Litmus tests must go. That is the rallying cry of those who believe Republicans should drop their insistence that the party’s 2008 presidential candidate toe the line on taxes, abortion, guns, or immigration. Wartime, the argument goes, is no time for conservatives to demand ideological purity. Or, as Noemie Emery put it in an emblematic essay for The Weekly Standard, “in a time of national peril, the test is a luxury [conservatives] cannot afford.”
Judging from presidential preference polls, many Republicans appear to be listening. The current 2008 frontrunner, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is pro-choice and supports civil unions for gays, gun control, and a fairly permissive immigration policy. Until recently, he favored taxpayer funding of abortion and opposed the partial-birth abortion ban. In second place is Sen. John McCain, who voted against the Bush tax cuts, sponsored amnesty for illegal immigrants, championed a campaign-finance law that put restrictions on conservative groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the National Right to Life Committee, and believes the federal government should referee professional boxing.
Together, they receive majority support among those who plan to vote in a Republican primary next year. Between the two of them, they make virtually the entire conservative domestic agenda—lower taxes, limited government, gun rights, the pro-life cause, and the defense of traditional marriage—negotiable. Yet on one issue, Giuliani and McCain are both unflinchingly orthodox: the war in Iraq.
In fact, it would be difficult to find a Republican who hews closer to the party line on Iraq than the two frontrunners. McCain is adamant that if U.S. forces were to withdraw, “the consequences would be chaos, genocide, and, sooner or later, we go back.” Or we end up with terrorism on our own soil: “If we come home, bin Laden and [deceased al-Qaeda leader] Zarqawi, they are going to follow us.”
Giuliani agrees. “When you listen to these debates in Congress, and you listen to the politicians debating, you sort of get the impression that they think we’re in control of whether we’re at war or not,” America’s Mayor explained to pundit Sean Hannity. “It doesn’t matter what we think. They’re at war with us. They want to come here and kill us.”
McCain and Giuliani are both convinced that the Iraq War is central to the war on terrorism; that fighting in Baghdad directly prevents more carnage in New York; and that at least some form of democracy promotion in the Middle East is in our national interest. In many respects, they are more fervent believers in the Bush Doctrine than the current president. McCain was clamoring to send additional troops to Iraq back when the White House preferred light footprints to surges.
All of these views fit comfortably within the conservative foreign-policy mainstream. But what about the frontrunners’ heterodox positions on domestic affairs? In 1990, George H.W. Bush irreparably damaged his relationship with the conservative base by backsliding on taxes. And at least his motives were consistent with that of a conventional Republican deficit hawk. McCain’s rationale for opposing the second President Bush’s tax cuts sounded much like Ted Kennedy’s. The Arizona senator said, “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who need tax relief.”
The only other GOP senator to vote against the 2001 Bush tax cuts was Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the chamber’s most liberal Republican. Twelve Democratic senators, on the other hand, broke ranks and supported lower taxes. In 2003, McCain balked at tax reductions for capital gains and dividends—a tax-cut package that was a much bigger catalyst of economic growth than the first one—and forced Vice President Dick Cheney to cast a tie-breaking vote to enact them. Although his opposition to new tax cuts is not the same as voting to raise taxes, he did propose a tax increase as part of a tobacco deal in the late 1990s. Yet instead of being disqualified from the race, McCain remains in the top tier and enjoys the support of supply-siders like National Review Online economics editor Lawrence Kudlow.
Giuliani’s case is even more jarring. Since Ronald Reagan, the conventional wisdom has been that no pro-choice Republican could win the party’s nomination. The only pro-choice GOP nominee in its history was Gerald Ford, who prevailed narrowly at the 1976 convention as an incumbent and ended up endorsing a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade during the general-election campaign. In 1996, California Gov. Pete Wilson and Sen. Arlen Specter—running as unrepentant pro-choicers—dropped out of the race before the first ballots were cast. And this was after Specter embraced the flat tax and Wilson moved sharply to the right on immigration.
