An Incoherent Party Backs McCain

Republican presidential hopefuls pose with first lady Nancy Reagan before a Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008. From left are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
This column was written by Dean Barnett.

As Florida goes, so goes the nation? Not quite, but what happened Tuesday in the Sunshine State was pretty significant. Contrary to popular wisdom, that's not because John McCain will receive a bounce out of Florida that will spring him to all kinds of victories next Tuesday. Primary victories don't provide bounces anymore. In the days before he won the South Carolina primary that would supposedly springboard him to success in Florida, McCain led polls of Florida conducted by reputable outfits such as Survey USA, Strategic Vision, and Research 2000 by seven, ten, and ten points respectively. His actual margin of victory was five.

So once again, a politician's success (or lack thereof) can't be attributed to a slingshot effect. It's fair to ask, if McCain won't bounce out of Florida, why do last Tuesday's results much matter beyond the senator's significant delegate haul?

The Florida primary mattered because it featured the fully mature Mitt Romney campaign taking on the fully mature McCain campaign. After a year of struggling, Romney has found a message that resonates and that flows from him naturally. The week leading up to Florida saw Romney's best campaigning. And he still didn't pull it off.

McCain, of course, has been McCain all along. He's a less than electrifying stump speaker and brings nothing new philosophically to the table. He also has the most admirable personal history of any presidential candidate of the past fifty years.

The task that the Romney campaign now faces is a huge one. He's losing in the polls in most of the Super Tuesday states. It's not like McCain needs a bounce out of Florida to score in a big way next week. McCain just has to hold on to his leads. The one who needs a dynamic-changing event is Romney, and given the vast landscape confronting the candidates, he needs something big.

Romney's best hope is that the party decides that it can't tolerate the thought of McCain as its nominee. Maybe McCain will make a mistake that will help nudge them to that conclusion. Certainly a lot of talkers in radio-land have expressed their disdain for McCain without a surfeit of subtlety. It's possible the party will turn on McCain, but it's not entirely likely.

In a provocative and contrarian blog post, Josh Trevino has outlined the parameters of "Romney's Florida win." Trevino points out that according to CNN's exit poll numbers:

  • Romney won pro-lifers.
  • Romney won the mainstream religious. (Huckabee won the very religious -- less than one-fifth of the pool.)
  • Romney won the Protestants.
  • Romney tied Mike Huckabee with Evangelicals.
  • Romney won the pro-GWB voters.
  • Romney is the primary second choice of Giuliani voters, Thompson voters . . . and McCain voters.
  • Romney won the immigration hard-liners.
  • Romney won the upper-middle class, earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually.
  • Romney won the terrorism-oriented voters.
  • Romney won the self-identified conservatives and the self-identified very conservative.
  • Romney won the values-oriented voters.
  • Romney won the white voters.
  • Romney won the tax-cutting voters.
The problem with Trevino's analysis is that it neglects the dimensions of the Republican "big tent." At least since the days of Reagan, Republican strategists have tried to cobble together a big tent of stable Republican voters who would be numerous enough to ensure decades of Republican dominance. But with a growing tent comes a dilution of ideological purity. It's impressive that Romney carried all those little sub-populations in the tent last night. But even more noteworthy is that carrying all those little populations wasn't enough to win.

Combining Trevino's observations with the final fact that Romney lost, one can only conclude that doing well with the core of the party just isn't enough. This also explains the seeming disconnect between hard-line Republicans like the talk-radio audience and John McCain's success. The Republican Party is much bigger and much more numerous than its ideological core. A solid chunk of the party either isn't aware of McCain's antics that annoyed the party regulars the past seven years or, as is much more likely the case, is aware of everything McCain did but simply doesn't care very much.

So what does it mean for the GOP that a recent and only sporadically repentant apostate on taxes, immigration, campaign finance, and global warming is right now the likely nominee? Well, there's been a lot of talk about maintaining the Reagan coalition in recent months. But the issues that animated the Reagan coalition have either disappeared or changed. There is no more Cold War, and the fight with radical Islam differs enormously from the Cold War. The signature social issue of abortion has swollen to include such things as opposing gay marriage and teaching intelligent design.

