Come 2008, who will succeed George W. Bush at the helm of a troubled Republican Party? Though the next presidential race is far off, the question is already on conservatives’ minds.
The last few months haven’t been kind to Republican operatives who assumed President Bush’s slide in popularity would be temporary. Instead, his approval ratings have settled below 40 percent, averaging 38 percent over the last four Gallup polls, and the president appears determined to drag the rest of his party down with him. Bush remains committed to an increasingly unpopular stay-the-course position on Iraq and is actively pushing amnesty for illegal immigrants in defiance of the GOP base.
So far the grassroots have been generally reluctant to defy Bush in return. But public discontent with the White House’s immigration and foreign-policy initiatives could create as many opportunities for traditional conservatives as Democrats, something Bush Republicans are beginning to sense. The president has begun sprinkling his speeches with denunciations of “isolationism.” Fred Barnes declared, in the pages of The Weekly Standard no less, “It’s a paleo moment in America.”
If so, it’s a moment the leading contenders for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination seem content to let pass. The field is dominated by candidates who support the Bush line on immigration and Iraq or are inclined to go even further. In a March Fox News/ Opinion Dynamics poll, the top three Republican hopefuls were former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at 29 percent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at 22 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drawing 8 percent. Not a paleoconservative among them.
The sole Iraq skeptic, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), is at the bottom of the pack with just 1 percent. The Fox poll is no outlier. Giuliani and McCain lead in most surveys—in November, Rasmussen Reports had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joining them in the top tier—while mavericks like Hagel languish in the low single digits.
Rice isn’t sounding like someone who plans to be a candidate in 2008, and Gingrich is running on the fumes of 1994 nostalgia. Giuliani and McCain are the beneficiaries of near-universal name recognition and fawning press coverage. But few of the dark horses offer paleos—or the growing majority of Americans who disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq and immigration—much reason for optimism. Unless something changes dramatically over the next year and a half, rather than taking the opportunity to repudiate the current president’s mistakes, Republicans are poised to nominate someone who favors repeating them.
If something does change, it will likely be due to one of two potential candidates. While foreign-policy realists dream of Hagel breaking out of his asterisk status, many immigration realists pin their hopes on Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). Tancredo has graduated from House backbencher to the leader of an effective congressional immigration-reform faction. In December, he and his allies fashioned a tough enforcement-only border-security bill that passed the House. Tancredo has been touring the country as the Senate prepares to undo his handiwork.
Tancredo is realistic about his presidential chances. He tells reporters that he would prefer to see a first-tier candidate take up the immigration issue—“someone taller and with better hair”—but is considering a run if no one obliges. “Soon we may see some of the princes in waiting jockeying to become the Tancredo of the Senate,” predicts Will Adams, the congressman’s spokesman.
A Senate version of Tancredo would be a welcome addition to the field, given how inhospitable many leading Republicans have been to the real one. He was excluded from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC), with organizers citing schedule and ballot space constraints and Tancredo’s office calling it “a clear snub from the leadership.” “Congressman Tancredo may have been kept off the stage,” says Adams. “But the immigration issue wasn’t off the stage.”
Hagel has also gotten a poor reception from Republican regulars. He garnered just 0.2 percent of the vote at the SRLC straw poll and is unpopular with conservative activists. Despite a solid lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 85 percent, he has been tagged with the GOP Right’s favorite epithet—RINO, or Republican in name only.
“If the choice were Hillary v. Hagel, I would be tempted to vote for Hillary, even apart from my ideologue’s desire to punish a bad Republican,” wrote National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser on the magazine’s website. “This is a bogus choice, since Michael Jackson has as much chance of being the GOP nominee as Hagel.”
Conservative distaste for Hagel appears to have two causes. The first is that the Nebraska senator established himself as a reliable Bush critic before he developed a reputation as a Beltway conservative in his own right. James Dobson has accused Hagel of being coy about a constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage. Supply-siders fault him for telling the Washington Post Style section that in a presidential debate he “couldn’t take that pledge” not to raise taxes. Without strong conservative credentials of his own, observers see his differences with Bush as a liability among Republican primary voters.
Hagel’s second problem is that he is perceived as being too close to McCain. While the two senators are far apart on foreign policy—Hagel is known for prudent internationalism while McCain outdoes Bush in go-it-alone interventionism—the Nebraskan was one of the few senators to endorse McCain in 2000. Lumped together with his Vietnam service and disputes with Bush, the McCain clone label has stuck. George Neumayr, in a cover story for The American Spectator, mocked him as “Chuck McHagel,” others prefer to taunt him as “the poor man’s McCain.”
Republican consultant Patrick Hynes, an expert on evangelical voting patterns, sees several reasons the 2008 field will probably remain a paleo-free zone. “Paleoconservatives are not organized politically and there are no political consequences for defying them,” he says. “They are absolutely right that their views on foreign policy have a long conservative pedigree, but most voters don’t really care who is the purest in their political tradition.”
It is true that adherents of the older strains of conservatism amount to more of an intellectual movement than an electoral one. David Brooks memorably wrote that Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential bid—perhaps the most successful paleo political venture to date—was “as close to an intellectual’s campaign as we have seen in modern politics.” There is no real paleo presence among the party’s state chairmen and Rolodex-wielding fundraisers. But an ambitious conservative needn’t channel Russell Kirk to realize there is an incentive to move away from unpopular positions on salient issues. According to a Hotline poll, Iraq is the top reason Republicans disapprove of the president.
But the Rolodex men aren’t just weeding out dissenters on the war and immigration policy. This field is strikingly weak even on basic conservative staple issues. For the past 25 years, it would have been difficult for a candidate who was outspokenly pro-choice or in favor of gay rights to mount a serious bid for the Republican nomination; Giuliani is both. McCain’s record on social issues is more consistent with GOP norms, but he is distrusted by the Christian Right and despised by economic conservatives. His unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign was widely seen as an attempt to relieve both factions of their control over the party.
This will provide some interesting insights into conservative priorities—whether they prefer war and guest workers or traditional values and small government. Some of the Right’s opinion-makers have already reconciled themselves to the front-runners’ moderation. In 2004, David Frum penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, the title of which pronounced Giuliani “pro-choice, but still the best choice.” The Weekly Standard promoted McCain when he took a more adversarial line against the GOP establishment; his saber-rattling on Iran and talk of committing still more troops to Iraq may make him William Kristol’s favorite a second time around.
Conservative outlets that are more interested in domestic policy have already started casting about for alternatives. The two favorites have been Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The smooth-talking, telegenic Romney has appeared on the covers of National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The American Spectator (the last with the headline “Romney Rocks!”). The football-throwing, NASCAR-loving Allen has graced the covers of NR and Newsmax.
Both men are odd choices for conservative adulation. Until he began seriously entertaining presidential ambitions, Romney was a Northeastern moderate Republican. As recently as his 2002 campaign for governor, he pledged to “protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the commonwealth.” “He has had as many positions on abortion as John Kerry has on Iraq,” says Hynes.
Allen is a more conventional red-state Republican, but despite his 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee, as governor of Virginia he was pro-choice in the first trimester and opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Factor in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is also tepid on social issues, and all the stronger cultural conservatives linger at the back of the pack alongside war critics and immigration reformers.
Hynes warns, “Republicans may be in real trouble with values voters.” Traditional conservatives are also in real trouble if, after eight years of Bush, the best the GOP can do is even worse.