The 2008 Presidential Election – Part I: The Republican Field

What You Need To Know: A Summary For You Lazy Asses

·         The 2008 Republican field for President hasn’t been anything like I expected.  I thought it would boil down to the maverickish “moderate” John McCain versus a normal, full-spectrum conservative like Sam Brownback.

·         Instead, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, whom I both thought would be marginalized due to their standing as moderates, rose to the top.  Incredibly, Romney is running as an all-of-the-sudden (read: fake) social conservative.  McCain’s standing fell but he’s staged a comeback.

·         Out of nowhere came Fred Thompson (a full-spectrum conservative but much less charismatic than expected) and, to a much greater extent, Mike Huckabee (economic moderate, social conservative, charismatic).

·         This is now a race between

  • Huckabee – economic moderate/liberal, social conservative, with problems on immigration and crime
  • McCain – full-spectrum conservative but with problems on immigration (and to a lesser extent, tax cuts)
  • Giuliani – economic conservative, social liberal
  • Romney – economic conservative, fake social conservative

·         Don’t forget or count out Ron Paul.  He’s an extreme economic conservative, social liberal and opposes the war in Iraq and other foreign military adventures.  Liberals, don’t fall for his siren song on Iraq, as he’s still a fiscal and economic conservative who would dismantle much of the government programs and protections that we’ve fought for.

·         It’s still too early to make any predictions about the race for the nomination and how the nominees will fare in the general.  All four major contenders have about an even shot, but I think Romney will be slightly weaker due to his inconsistency and Huckabee could win over voters with his charisma.


Well, it’s been about two years since I last wrote about the 2008 presidential election in The Politics of 2005 – Part III: Looking Further Ahead and of course much has changed since then.  Since I like to do the worst things first, I’ll start with the Republican field.


I got one thing right – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice isn’t running.  I predicted, based on their current activities, that Samuel D. Brownback, Michael D. Huckabee, Charles T. Hagel, Thomas G. Tancredo, George E. Pataki, W. Mitt Romney, and Newton L. Gingrich would be running for president in 2008.  I got Brownback, Huckabee, Tancredo, and Romney right, but not Hagel, Pataki and Gingrich.  I also identified several “potential” candidates that are talked/hyped about but didn’t show much signs of activity – John S. McCain, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Thomas G. Thompson, George F. Allen, and William H. Frist.  McCain, Giuliani, and Thompson did end up running.  Allen probably would have run but for his defeat in his 2006 reelection race, a development that no one, least of all myself, could have seen coming in late 2005.  I never thought much of a Frist run and it didn’t happen.


So we’ve got Brownback, Huckabee, Tancredo, Romney, McCain, Giuliani, and Thompson.  But there were and are others too, none of which I saw coming; it seems like these people just got up and decided, “Hey, 2008 seems like a good time to run; I’ll go for it!”  The list of where-the-hell-did-you-come-from starts with former Virginia Governor James S. Gilmore III, who not coincidentally was the first candidate to exit the race.  It continues with Reps. Duncan L. Hunter (CA-52) and Ronald E. Paul (TX-14) and ends with former Tennessee Senator Fred D. Thompson.  Though, there is former Ambassador and perennial candidate/clown Alan Keyes.  I totally didn’t see him jumping into the race.


Then, I thought the race would boil down to a maverickish “moderate” (namely, McCain) versus a standard full-spectrum conservative.  There were several possibilities for the leading conservative candidate, but of those that entered the race I thought Brownback would be the best fit, followed by Huckabee.  I thought Giuliani and Romney, not to mention Tancredo and Thompson, would be quickly sidelined as too moderate or (in Tancredo’s case) too crazy.  Boy was I wrong.  Brownback, much to my surprise, never established himself as the conservative presence.  Neither did any of the other “real” conservative candidates – Huckabee (for some time at least) and Gilmore.  Why, I don’t know; maybe there wasn’t enough name recognition initially, and as time went on candidates failed to inspire enough support to gain any traction.  Thompson, Tancredo and Hunter were seen too much as single-issue candidates (health care for Thompson, immigration for Tancredo and Hunter).  Ron Paul was undoubtedly the most reliable conservative on domestic issues, but didn’t have much name recognition and was hampered by un-Republican positions on social issues and, more obviously, the Iraq war and foreign/defense policy in general (though, as I’ll discuss later, these positions inspired a sort of cult following for him later on).  Alan Keyes… well, he’s Alan Keyes.  He runs for things.  That’s what he does.  That’s all he does! (Props to whoever can recognize this reference.)


