Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The McCainiacs Guide to GOP Exceptionalism

Bill Kristol writes a provocative column today suggesting that McCain may be the last best hope of the GOP in the fall. In particular, he cites three events from the last week--Obama’s huge loss in WVa, the gay-marriage ruling from the California Supreme Court, and the speech from Bush in Jerusalem that Obama took way too personally--that should do much to improve McCain’s chances in the fall. Yet for all this sound evidence and analysis, his column does not appear to offer much by way of hope (if I may be forgiven for using that most overused word from this election cycle) for the down-ticket.

In this, he may be right from the point of view of mere observation and reporting. But then again, perhaps not. Perhaps the damage done to the Republican brand is too far gone to expect "McCain exceptionalism." Let’s suppose for a moment that this is true and despite Obama’s clear weaknesses, McCain--by virtue of the fact that he’s got an (R) after his name--is already paddling upstream against a swift current. Then what? Will it be enough to show that he is "a different kind of Republican?"

I don’t think so. I begin to think that McCain is going to have to begin to make a case not only for himself but also for the GOP in general--certainly if he means to have a successful presidency but perhaps, also, if he means to have any presidency at all. What would this look like? For one thing, it will mean explaining, rather than simply asserting, some of the fundamental principles of the GOP. It means an implicit criticism of those Republicans in our immediate past who could not or who would not do the same. It would also mean anticipating, understanding and answering the prejudices of those who think they do not like the GOP.

But there’s something more. It is also going to mean that McCain will need to highlight the general problems with Democrats. After all, Democrats only poll higher in terms of their favorable ratings by way of comparison with the Republicans. And Republicans, at least in part, poll poorly because of the ways they have disaffected their base. Congress as a whole, however, polls very, very low. I am not sure if it’s still the case, but it was true at one point that Congress had poorer numbers even than President Bush. Some have suggested that this may be because people forget that Democrats are in charge there (of course, they should be reminded) . . . but whatever the explanation, there’s an opening for McCain. By attacking the "do-nothing" pathetic and Democrat Congress of this session he can acknowledge the political frustrations of the electorate, delight his conservative base, and point the way forward to a better, chastened, and invigorated Republican majority. He may not get it--at least not right away. But he has the potential to set something into motion. He should not forget that he’s running for "President" not "Emperor." He’s going to need friends once he gets there.

Discussions - 14 Comments

"all this sound evidence and analysis" ???

Oh, please, Julie! Kristol has gone from being the guy who was wrong on pretty much everything he said about Iraq (esp. the big claims) to being a regular mistake machine at NYT.

For my part, I really do hope that those inclined to affirm the narrative of Craig Scanlon and Glenn Greenwald continue to believe that Obama's trouncing in West Virginia is akin to McCain's by Romney in Utah. I hope they continue to tell themselves that the losses are comparable. I really do hope that they continue to believe that the folks who made up the majority of voters in West Virginia (and as Kristol more incisively noted, also Ohio and Pennsylvania) are motivated by exactly the same kind of thing that motivated the largely Mormon population of Utah to support Mitt Romney. Keep that line of argument going, please!

Here's Kristol:

"I can't find a single recent instance of a candidate who ultimately became his party's nominee losing a primary by this kind of margin."

That's factually inaccurate, and the info. to prevent the inaccuracy is easily had. This defuses his point, at the very least.

As to the unpopularity of the now-Democratic Congress, it has been suggested that this is largely the result of the dissatisfaction of the part of the electorate that demands prompt withdrawal from Iraq, a promise on which Reid/Pelosi Congress has failed to deliver. If so, the continuing unpopularity of Congress offers the GOP little ground for hope.

America is divided on the issue of Iraq. Both the people who hate the war are upset with the president and those who feel the war has not been handled properly as a whole are upset with the president. That covers just about everyone in the country, I think. Both of those groups are upset with Congress, too. Their handling of the war has not been the same as the president's, but has been dismal on its own.

Personally, a "do-nothing" Democratic Congress is just fine with me. It is when they do something that I get upset.

As to McCain, I am a bit uneasy about his recreating the GOP in his image. I confess that right now the party is somewhat formless and void. Maybe the big tent thing got out of hand. "...explaining, rather than simply asserting, some of the fundamental principles of the GOP." would be just dandy if we are agreed to what those are. Are we?

Zero in on what Americans are most livid about, and address that issue in a GENUINE way. What Americans are most irritated about right now is the soaring cost of filling up their tank. And they know that there is no end in sight. And they don't buy, {and they're right not to buy} the excuse that the economies of China and India account for $4.00/gallon. And they know too that although the petrokingdoms are a factor in the rising cost, the true culprit is Congress and the President failing to take REAL action after 9/11.

