Column for 3 February, 2008
“I have seen something else under the sun: the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.””
I really hate “horse race” style coverage of elections, where the empty talking heads on the 24 hours “news” channels endlessly chew their cud over who’s up from week to week, or even day to day and hour to hour. Still, if you’re a political junkie like me, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the most wide-open presidential campaign in decades, with no obvious frontrunner in either party and no incumbent president or vice president running for the first time since 1952. The recent Florida primary has shaken out the field a little, eliminating Rudy Giuliani and his egomaniacal vanity candidacy based solely on a ghoulish exploitation of the 9/11 attacks, and John Edwards (proving once again that my support is the kiss of death to any candidate in a Democratic Primary, including me). I had initially thought that John McCain would do badly in his first real closed-primary contest, considering how much he is despised as a liberal in sheep’s clothing by conservative elites in the media and nearly all Republicans I regularly talk shop with. Turns out we were all wrong. As much as Democrats like to tease Republicans for walking in lock-step, it looks as though Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and the other attack dogs are the ones who are really out of touch with the mainstream of their own party. While it’s true that McCain trailed badly in Florida (as elsewhere) with voters who describe themselves as “very conservative,” there were apparently not enough of them to overcome the votes of self-described mere “conservatives” or “moderates.” Nor was it the case that the “very conservative” vote was split in a way that made a significant difference; a majority of those who voted for Mike Huckabee said McCain was their second choice. It may well be that Republican voters are inclined to view McCain’s conversion to the true faith as more sincere that the vertigo-inducing political back flips of Mitt Romney. McCain is probably also helped by his kid-glove treatment at the hands of the non-GOP propaganda machine media, who view him with a love-struck awe that has enabled him to dodge hard questions about his abrupt abandonment of the maverick stances that propelled his run in 2000, his at-times volcanic temper, and his age. Indeed, not even Ronald Reagan got this kind of pass on the age issue, and the media normally treated him with the kind of reverence that even Vladimir Putin might find embarrassing from his retread Soviet-era state-run media. And if you don’t think that the attitudes of individual reporters about a candidate matter, just ask President Al Gore. The media as a whole loathed him and did everything in their power to discredit him eight years ago. I’ve also been surprised at how little the issue of illegal immigration has mattered, at least so far. The one candidate who based his campaign pretty much exclusively on that issue, Tom Tancredo, barely made a ripple. And even though McCain now won’t say if he would vote for his own immigration reform bill, his stance as “pro-amnesty” doesn’t seem to have hurt him at all. So what happens next for the GOP? Super-duper Tuesday is just around the corner. Romney needs to do well in states with closed primaries (Missouri, Oklahoma and especially California) or with caucuses or conventions that are likely to be dominated by more conservative party activists (Colorado, Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota). Unless the voters in those states are substantially different from the ones in Florida, it may not ultimately matter if Huckabee drops out or (more likely) stays in. It is generally thought among the punditocracy that McCain as the nominee is bad news for the Democrats, since he is the only Republican candidate who outpolls either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in even some of the head-to-head polls done so far. Huckabee and Romney both get beaten like drums by either Democrat. It is also generally assumed that if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, Republicans (even the media masters) will rally around McCain because they have convinced themselves that she is, literally, the spawn of Satan. I’m not sure that either of these are valid assumptions. For one thing, we have to bear in mind that George W. Bush, despite very high approval ratings, barely won re-election in 2004 against the hapless John Kerry. His margin of victory was provided by Karl Rove, who was able to turn out four million new voters, nearly all of them conservative Christian Evangelicals, and thereby overcome Kerry’s vote total, which was itself nine million more votes than Bush received in 2000. This year, Republican enthusiasm is considerably dampened, reflected in the fact that in nearly all of the contested primaries so far, many more Democrats than Republicans have turned out. Even in Michigan and Florida, where the Democratic results did not count due to disputes over party delegate selection rules, Democrats turned out in large numbers (though admittedly less than on the GOP side). President Bush’s poll numbers continue to reflect his toxicity, even as McCain and Romney are forced to cleave closer and closer to his most unpopular positions to appeal to the conservative base. Congress is even less popular, but this is mainly due to voter frustration at the Democrats’ inability or unwillingness to confront the President. Some 70% of us say the country is “headed in the wrong direction.” All of these are bad omens for any Republican seeking to follow Bush into the White House.