So it so happened that the three most moderate candidates of the field – Romney, McCain, and Giuliani – shot to the top as the front-tier candidates.  Out of those three, I thought McCain would be the most conservative, since Giuliani and Romney were both social/cultural liberals going back to their time as executives in the Northeast, and thus would do the best.  But lo and behold, Romney did a 180!  He switched positions to a degree that’d make fellow Bay Stater John Kerry look like a stubborn nut.  He went from being a pro-choice, pro-gay rights moderate “I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush” to, well, a full-blown, conservative Reagan Republican.  It was unbelievable.  His switching on positions was just so transparent – sure, he tried to explain it with touching anecdotes about how a visit to some cloning facility somehow led him to miraculously change his opinion on abortion overnight – and I really thought it would backfire.  Yet, for most of the year he remained in the leading position in the early states, in large part due to the large amount of money he dug out of his deep pockets to spend there.  With Giuliani competing for second in New Hampshire and on top in the later states, starting with Florida and ending with most of the big February 5 “Super Duper Tuesday” states, that pretty much shut out McCain, whose standing and money quickly went down, down, down.


The top two candidates competing for the conservative vote were a fiscal/economic conservative but a social/cultural liberal (Giuliani) and a fiscal/economic conservative but a FAKE social/cultural conservative (Romney).  McCain was running out of gas, and though he was more conservative than Romney and Giuliani in most areas he was hurt by his non-conservative position on immigration.  It’s no wonder that conservative Republican voters were longing for a real conservative in the race.  For reasons completely beyond me, they totally ignored any of the second-tier candidates (until much later, as we’ll see) and instead pinned their hopes on the most out-of-nowhere candidate in the last fifty years perhaps – former Tennessee Senator Fred Dalton Thompson.  A year ago I would have never even guessed that he’d get back into politics, let alone run for President four years after he left his one-and-a-half terms as Senator.  Nonetheless, he was seen as the one candidate who had both bona fide conservative credentials and the charisma (supposedly seen in his performances as a TV and film actor) to make it to the White House.  Thompson entered the race and was immediately in the top tier, but his star rapidly faded as the much-anticipated charisma didn’t materialize, and people apparently started to wonder if he got enough sleep at night.


The field settled into a multi-candidate top tier of Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson, with McCain started to crawl back into relevance.  Romney for the most part maintained his lead in the early states, with Thompson on his heels in South Carolina, and Giuliani retained his lead in later, bigger states.  True-religion social conservatives continued to bemoan the lack of a standard-bearer for them – apparently Thompson wasn’t good enough.  Then – like Thompson, almost out of nowhere – up surged Mike Huckabee.  I had thought that he had the potential to get out of the second-tier but I would have never predicted the way he rocketed to the top of the polls in a matter of a few days.  It was almost literally overnight that he surged from single digits in Iowa to just a few points behind Romney, and the day after he was ahead of Romney in Iowa.  His surge also materialized in South Carolina and in national polls.  Politically, he filled the role of the standard-bearer for social conservatives but economically his record indicated that he was moderate-to-liberal, having raised some taxes in Arkansas to pay for health and environmental programs (though he now campaigns as more of an economic conservative, championing a national sales tax).  He was also, unlike Thompson apparently, charismatic and personable, and supposedly his appeal was that he made the face of conservatism less evil and more compassionate, in a kind of echo of the “compassionate conservative” message that another Southern governor ran on in 2000.  But he has his own problems on economics (i.e. tax and spending) and immigration.


Huckabee’s rise pretty much knocked Thompson out of relevance and eclipsed Romney in Iowa.  Romney kept his lead in New Hampshire but a resurgent McCain is now threatening his position there, and Giuliani is poised to probably place third in New Hampshire and go on to do well in Florida and the Super Duper Tuesday states.  That’s pretty much the top-tier right there, and it looks rather unsatisfying, as you have


Huckabee – economic moderate/liberal, social conservative, with problems on immigration and crime

McCain – full-spectrum conservative but with problems on immigration (and to a lesser extent, tax cuts)

Giuliani – economic conservative, social liberal

Romney – economic conservative, fake social conservative


But there’s one candidate I’d be remiss in not discussing, and no it’s not Alan Keyes though he is always a fun one to talk about.  The candidate I’m thinking of is Ron Paul.  The phenomenon that is Ron Paul is a fascinating one to watch because, well, some of his supporters have a devotion to him that is almost cult-like in nature.  Let’s say that there’s definitely a lot of hero worship going on with Ron Paul, and it blows my mind because here’s this seventy-year old, rather obscure Congressman from Texas – what about him makes him a big draw?  One word: Iraq.