The Republican Party's economic philosophy remains a relative constant, but it's worth pointing out that the differences between the two parties have narrowed considerably since 1980. Ronald Reagan's economic philosophy differed dramatically from that of his Democratic sparring partners. Right now, the two parties bicker over a half dozen points on the top marginal income tax rate. The stakes were much higher in 1980.

It's also worth pointing out that the link between all the current Republican Party-approved issues is tenuous if indeed it exists at all. If you favor a muscular approach in the war against radical Islam, do you necessarily contradict your support for the war if you favor gay marriage? The same question holds for lower taxes and environmentalism. While many of these issues have become part of the tribal warfare that separates the two parties, it's impossible to identify a coherent philosophy that demands a voter adopt all the Republican orthodoxies.

Right now, it looks like we have a party composed of members who pick and choose from a menu of Republican positions that have no logical reason for co-existing with one another. How else do we explain John McCain's success?

A few months ago, I was having dinner with a couple of dozen Evangelical voters, and we went around the table discussing who each voter supported for president. The debate centered on whether or not the assemblage could support Rudy Giuliani, a pro-choice Republican, if he became the nominee. But a few of the participants surprisingly volunteered that the party was forcing them to support Ron Paul because they were adamantly pro-life but desperately wanted out of Iraq. The only reason the party faithful marches in lockstep on so many disparate issues is because of tribal necessities.

One of Mitt Romney's themes this election season has been that he's a "full-spectrum conservative." In spite of the alleged flip-flopping, Romney really is a true conservative on social issues. And he got into the race because of his strong views on what should be done about a dysfunctional government and the war with radical Islam.

Nevertheless, Romney often raised the impression that he was pandering to the conservative masses by figuratively checking the boxes that interested the base. There was less truth in this inference than was widely considered the case, but the perception became enormously detrimental to the Romney campaign. Of all the strategic errors that all of the campaigns have made this cycle, Romney's effort to appeal to all the individual factions of the GOP may have been the biggest. Even successfully checking all those boxes wasn't enough for victory last Tuesday.

In truth, the GOP has become a sort of funhouse mirror version of the Democratic Party. For the past few decades, the Democrats have been a pastiche of special interest groups like unions, feminists, gays, blacks, and environmentalists. Whatever core philosophies the party once had became buried under the party's need to appease its base coalition members. Every now and then, fissures in the coalition bubbled to the top, e.g. socially conservative African-Americans didn't have much use for the gay agenda.

The Democratic Party has long been a multi-member marriage of convenience. The only thing that truly unites its disparate members is their disdain for the Republican Party. The preceding, by the way, is one of the reasons Barack Obama has a chance to be such a transformative figure -- he's the first Democratic politician in well over a generation to offer a sweeping (though vague) vision that offers anything more than a bunch of little schemes to rip off a piece of the federal government's carcass to give to each member of the coalition.

The GOP has become a sort of ideological version of the Democratic Party. Mitt Romney may be a full-spectrum conservative, but he's one of the few. A lot more conservatives find some of the Republican Party's positions disagreeable.

Many conservatives will try to dismiss McCain's Tuesday victory as a product of Florida's large Latino vote, something McCain might have won because of his immigration bill that most of the party vehemently opposed. But every state has similar outliers who are equally numerous.

Next week it's New York's turn to vote. The New York GOP's positions on social issues are likely to differ dramatically from Mississippi's. California also votes next week -- chances are the California GOP has a markedly different attitude regarding environmental matters than the Michigan franchise.

In an era when the party's ideology has become disconnected from any consistent themes and quite frankly incoherent, the emergence of John McCain makes a sort of sense. McCain is right on the Iraq war, the one issue that most unites the party. And his valorous life story makes him a sensible choice for Commander in Chief.

Still, the nomination fight isn't quite over. Romney has one more week to change people's minds. It's possible that Romney can still make the case that he would make a better president than McCain. As a Romney guy, I very much hope that happens.

But regardless of who wins the nomination, Campaign '08 has illustrated that the Republican party's governing philosophy has become as much of a disconcerting mishmash as the Democrats'. With all the talk of Ronald Reagan this cycle, most have forgotten that Reagan painted with political broad strokes. That's how he united a solid majority of the country. For a few shining moments, Newt Gingrich did the same thing.

If the Republican Party really wants to return to those glory days, it will heed those examples. More importantly, it must leave the ideologically confused and pandering pursuit of 51 percent of the vote in its rearview mirror.
By Dean Barnett