The American people expected better after 9/11. They didn't expect six years on that their President would still be making revolting and squalid pilgrimages to Riyadh, begging evildoers to produce more fuel.

Initiate GENUINE energy reform. And this time, don't allow some out-of-her-depth-Texas-groupie like Karen Hughes to edit and rewrite the proposals. I still can't believe that their incompetence was such as to allow that.

Oh, Kate . . . I think it needs to be very, very basic. It would seem condescending, almost, to someone like you. But such is the need, in my view. Republicans have allowed our opponents to describe us on their terms for so long in the popular culture and in academia that I'm afraid even very basic notions like lowering taxes to improve the economy and give a nod to freedom are misunderstood. And limited government?! Of course that's code for "heartless." I would find things with which to quibble (and possibly even fully disagree) with John McCain were he to take on such a project. But then, I don't think he should feel compelled to redefine the Republican Party from the ground up. Certainly, that's not his place. But it is his privilege now to defend it. He ought to. And he ought to explain why he is a Republican and not a Democrat. What's wrong (or to put it more gently, misguided) about being a Democrat? He ought to acknowledge that Dems are good Americans who mean well, but that they just don't understand some things about human nature or the role of government in protecting our freedom. He ought to explain why they're wrong. He ought to go partisan but do so in the best possible sense. People aren't searching for the middle. They're searching for solutions. He should offer some.

DJF: They're dissatisfied with Congress because we haven't pulled out of Iraq, true. But they only want to do that because they're tired of hearing the narrative that we're not winning. I'm quite sure that most people would prefer a clear victory to pulling out. They don't think that what we've done is unjust (as many of the Dems do) they think that we're doing an injustice to ourselves; that we're wasting our time and that too many good guys are dying for a worthless project. They just don't believe Bush can bring victory anymore and they discount all evidence to the contrary--partly because Bush has not forcefully defended himself from his political opponents and partly because he's made mistakes and hasn't seemed to own or repair them. They might believe McCain can do it. He is different from Bush in some important respects (not all good . . . but perhaps better in this area). I think the unpopularity of Congress is an opening, but it will take plenty of prying . . . you're right about that.

Peter Robinson, a guy who usually trots out the predictable, actually said something interesting the other day. He was being interviewed by Hugh Hewitt, {the audio can be found on Hewitt's Townhall website}. He observed that the American people aren't "weary" of the war, or "exhausted" by the war effort. Elites surely are, but that was the case in the Cold War as well. He went on to say that what Americans are weary of is a war effort that doesn't intend to win. Americans know the war extends beyond Iraq, and they've concluded that this administration hasn't any intention of addressing that wider war effort. And the wider war effort would entail a genuine energy independence policy that should have already placed America beyond the fluctuations of the global oil market. He said Americans know that this war could have been handled much differently, and won some time ago. And it is that knowledge, that America is letting third rate powers trifle with her that is infuriating the American people. They understand entering a long twilight struggle against powers possessed of 300 tank divisions and thousands of atomic warheads. But they don't understand why America is letting herself get sucked into a long Cold War with enemies it refuses to properly identify.

That's a paraphrase of course. But that's the gist. And he's right.

Americans aren't in any real hurry to get out of Iraq, what Americans are in a real hurry for is VICTORY. They've lost patience with Bush, who never understood the URGENCY of the war effort. He may have understood the importance of it, and I'm not sure about that, but he never properly understood that the clock was ticking, and that it started ticking around high noon on September 11th.

Americans are a problem solving people. They are a direct people. They're not into indirect warfare. They've little patience for clever stratagems that may or may not work, but sound clever at a think tank round-table.

Go to Home Depot, take a look around at the men and women of America, solving problems on their own. Or tune in to local sports talk radio, and you'll soon note that each caller thinks he has an idea for what needs to be done. The caller may or may not be right, but one thing is sure, the callers want action, and they want it now. Trades, free-agency acquisitions, getting rid of inept coaches or project players that will never pan out. You'll hear it all. And you'll note the URGENCY. And that's just for sports. What is sports compared to a war effort kicked off on September 11th? Americans don't have much patience for losers. And Americans sense that Bush has led them into a situation where they are close to being forced to withdraw in defeat. And they hate him for it.

They know he hasn't leveled with them about the regimes in the Mideast, and they sense the worst about islam. They refused even to entertain his defenses of the Dubai Ports deal, which they rightly laughed out of the water. Sites like Jihadwatch are getting the word out, even NR has offered Spencer space to get his message out. And Americans quietly seethe every time they see Whistler's arthritic Mother struggle to strip down before she is allowed to board a plane.