It’s interesting to watch a conservative Republican argue that we should get out of Iraq, and we should have a minimalist foreign policy and not get involved in military adventures abroad, because that’s exactly what the mainstream Republican position was in the 1990s.  Then 9/11 happens and it’s like suddenly everything changes.  What, so the terrorist threat didn’t exist prior to then?  It’s so ridiculous because it’s not like you need to contract AIDS or malaria to know that they’re dangerous.  Similarly, the threat of al Qaeda was around long before 9/11 – in fact, you could easily see it in the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993.  At any rate, it was amusing to watch the internecine warfare between Paul and, well, everyone else on foreign policy and Iraq.  And of course it gave Giuliani the chance to posture and look tough.


Though I agree with Paul on foreign policy in general, if not Iraq, and most Democrats would agree with Paul on Iraq (again, myself excluded), and it’s nice having a Republican carrying the water for us, I fear that some liberals are attracted to Paul’s message, because Paul’s message is not just Iraq.  Paul is a libertarian, meaning that while he may agree with us liberals on things like Iraq and social issues (i.e. getting the government out of people’s bedrooms, relationships, diets, etc.), he is diametrically opposed to most liberals on economic and fiscal issues, and he certainly is that way to me.  Paul advocates massive dismantling of government functions in a wide variety of areas, arguing that the federal government should return only to the business prescribed to it by a strict reading of the Constitution.  This is completely antithetical to the liberal idea that the federal government should be there to help people in need and provide for the general welfare of the country.  Under Paul’s vision, there would be no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, any form of federal health care period; no federal aid to education, research, the arts, space exploration (where does it talk about space in the Constitution?), most infrastructure, etc.  There probably wouldn’t be any form of federal regulation to protect workers, consumers and the environment either, and unless states take initiative to do all these things themselves (which for some states is unlikely, given their track record) we’d have a return to the Gilded Age when private interests held ultimate power, people’s quality of life be damned.  Is this really the kind of country we want to go back to?  All I can say is, liberals, don’t listen to Ron Paul!


His stances aside, Paul has raised quite a bit of money and support and may do well enough in New Hampshire to at least influence the race, but probably not enough to win it.  McCain may do well in New Hampshire and from there become a serious contender in the race, as will Romney and Giuliani.  I don’t know if Huckabee has a realistic shot at the nomination.  There seems to be large contingents of Republicans diametrically opposed to him and he’s taken a lot of fire from all directions, enough to knock down his standing in the polls a little bit.  More importantly, I don’t know if he has the money and infrastructure to really win in Iowa, and without a win in Iowa he probably won’t get enough traction to win the nomination.  Even if he does win Iowa, will that generate enough momentum to get him through Super Duper Tuesday?  It’s possible but I don’t know how good his chances are.


As of now it really is too difficult to make any predictions on who will win the nomination, let alone who will be the strongest contender going into the general election.  A lot of people think Giuliani is by far the strongest, but I think that’s mainly due to name recognition and misinformation about his performance on 9/11 – namely, a lot of people think he had actually did something, when he didn’t – and his support is probably a mile wide and an inch deep.  I think all four contenders probably have roughly equal chances, but if anything I think Romney is probably the weakest (colossal flip-flopper, too slick) and Huckabee might actually have a better chance than anyone else – he’s personable, a “nice guy” and economically moderate.  Though I have a feeling that voters won’t fall for the “nice guy” routine this time around (though isn’t that why Barack Obama is doing so well?) and if that’s the case Huckabee loses a lot of potential support.  It will be an interesting race for the nomination and the general election, that’s for sure.


DECEMBER 29 2007 ADDENDUM: I found an article that goes into more detail about why liberals should not support Ron Paul.  It’s not perfect, but it makes arguments similar to what I would say.