than going through the painful process of rebuilding. The other 4 are all so deeply and irredeemably flawed that their presidency likely would be doomed to failure from the outset.
I’m not quite as pessimistic as Stephen for the simple reason I know of too many presidents who were horribly underestimated by their contemporaries who ended up doing very well. Linconln was one. Reagan another. The office itself will have its way with the occupant and the forces of history will shape and be shaped by anyone who sits in The Big Chair. Who is to say how any of those men will perform?
But Bainbridge is correct otherwise. The GOP is a broken party. If the next nominee could win through to victory, they would have the opportunity to place their imprint on the party for years to come. And the chances of a McCain or Romney getting that opportunity chills the bones of conservatives from all factions of the movement.
But I have argued in the past (and despite some moments of weakness) will argue again in the future that voting is a civic responsibility and that if you are mad at Republicans, there are other, more legitimate ways to show your displeasure than sitting home. Voting for the Democratic alternative is an option for some. Voting for a third candidate is another way to protest against the direction the party is taking.
But frankly, I will hold harmless any conservative who wishes to stay at home on election day if John McCain is the nominee. For myself, I don’t know what I will do as far as voting but I know that he will receive no favors from me on this blog. The same would probably be true for Romney as well. My heart just wouldn’t be in promoting the candidacy of a man as changeable as the former center-left governor of Massachussets.
James Joyner has it about right:
Alternatively, I suppose, one could argue that the intellectual base of the party is fine. Rather, its politicians are abandoning principle for expediency in pandering to an electorate that constantly demands more government subsidies. Traditionally, conservative Republicans embraced tax cuts and small government. Now, the movementâ€™s elected leaders, with very few exceptions, embrace tax cuts and big government.
Hagiography aside, that trend started with Ronald Reagan. He wanted tax cuts, huge increases in defense spending, and big cuts in domestic spending. He settled for the first two, however, along with massive public debt. It proved to be a very popular platform. Aside from the Ross Perot boomlet in 1992, fiscal responsibility turned out not to be a very salient electoral strategy.
Joyner highlights the biggest challenge of all; how to play an effective scrooge when Santa Claus is so wildly popular. By abandoning fiscal responsibility as a tenet of conservative governance, we have made other conservative values like personal responsibility and self-discipline irrelevant. The American people demand services from government whether it is government’s business to dispense that service or not. What’s more, they still want their children and grandchildren to pay for it judging by how unpopular raising taxes has become.
Conservatives have no credibility in seeking to deny or restrain the people’s appetitite for these benefits simply because our so-called conservative leaders are as eager to play Santa as the liberals. Hence, the disconnect between conservatives and mainstream America is complete. We simply are not believed when conservative candidates talk about small government or individual responsibility. Conservaties in government don’t practice those values. Why should anyone else?
Did Fred Thompson have a chance to turn this around? Joyner points out Thompson’s voting record being not that much different from McCain’s. This may be true but at the same time, I truly believe that Thompson had thought long and hard about changing this relationship between the government and the governed and hit upon a new kind of federalism to bring some balance back to the equation. Whether he could have pushed it through Congress is open to question. But he was basing his candidacy on the principles of Reaganism and federalism – a powerful combination that could have prevailed if the courage to enact it could have been found.
Whether conservatives hold their nose and vote for him or stay at home it will hardly matter in the long run. McCain will not govern as a conservative and will almost surely freeze conservatives out of major policy positions. If this is what Rush Limbaugh and others mean by destroying the party by making it simply a poor echo of the Democrats then count me out. I hardly see a difference between the damage that would be done by a McCain or Obama/Hillary.
Few choices. Fewer options.