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September 19, 2007

Ronald Reagan is Dead

One of the things I like best about the internet is that it allows one to determine the general makeup of a movement. If the debates between social conservatives and more moderate/libertarian Republicans on-line are any indication of the overall health of the party, then it's going to be an interesting year and a half.

The most surprising thing about this primary season, thus far, is the sustained popularity of Rudy Giuliani among GOP voters. Socially-conservative voters and opinion leaders, such as James Dobson, seem irritated by this trend and have gone out of their way to criticize the former New York City mayor. Social conservative leaders have already declared that if Giuliani is picked as the GOP candidate, they will sit out next year's election (you know, because that worked so well in 2006).

To clarify - I'm not speaking specifically of social conservatives here, but of those who did sit out the election due to frustrations with Republicans on spending, immigration, etc.) Although it should be mentioned that exit polls showed 1/3 of evangelicals voted for the Democrats in 2006 because they were frustrated with scandals. My general point is that sitting out an election and putting a party that generally agrees with you out of power is not helpful in advancing an agenda. Still, I apologize for the lack of clarity.

Before social conservatives start polarizing the party, however, they may want to look at emerging political and demographic trends and what that means for picking a candidate.

Rush Limbaugh, among others, likes to say that if the GOP would only run a candidate in the mold of Ronald Reagan, we would start winning elections again. Reagan is the first president I really remember, and he was a great man.

But he's dead, and there will never be another candidate quite like him. Reagan had a unique blend of traits - he was a man of principle who had the ability to communicate his ideas with humor and style. I would venture to say that people voted for Reagan because he made conservatism attractive, not because they were necessarily conservative themselves. He also won because he was the right man for his time. More on that later.

Reagan was helped by the fact that he ran against two of the most inept Democratic candidates this side of John Kerry - Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Still, Reagan ran two great campaigns and accomplished a lot in his eight years.

But he's gone, and conservatives have to let him, and the time in which he was president, go. It's also time to face a very hard fact - the country is trending toward the Democrats.

I don't think the country is necessarily getting more liberal, but that in a real sense, social conservatives right now are victims of their own success on a number of issues. The reason gun control and raising taxes are not brought up by the Dems is that the GOP has been successful in making those issues radioactive for the Democrats.

Gay rights issues have been taken off the table due to the overwhelming numbers of states that passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and abortion has largely moved from the political to the social - more of the fight is being waged by crisis pregnancy centers than by politicians, and it’s being won, albeit too slowly.

Regardless of the reasons it's happening, though, the facts are grim for Republicans: Democrats hold the majority of both houses of the legislature in 22 states; Republicans control 15 states, and 12 states are divided. There are 28 Democratic governors and 22 Republican governors. The reason they're winning is because they've been able to find candidates who reflect the times, even if those candidates aren't a perfect fit with the base.

As for the "all we have to do is nominate a true conservative" theory - tell that to Rick Santorum or the "true conservatives" currently hovering between 0 and 3% in the polls.

Now, this is not intended to be a defeatist post - only a warning one. Right now, for better or worse, our country is in the hands of the moderates. We are no longer a conservative-majority country. A lot of voters are sick of the constant bickering between the political extremes and want someone who builds a bridge between conservatives and liberals. Overall, I think the majority of voters in this country are fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

Those are our times. All the wishing in the world won't change the demographic or political trends. So the candidate or the ticket we pick has to reflect those times, and be responsive to those trends.

There are three candidates who I think would flourish in this environment - Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. Romney, for all the accusations of flip-flopping and such, has won election in a deeply blue state and accomplished some conservative goals. That's not a bad resume.

If Thompson’s candidacy takes off, he could also do well, because I think he's more of a strict federalist than a social conservative, which I also think appeals to moderates. His campaign is new, so he's relatively untested and has yet to outline his policies, but he does have a familiar presence.

Giuliani’s continued appeal to GOP voters has to do with what I outlined above - a lot of the big battles are won and we’ve created some new third rails. Giuliani is shrewd - he's not stupid enough to back off the ground conservatives have already won, and he would take on the Democrats on issues such as the war and taxation, as we’ve seen. After eight years of the New-Tone Lovin’ Mushmeister, I think that’s attractive to a lot of GOP voters.

Each of these guys can win the general election, and each of them offers something to all members of the GOP coalition. No one member of the coalition is going to get everything it wants - we should stop pretending otherwise and vote with more...shall I say...nuance.

The coalition fractured in 1992 and again in 2006. A little flexibility from all would prevent it from shattering next year.

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posted by Slublog at 04:25 PM

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