Wednesday, May 09, 2007
The Party and the Candidates
NR readers have often taken me to task for my squishiness on abortion, but thanks to candidate Jim Gilmore I now have a new talking-point reply: I am firmly pro-life — after the first ten weeks.
O.K., that's kind of lame. But it's still better than the replies Rudy Giuliani offered, both at the debate and during a brutal battering by Laura Ingraham yesterday.
These early stumblings raise in my mind a question about both the Republican candidates and the Republican party. By any standards, the Republican contest has drawn what ought to be the most impressive array of candidates since ... well maybe since ever.
The mayor who transformed New York from failed state into surging financial capital;
a hero of Vietnam who became a leader of the Senate, sponsor of some of the most important legislation of the past decade;
one of the nation's most successful businessmen who brought universal private-sector health care after winning election as a Republican in the most Democratic state in the nation;
the governor who pioneered welfare reform and school vouchers in Wisconsin;
a former RNC chairman and popular governor of the must-win state of Virginia;
the Senate's leading advocate of the pro-life and pro-marriage cause;
Congress's leading immigration reformer;
a former governor of the state of Arkansas who is ideally positioned to challenge the bona fides of the Democratic front-runner;
and a former chairman of the House Armed Services committee running for president at a time when many Americans worry that the U.S military has not adequately prepared for the warfare of the 21st century.
Given that amazing roster — why does this campaign feel so feckless and lackluster?
Rudy Giuliani — a leader once legendary for his intensity, focus, and mastery of detail — has been running an improvised, unbriefed, unprepared campaign.
Mitt Romney has ignored and denigrated his two greatest political achievements — his health-care success and his trans-party victory in Massachusetts — in order utterly implausibly to position himself as a social-issues crusader.
John McCain, Mr. Bipartisan, now presents himself as a red-meat conservative.
Shall I go on?
But as much as I blame the candidates, I have to blame the party too. Have Republicans absorbed how much trouble their party is in? To the (limited) extent that we do, we tend to to attribute everything to Iraq — as if Katrina, the Schiavo affair, corruption in Congress, and the intensifying irrelevance of our domestic-policy agenda did not exist. And so we demand from our candidates ever more fervent declarations of fealty to an ideology that interests an ever dwindling proportion of the public.
I wish somebody at the Reagan Library had said: "Ronald Reagan was a great leader and a great president because he addressed the problems of his time. But we have very different problems — and we need very different answers. Here are mine."
But if one of the candidates had said that, would we have hearkened? Or would we say: The path to the nomination will be crossed by the candidate who does the best job of ticking the boxes of a coalition that probably now spans no more than 30 percent of the electorate?
Barring some calamitous mistake by the Democrats (and true, that can never be ruled out from the "war is lost" party), the GOP enters the 2008 election cycle at a serious disadvantage. If we want to win, we have to offer the American voter something fresh and compelling. I think most of us understand that. And yet at the same time we are demanding that our candidates repeat formulas and phrases from two and three decades ago.
Yes, the GOP needs candidates to display higher-quality leadership than they have exhibited till now.
But if we want higher-quality leadership, maybe we also need higher-quality followership.
05/09 10:34 AM