Nevertheless, Giuliani now leads in every national poll. A plurality of Republicans seem ready to nominate a man who, as mayor of New York City, issued proclamations celebrating Planned Parenthood Day, donated money to the hard-line pro-choice group NARAL, and spoke glowingly about the “distinguished tradition” begun by Margaret Sanger. In some surveys, he leads his nearest rival by double-digit margins.
Giuliani hasn’t exactly been rebuffed by pro-lifers either, even though he repudiated his own early anti-abortion views during his first political campaign in 1989. His first major Southern endorsement came from Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, a firm abortion opponent from one of the most pro-life states in the country. The socially conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher, who voted against Giuliani for mayor on pro-life grounds, admitted she is “thinking hard about Rudy.”
This new flexibility about staple conservative issues like taxes and abortion is far from unanimous, however. The anti-tax Club for Growth has pilloried McCain’s economic record, and the Arizona senator has been equally hostile to them. James Dobson, a leading religious conservative, has said flatly that he would not vote for either Giuliani or McCain in the general election. A high percentage of Republicans don’t know the full extent of Giuliani’s social liberalism. A Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of the former mayor’s own supporters would have reservations about backing a pro-choice, pro-gay unions candidate.
It is this discomfort that has many Republicans scanning the cast of “Law and Order” to find a more conventionally conservative candidate. So far, the search has been unsuccessful. The yearning for Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich has yet to officially lure them into the race. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has tried to fill the void with rhetoric that doesn’t match his record, encountering skepticism that may account for his low standing in the polls. But many Republicans want their nominee to be more than just a hawk. The New York Times found that nearly six in ten were dissatisfied with the current field.
Get used to it, some conservative pundits say. Emery argued in The Weekly Standard that the social-issues litmus test that swelled the ranks of the Republican Party “has been a very good deal for the people who imposed it, but a very bad one for the country at large.” She claimed that it forces candidates to take positions “that have been rejected by seven in ten Americans”—although many polls show that Giuliani’s recent stance in favor of abortion on demand with taxpayer funding comes closer to this description than opposition to abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in danger —and makes those who would be commander in chief look less “leaderly” because they are “groveling before leaders of interest groups.”
Of course, commentators like Emery wouldn’t really do away with litmus tests—they would just create a new one. Her take is that it all comes down to “The War, Stupid.” Iraq “overwhelms everything as the major issue in the eyes of the base.” While Giuliani is pro-choice, he should be preferable to conservatives because “[t]hey see him as a more ruthless George W. Bush.” Giuliani “would have taken Falluja the first time,” for example, or “would not have been fazed by whining over Abu Ghraib and Club Gitmo, and would have treated critics of the armed forces and of the mission with the same impatience he showed critics of the police in New York.”
Emery later wrote that she “would vote for Joe Lieberman over Sam Brownback, or another Republican who was not strong on the war.” Bear in mind that Brownback—a pro-lifer who supports an activist foreign policy—showed weakness on the war merely by criticizing the surge. He voted against even a nonbinding resolution opposing it.
While few conservatives would go this far, Emery isn’t alone in wanting to make Iraq the single issue. “For a majority of the GOP primary electorate, it is the war, the war, the war,” wrote talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt, allowing parenthetically that judges are important too. “No fight, however, matters as much as the one for our survival,” Andrew McCarthy maintained on National Review Online. “No one will fight that fight better or smarter or more zealously than Rudy Giuliani.”
McCain’s hawkishness has also won him supporters. When the Arizonan came out against the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations and in favor of the troop surge, Lawrence Kudlow penned a syndicated column praising him as “Senator Backbone.” “Two of the most important qualities necessary for a run to the Oval Office are decisiveness and strength of character,” Kudlow wrote. “In recent weeks, John McCain has proven that he has more stock in these traits than most any public official today.”
Consequently, when McCain promises to be a low-tax, pro-growth president in contrast with his recent record of voting against tax cuts, Kudlow the supply-side enthusiast is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt where Club for Growth is not.
The first stirrings of single-issue Iraq politics could be detected in the widespread conservative support for Joseph Lieberman during his Senate race against Ned Lamont in Connecticut last year. The two Democrats took similar positions on most domestic issues but differed sharply over the war. Lamont became a symbol of the netroots-backed antiwar Left, while Lieberman was the country’s pre-eminent liberal hawk. And while Lieberman is indeed a hawk, he is also a liberal.
