Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas strongly hinted yesterday that he would run for president in 2008, saying the Republican field was open for a “full-scale conservative” and that he would make an official announcement soon. ~The Washington Times
Now in the past year Ross held up Brownback as a sort of “theocon” poster boy, and he certainly has the credentials to beat Romney among social conservatives (even if Romney weren’t a Mormon). In many ways, he is the Midwest’s Santorum as a religious and social conservative, but lacks the Pennsylavnian’s ranting about Venezuelan invasions of the Andean highlands. Unlike Santorum, his odd obsessions in foreign policy run toward the internationalist do-gooder side and less towards the apocalyptic, “gathering storm” interventionist side. Brownback is the religious conservative social reformer who has taken an interest in foreign and domestic problems that typically leave many conservatives cold or uninterested (AIDS in Africa, prison reform, etc.). His preoccupation with Darfur is representative.
Therein lies the biggest (but not the only) problem I have with Brownback. Brownback’s Darfur focus puzzles and concerns me. In the last three years, Brownback has figured prominently in news about U.S. responses to the conflict in Darfur, but where has he been on Iraq one way or the other? Someone who believes that a high foreign policy priority for the United States is to stop a civil war in the Sudan, while the problems of Iraq are put on the back burner, is frankly not someone I would want in the White House. If he runs for President, Brownback’s calls for action on Darfur will provide a substantive example of a religious conservative whose religion is to some significant degree guiding his foreign policy proposals. The complaints from the left about this might be less shrill than dark murmurings about evangelical foreign policy gone wild that we have endured in the past several years, since Darfur is a pet project for some on the left, but it would still be a liability.
Brownback’s work on Darfur will make him seem like a lot less of a “full-scale” conservative and more of a Wilsonian (which is how I think of him). This Wilsonian image ties him to the public image of Bush, and this will damage him among conservatives who have had quite enough of crusading for freedom and democracy “and all that good stuff” (as Col. Tigh might say). The Bush associations don’t stop there. Already he is talking up the “compassionate conservative” label, after we had all thought it had been left dead and buried in the wreckage of New Orleans, and I guarantee you that this unfortunate phrase will not fool anyone again and will instead lose him support. My guess is that your hard-core Republican primary voters have heard enough about compassion and ”hopeful” ideologies and a desire to make the world a better place. What they are looking for will be two things: competent leadership and a record of pragmatic experience in actually running an executive department. (Hey, Tommy Thompson is looking better all the time!)
Here are the basic problems: Brownback has attached himself to a governing philosophy, if we want to dignify it with that name, associated strongly with Mr. Bush, who is not terribly popular. He generally seems to be playing the role Mr. Bush claimed to play post-South Carolina in 2000, positioning himself to the right of the likely “moderate” front-runners. Brownback’s message at present is that of the early Bush of “Congress is balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” (that’s the “compassionate” part) combined with the later anti-McCain, “I’m the real conservative in this race” Bush (that’s the “conservative” part). The content of Brownback’s proposals may not be as bad as this suggests, but the symbolism of taking up the fallen standard of Bush’s failed political program is poisonous to his candidacy.
All of that having been said, Brownback has actually said some intriguing things about other areas of foreign policy that deserve brief mention. The willingness to open ties with Syria and Iran is wise and necessary, and if there were more of this common sense in the man’s foreign policy proposals and less of the idealist Save Darfur rhetoric he might become a credible alternative to the disastrous foreign policy ideas circulating in the upper echelons of the GOP. But I will tell you right now that someone who calls for diplomatic ties with Syria and Iran is politically a dead man in the primaries. This is a shame, since Brownback appears to be the only likely candidate so far who has broached this topic publicly. In so doing, he has put himself against not only hard-core GOP voters but also against the main organs of GOP opinion. He will find himself on the receiving end of a lot of harsh criticism from the think tanks, the WSJ, NR, the Spectator and anywhere else where bad historical analogies and rhetoric about Islamofascists appear. I can already hear Victor Davis Hanson screeching: “If Sam Brownback were around in WWII, would he propose that we open diplomatic ties with imperialist Japan and Fascist Italy? Well, would he?! 1938! 1938!”
What applies to Obama, Clinton and McCain also applies to Brownback: Senators do not generally win general elections for President. It hasn’t happened the previous four times someone from the Senate captured the nomination of a major party (1964, 1972, 1996, 2004), and in each case the nominee from the Senate was running against an incumbent party or president. Senators win nominations when everyone else in the party assumes that the election is probably a lost cause and not worth pursuing–and they’re usually right. The only sitting Senators to win the Presidency in the twentieth century were Warren Harding and JFK, and Harding’s victory was almost predetermined by the deep loathing of Wilson’s Democrats following WWI. Some Democratic Senator this time around might pull off a Harding-like victory in the wake of a disastrous two-term Bush Administration, but it remains extremely unlikely.
More than that, Senators don’t often get the nomination. Except for 1960 and those four modern examples, in every open year on either side sitting Senators have either not run or failed to win the nomination in every election besides 1888 and 1920. From 1892 until 2004, sitting Senators received the nomination only 20% (6/30) of the time. Except for the elections of 1960 & 1964, there have not been consecutive elections in which a major party nominated a sitting Senator. If it were to happen in 2004 & 2008, it would be only the second time in American history. (1884 & 1888 both saw candidates who had served in the Senate, but Blaine was not a sitting Senator when he ran.) All trends indicate that sitting Senators becoming nominees for either party in two years is extremely unlikely. (Speaking of past nominees and Brownback, how did the last GOP nominee from Kansas do? That’s right. It was ugly.)
1888 and 1920 are the only examples besides 1960 of Senators who came directly from the Senate to win the nomination of his party and win the general election: Benjamin Harrison and Warren Harding. Before Harrison and Harding, former Senators had done a little better in getting nominations: Pierce and Buchanan had served in the Senate and later became President, but they did not come to the White House directly from the Senate. Still earlier, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Hugh Lawson White were Senators who made failed bids on Whig tickets in the elections of the 1830s. Senators simply don’t become nominees for the Presidency very often, and usually even when they get to the general election they lose.
1988 on the Democratic side was simply lousy with Senators, and none of them got anywhere. To their everlasting embarrassment, they chose Dukakis, but consider what that means (besides being an indictment of the bad judgement of primary voters). Given the option to choose from a selection of Senators (admittedly very dreary characters: Gore, Biden, Hart, Simon), Democrats instead chose Dukakis. Reckless prediction: John McCain will be the Gary Hart of 2007-2008. 1992 on the Democratic side was likewise Senator-rich (Harkin, Kerrey, McCarthy, Tsongas), and we all know how that turned out.
It is worth noting, given that both parties seem to have excesses of ambitious Senators in their ranks for this coming cycle, that it has never happened that two Senators have faced each other in the general election. Anything is possible, and the alternatives are few and are almost impossible to take seriously (Vilsack! Richardson! Thompson! Huckabee!), but the chances of a McCain vs. Clinton throwdown or a Brownback vs. Obama fight, or any combination for a Senator-against-Senator election, are so poor that it is a wonder that anyone gives their candidacies serious consideration.