Friday, February 8, 2008

A Dilemma For Both Parties

The protracted, almost unendurable, 2008 campaign season for the national Republican Party began in the extreme pain of its losses in the 2006 elections, and under the historical precedents that few parties in the past six decades have won more than two presidential elections in a row.

After a period of controlling the White House and the Congress, the GOP now faces the prospect of controlling none of them, and having their significant recent gains wiped out.

To make matters worse, large numbers of their veteran members of Congress have decided to retire, and not a few of those, previously safe Republican seats, will now be competitive. The likely GOP nominee for president, Senator John McCain, faces an insurrection in his own party among some who feel his long record in Congress is not conservative enough, and threaten to bolt the party in November. Finally, Republican turnout in the primaries and caucuses so far has been far less than the Democratic turnout in most cases, indicating a relative lack of GOP enthusiasm for the 2008 campaign.

On its face, it does not seem it could get worse than this.

But beneath the face of these circumstances is another set of circumstances.

The catalysts for Republican defeat in 2006, the war in Iraq and political scandals at home, have faded from primary public controversy. A military surge in Iraq, initiated by President Bush, but vitally encouraged and supported by Senator McCain, seems to be working. A mood of national defeat has been transformed to a mood of some optimism. The Democratic Party, initially expected to settle early on its presidential candidate, has been stalemated with its two top contenders in a campaign likely to
approach if not reach its national convention before being resolved. The Democratically-controlled Congress is led by unattractive, ineffective figures, and the Congress has become even more unpopular than the outgoing president.

With John McCain as its candidate for president, the Republican party goes into unchartered seas for this election. The GOP has no reasonable prospects to regain control of either the Senate or the House. It is likely to lose seats in both bodies. Although Senator McCain is, by any definition I know, a
political conservative, he appears to be alienated from a considerable portion of the GOP conservative base. Should Hillary Clinton be nominated by the Democrats to run against him, most of that unhappy base will ultimately vote for him, but there will be noticeable defections by the far right, cheered on by social conservative spokespersons and some radio talk show hosts, no matter who the Democrats choose.

Political conversation now turns to his expected efforts to make some kind of peace with unhappy conservatives, and with his choice for vice president. Conventional wisdom argues that he will move quite to the right in both tasks.

John McCain has been, throughout this political season, the only Republican with a reasonable prospect of winning the 2008 election.But he is not only a maverick, he is a crusty and often unpleasant one in his political relationships. His appeal to independents and conservative/moderate Democrats has been demonstrated repeatedly in the primary/caucus season. What he and his advisors must now decide is how much an abrupt tilt to the right will cost him in the general election in November. If conservative hardliners will not compromise, then there is little to be gained in chasing their political ghostly figures.

Just as Mr. McCain has serious problems in the conservative base, Mrs.Clinton has serious problems outside her political base. These are "poll negatives" that do not seem to go away. If she defeats Mr..Obama for the nomination, most of his vote will easily fall in behind her. Most partisan Democrats intensely want to win the presidency in 2008, and will support either candidate enthusiastically against Mr. McCain. Mrs. Clinton's nomination,however, would create a particular opportunity for the GOP nominee in the political center where he is already credible. It is unlikely that Mrs. Clinton's negative swill simply go away. They are grounded in her political history and her political personality.

Independent and centrist voters may no longer support President Bush, and may now oppose many of his policies, but there is no evidence that most of them feel the anger and intensity that partisan
liberal Democrats do. The dilemma for the Democrats is that it is these voters who will determine the outcome of the 2008 election. The dilemma for John McCain is that he cannot afford to alienate the political center as he tries to bring unity to his own party.

This political year has seen more turns, twists and surprises than any in memory. There is no reason to think, having come this far, and with the agonizing choices facing both party's campaigns in the eight months before election day, that more shocks and surprises do not lie ahead.


-This article was first published in The Washington Times on February 8, 2008.