At a recent regular function where an eclectic group of doctors, lawyers and former and current chiefs meets periodically over dinner to discuss issues of the day, I asked one of the early icons of conservatism whom he liked for the Republican presidential nomination.
How about Fred (former Sen. Thompson)?” I said, nudging a prominent moderate standing next to me. “It looks to me like he fits your profile about as well as anyone.”
“Lord, no!” he exclaimed. “He’s a Washington insider and I don’t trust him any more than I would any K Street manipulator.”
“Well, how about (former New York Mayor Rudolph) Giuliani?” I asked. “He seems pretty conservative on most of the issues.”
He looked at me, shook his head, and turned away in disgust, moving on to talk to another knot of people enjoying a pre-dinner libation before sitting down and having at each other as well as the food.
“Well, there’s your answer,” the moderate said. “They (the conservative wing of the Republican Party) don’t want anyone who can’t pass their litmus test on health care or abortion or what have you. Those who are acceptable can’t win the nomination or the general election. It’s a major problem for the GOP. It’s almost like they’re willing to stay home next year and concede the White House to Hillary Clinton rather than vote for one of their party’s own who they don’t see as reliable on the social issues.”
What my friend was stating clearly is a dilemma that, unless somehow resolved, could undo the Republicans for years.
With the continuing decline of President Bush’s popularity over the mounting tensions between the United States and much of the Mideast — Iraq and Afghanistan, the saber-rattling over Iran and the turmoil in Pakistan — a GOP bid next November to win back Congress and keep the White House seems among the longest shots in modern political history. If there are defections by a sizable number of conservatives, including the evangelicals who are playing an increasingly important role in party affairs, the result could be a Democratic landslide.
Already some pundits and political experts are predicting that the Democrats’ slim margin in the Senate could increase enough to make the 60-vote bar to passage of controversial legislation irrelevant. The early predictions see a possible 58 Democrats and 42 Republicans. The House, they believe, also would have proportionately more Democrats, at least for the next two years, giving a Democratic president the most legislative strength since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 tidal wave.
But the general election is a long way off, and the one potential flaw in the predictions may be that it counts on the Democrats not to commit the fratricide that has derailed them in the past. Already, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is running second for the nomination in most polls, has decided to become more confrontational with the front-runner, Sen. Clinton of New York. His advisers, alarmed at her growing lead and treasury, see this approach as necessary if he is to stop her from storming to the nomination. Among his allegations will be the old theme that she cannot be elected because of high negatives among independents.
The liberal wing of the Democratic Party also has been highly critical of its congressional leaders’ inability to force on the White House a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada have come under fire despite the fact they simply don’t have the votes to override a veto. If history is any indication, there always is a possibility that the internecine carping can turn into real warfare — at great cost to the party.
Another problem with the early prognosis is simply that the odds are good that those conservatives who don’t like any of the four top Republicans now — Giuliani, Thompson, Sen. John McCain of Arizona or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — will change their minds when confronted by the probability of a huge Democratic sweep. Not actively working on their behalf or staying away from the polls on Election Day would be like performing surgery on one’s own nose to make a point. Hopes of adopting any of their social agenda would be set back for a long time.
At this moment, however, it appears that the disgruntled among those on the right in the GOP would rather be ideologically correct than win. With the first nominating votes less than three months off, we’ll have a better idea soon. But with about a year to go until the real election, the outcome could and probably will change markedly.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)