A head coach rarely gets beyond three years to turn a franchise around, before the fans are calling for his head. The American people were patient with this administration. But now they've turned him completely off. Peggy Noonan sensed as much two years ago, but she was attacked by fellow Conservatives for daring to speak the truth.

The American people don't accept the idea that they need to accustom themselves to $4.00 and $5.00 per gallon gas. Nor should they.

McCain began his long climb back into the Republican primary by constantly saying that "he knew" how "frustrated" the people were. He found traction with that message, which the other Republican candidates barely mentioned and left to him. He has to stay on that message. Americans are still livid, and he needs to constantly say that he gets it and understands it. Obama saying that we'll all have to get used to cold Winters and hot Summers is like begging to be defeated. It didn't work for Carter, and it won't work for Obama, despite the halo and the whole false messiah thing going on.

Dan, I think lots of Americans think that everything is beyond control and that lectures about cold winters and hot summers are just what they like to hear. It is that part of the electorate who want to get out of Iraq because we "can't" win.

I know lots of Americans of the Home Depot variety you discuss beautifully above who believe, KNOW, that problems in life are meant to be solved. They may not understand the implications of what they are demanding, but that's why those people have come to despise Bush, because he seems not only to make mistakes, but to take longer to learn from mistakes than those urgent folks would like. Of course, part of America's democratic problem is trying to respond to all of the contradictory calls for change all at once. Pick one of the twenty solutions offered and you have alienated the other nineteen people just by choosing.

If I understand Robinson correctly, he's quite right, though it sounds like the argument could go to Viet Nam as easily as to the Cold War.

Julie, yes, McCain has no choice but to define the GOP, but I hope he can do so on consistently conservative ground. I worry that he is not consistently conservative, although I know he is consistently conservative on some issues. I hope he can find an honorable defense of principles because I agree that he really must in order to win this election.

A clear and consistent expression of conservative principles and goals has been needed for some many years. When GWB gives a speech that is a powerful defense of such things, like his speech before the Knesset, there's a little jolt of strength. We've needed many such jolts over the years. A steady current of such stuff would be beneficial to the body politic.

When the Democrats push a defeatist, throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air agenda, -------------------- what they're doing is trying to impose an an alien attitude upon the American psyche, and it's an attitude not just alien, but HATEFUL to Americans.

Americans are the most can-do people on the face of the Earth, and have proved it repeatedly, prove it everyday in fact. Americans WORK the problem. Walking away from something in failure and defeat sickens Americans. Not all of course, but still a healthy chunk of the electorate.

Republicans have yet to grasp that fact, that the Democrats pushing defeatism are pushing a huge boulder up a huge hill, and Republicans haven't availed themselves of the latent advantages they enjoy in the present political landscape.

But you have to have imagination. You have to see it, you need an eye for detail, but also the eye that scans the entire field of play. THAT imagination, THAT insight, THAT finger on America's soul, is what my GOP is most lacking right now. Relatedly, with the imagination comes the passion. Those that see it have the passion, because of the love that naturally rises from what they see.

And he ought to explain why he is a Republican and not a Democrat.

Something to do with Jeffords jumping first.

All this analysis forgets that the GOP is not the party of "conservativism", it's the party of big business interests, which are libertarian or liberal when it suits them.

What the Republican failure has shown "the electorate" is that the GOP is the party of rhetoric. The Dem's, to their credit, actually try to govern liberally. The elephant in the living room for the GOP is that they run conservatively, then govern "Rockefeller".

Most of "the electorate" may not be able to articulate this in a consistent way, but it is the underlying current to the dissatisfaction "of the base".

McCain is simply a symptom of this. He is a "maverick", not a conservative. He can no more explain fundamental principles of the GOP (by which Julie really means a consensus conservativism) than the Pope can stone an adulterer to death. It simply is not in his character, his nature, his beliefs - it's not who he is.

Wishing for it to be otherwise is not helpful. Neither is "well, even in it's failure the GOP is better than the Dem" argument. Even a child knows to stick with the enemy you know (honest liberalism) than the manipulator (GOP which = Rockefeller Republicanism)....

Christopher, yes and no. It's true that very often Republicans govern like Rockefeller clueless types. But not always, and not on every issue. That's what makes it so frustrating for the base. Look at the record of Arlen Specter for instance. Note how often his behavior was outrageous, and often on key issues, {Robert Bork comes to mind}. But sometimes, like when he rallied to the defense of Clarence Thomas, he actually earns his pay in the Senate.

Lindsay Graham did a fine job as one of the House managers. But in the Senate, he's out there speaking before an obnoxious group called "The Race," and having the brazenness to say before such a group, that he and they are going to tell "the bigots to shut up."

Today's Republicans would test the affability and even-temperedness of Ronald Reagan himself.

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