The Hype for the Highest Office in the Land

Posted: Feb 13, 2006 5:39 PM

A political piece in The New York Post caught my eye. It said that conservatives were warming up to Senator John S. McCain, III (R-AZ). If McCain, as expected, makes another run for the Presidency, he would be the oldest man, if successful, to have been elected President. It seems that some conservatives are enamored with a new poll suggesting that McCain would defeat Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) by a margin of 52% to 37%. Others point to McCain’s consistent efforts to cut government spending. Still others point to McCain’s support for the Right to Life. These conservatives want to forgive McCain for the McCain/Feingold legislation, which greatly restricted political speech. And these same conservatives, who are not part of the Religious Right, say it is acceptable that McCain has appeared to be hostile to that part of the Republican Coalition, since these pre-1978 Republicans don’t much like the fact that values voters of late have received so much attention from Congressional leaders.

There will be many candidates this coming season. Unless and until conservatives unite behind a single candidate, candidates who are unacceptable to conservatives, such as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani or New York Governor George S. Pataki, could win the nomination to run against Hillary or some other Democrat, such as Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) or former Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner.

In 1988, when there was no incumbent seeking re-election the race was the split among conservatives, enabling George Herbert Walker Bush to prevail over a host of other more conservative candidates. It occurred again eight years ago when Governor George W. Bush became the Republican nominee because conservatives were in every camp. Although by this time a dominant force among the electorate, conservatives by virtue of their disunity, permitted the least conservative among serious candidates to be nominated.

Already there are signs that the same thing is occurring. Thus far the following Members of the Senate and Governors have expressed interested in the Presidency two years from now. In addition to McCain, they are: Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS); Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN); Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), if re-elected this year; Senator George F. Allen (R-VA), who is almost certain to be re-elected this November; Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who after one term is retiring; Arkansas Governor Michael Huckabee, who is term limited; Colorado Governor William F. (“Bill”) Owens, who has turned from a tax-increase opponent to a tax-increase supporter; Minnesota Governor Timothy J. Pawlenty, noted for his ability to work with Democrats without caving in; Texas Governor J. Richard (“Rick”) Perry (R-TX) who has close ties to the Religious Right; the list goes on. Indeed, there may be a surprise candidate from the ranks of the retired Military.

All these potential candidates already are lining up supporters even though in some cases they must be re-elected.

If, as happened again in 2000, conservatives end up in every camp there would be no doubt that someone considered electable by the old media nationwide would have the advantage. There can be little doubt that the old media’s favorite candidate in 2008 is Senator McCain. Some conservatives view that as a distinct advantage because the old media would not spend most of the 2008 election year ripping into Republicans. Whether conservatives agree with that view, the movement as a whole, and especially Religious conservatives, will risk having any clear role in the nominating process and will not be the determining favor in the general election (as clearly they were in 2004) if they don’t unite behind one candidate.

Otherwise what will happen is this: A Senator or a Governor will call one of the high-profile activists. That officeholder will make the pitch for the activist to play a key role in advising the campaign of that officeholder. The activist is flattered. He sees himself as playing a key role in what could become history. So that activist begins to ask others and soon there is a group of conservatives in that campaign. Meanwhile another Senator or Governor makes the call to another high-profile activist. Again, the temptation to be a big fish even if it is a small pond takes over. This process repeats itself until key activists are now in ten different campaigns. These activists then cross swords with one another until someone finally is nominated. That someone almost certainly will NOT be among the ten candidates each of whom had a small fraction of conservative support.

I know whereof I speak. In 1988 I endorsed no one and watched the process I described play out. So in 2000 I thought better of my neutrality. I got involved, along with Reagan’s former Press Secretary, Lyn Nofziger, in the campaign of Steve Forbes. The problem was we failed to talk this over with our colleagues in the movement. Yes, we brought some on board, but too few to make a difference. Meanwhile we saw conservatives show up in the campaigns of Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes and George Bush and all of the other candidates who were running that year. We ended up with little influence in many campaigns.

Surprisingly the candidate who did the best job of gathering up conservatives was George W. Bush. They became crucial to his not only winning the nomination but also in that terribly close election in 2000.

What if the whole movement had backed Bush in 2000 the way the movement was completely behind him in 2004? By that time Bush had established where his Administration was going. There was enough in it for the movement that they backed him in the strongest possible terms. Had the movement, which by 2000 was pretty strong, all been in the Bush camp from the beginning, would more conservatives have been in high places in the Administration? Would the President have vetoed more bills? Would McCain/Feingold have become law? Would we have gotten into the Iraqi War?

We will never know the answer to these questions. And Bush is pretty much his own man. Yet he can’t help but be influenced by key supporters, especially if some of them are in his cabinet. In fact, considering how few key conservatives were with him from the beginning, one can make the case that he has been overly generous to our movement, especially where key appointments are concerned. His promise to appoint the right kind of federal judges certainly has been kept. I must believe, however, our influence would have been greater had we been behind his candidacy from the beginning.

Some of us interviewed the candidates in 2000, including Bush. I recall having to disclose to Bush that I was in the Forbes camp. He told me not to work for Steve too hard. Putting aside his graciousness of the moment, I think the movement would have been so much better off united. Two of the folks conducting the interviews were for Bauer. It made no sense.

I hope and pray that this time conservatives will refrain from jumping into the campaigns of any of the potential candidates. If we need to visit with all of the candidates, well and good. If we can agree on which candidate represents our values but is also electable, so much the better. 2008 will be an extremely difficult year in politics. If our movement wants to marginalize itself then we will do what was done in 1988 and 2000. If we try a different approach and can, by and large, agree upon a candidate we will be able to test our strength with someone in whom we believe and if that person is elected we will have a good case to be made as to who belongs in the new Administration.

So this is not misinterpreted. I do not wish for, nor would I accept, any position in any Administration. I surely would like to see more of my friends in high places, however. That is not impossible if this time we proceed the way I suggest.