Lieberman’s American Conservative Union ratings are lower than both Arlen Specter’s and Lincoln Chafee’s, senators conservatives tried to defeat in GOP primaries over the past two election cycles. His Americans for Democratic Action rating was 80. Lieberman voted with the Democrats on economic and social issues over 90 percent of the time.
None of this stopped Weekly Standard editor William Kristol from pining for a 2008 Republican ticket that includes Lieberman for vice president. Richard Brookhiser—who once allowed that he would be tempted to vote for Hillary Clinton over GOP war critic Chuck Hagel—proclaimed Lieberman a flawed man who was nevertheless right on the most important issue of our time, Iraq, just as Andrew Johnson was right in favoring the Union during the Civil War. Cal Thomas, a onetime Moral Majority official, lamented the socially liberal Connecticut senator’s primary defeat at the hands of the “Taliban Democrats.”
The 17 anti-surge House Republicans, however, were left to fend for themselves. Kristol complained “they deserve to be primaried, because they are acting, I think, in a shameful way.” A group called the Victory Caucus plans to do the honors. One potential target: Congressman Ric Keller of Florida, a pro-lifer who won his seat in 2000 with Club for Growth support and has a 95 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. “The Iraq issue transcends partisan politics,” Victory Caucus board member Dean Barnett told The Politico. “Keller may be a rock-ribbed conservative but on the biggest issue of our day, he’s got it wrong.”
Barnett has it exactly backwards. Instead of making Iraq an issue that transcends partisan politics, groups like his help fortify the war as a dividing line between the two parties—a risky position for Republicans when more than 60 percent of the electorate is antiwar. Moreover, while foreign policy drove many intellectuals to the Right, social issues were actually a bigger draw for voters. Can the Iraq War rally the millions who entered politics to fight the Culture War?
Many conservative writers think (or perhaps hope) so. Jonah Goldberg wrote in his syndicated column, “Taken together, terrorism, Iraq, and Islam have become the No. 1 social issue.” Social conservatives will embrace candidates like Giuliani not because “pro-lifers are less pro-life” but because they “really, really believe the war on terror is for real.” Emery argued similarly that the war appeals to “the need to use force when one’s country is threatened; the need to make judgments between good and evil; the need to protect and assert the moral codes of the Judeo-Christian tradition; the need to defend the ideals of the West.”
Some careful observers of evangelical politics agree. U.S. News & World Report senior editor Dan Gilgoff reported that Romney faced harder questions from the National Religious Broadcasters convention about Islamic terrorism than abortion or same-sex marriage. Gilgoff wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “tough-on-terrorism credentials” could lead evangelicals to “deem Giuliani not just the lesser of two evils but a national savior.” The fact that opposition to the Iraq War does not equal giving up on the fight against terrorism—and is often based on the idea that our present strategy has actually increased the dangers of radical Islam—seldom enters into the partisan debate.
At this point, foreign-policy hawks would probably argue that they too have been part of the conservative coalition since the Cold War and have often capably served GOP interests. Most Republicans still share their Iraq opinions, believing our national survival is at stake. Neither social nor economic conservatives have yet been read out of the party. To please them, Giuliani has reversed himself on partial-birth abortion and promised to appoint “originalist” judges; he is taking economic advice from Steve Forbes. McCain already has a mostly conservative record on social issues, despite his poor relations with Jerry Falwell. The senator is also rediscovering his supply-side roots.
So why not let the hawks have their way? It is a question their coalition partners should ponder carefully. The conservative domestic agenda is already stalled under a president who supposedly agrees with most of it. Territory ceded to leaders who don’t may be impossible to reclaim. Moreover, the foreign-policy thinkers who helped the Right win the Cold War were far more diverse and open to debate than those trying to lead the movement today. To say that conservatives can compromise on first principles but cannot disagree about how best to wage the war on terror is to urge the abandonment of the issues that built the Republican majority in favor of the issue that tore it down. Conservatives who surrender on every other fight in exchange for the single-issue hawks’ promises of victory are accepting a fool’s bargain.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.