The GOP Mod Squad: Moderates early nomination favorites
By W. James Antle III
web posted December 13, 2004
It's beginning to look a lot like – well, not only Christmas, but the
early stages of the 2008 presidential race. Yes, yes, most normal
Americans are happy to have the 2004 campaign over and done
with and George W. Bush hasn't even been sworn in yet for his
second term. But some of us just can't help ourselves.
A subtext of the Bernard Kerik debacle has been the presidential
prospects of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani
successfully lobbied the White House to name Kerik secretary of
homeland security, and has been ubiquitous in the news stories
about both the nomination and its subsequent withdrawal. Some
wonder if the abrupt implosion of Giuliani's protégé will become
a liability to a man widely believed to be seeking a transition from
"America's mayor" to America's commander-in-chief.
John Podhoretz, writing Sunday in the New York Post, claims
"(t)he Kerik fiasco isn't even a bump on the road" for Giuliani's
presidential ambitions. Hugh Hewitt reported in the Weekly Standard
that Rudy already appeared to be the heavy favorite at a recent
National Federation of Republican Women gathering.
The Giuliani boomlet comes at the same time as renewed interest
in Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain has capitalized on the
Major League Baseball steroids scandal by threatening to
introduce legislation early next year unless professional athletes
lay off the juice. The headline on an Associated Press story says
it all: "McCain's Steroids Push Puts Him in '08 Mix."
Both McCain and Giuliani are very popular Republicans with
strong support among independents and moderate Democrats.
Both campaigned hard for the GOP presidential and other
Republican candidates, some of them quite conservative, in
2004. Both were given prominent speaking slots at this year's
GOP convention in New York City and delivered well-received
Yet neither of them is very conservative. Giuliani, as is well
known, supports legal abortion, gun control and generally holds
socially liberal positions. McCain has, for the better part of the
last decade, offset the good work he has done trying to trim
pork from the federal budget by supporting (constitutionally
dubious) big-government/national-greatness legislation on
everything from campaign finance reform to stamping out
steroids. On social and cultural issues (save those related to
immigration and the national
question), his voting record is good but he has never shown
much leadership or interest.
If you are among the small but growing number of conservatives
with doubts about our Iraq adventure, neither candidate is an
improvement over the status quo. In fact, both would probably
run an equally neoconservative foreign-policy shop.
It's understandable why people like these two men. They are
both skilled politicians with appealing personalities. McCain
served his country valiantly in Vietnam, spending more than five
years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, and can point to
some solid accomplishments on behalf of the conservative
movement during his legislative career. Giuliani deserves
significant credit for taming the crime problem in the
"ungovernable city" and slightly improving the business climate
with the most fiscally responsible leadership possible in a major
Democratic urban center. He also provided strong moral
leadership in the aftermath of 9/11, even if some of his
substantive homeland-security decisions as mayor deserve a
closer, more critical look.
What isn't clear is why conservatives don't have a strong
alternative to McCain, Giuliani and the rest of the Moderate
Squad – credible but somewhat squishy governors like New
York's George Pataki, Massachusetts' Mitt Romney and, in the
extremely unlikely event of a well-timed constitutional
amendment, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The GOP is a
predominantly conservative party. Social conservatives – the
kind of people who believe in the right to life, traditional marriage
and the idea that separation of church and state does not mean
totally expunging religion from the public square – are the largest
single group within any Republican majority. Yet if anybody
much to the right of McCain is a presidential possibility, I haven't
seen the evidence.
To be sure, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has
been sending signals to conservatives on judicial nominations. He
may have played a key role in gaining concessions from soon-to-
be Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA)
. But he hasn't struck anyone as Barry Goldwater or Ronald
Reagan material so far in his decade-long Capitol Hill career.
There also are cases to be made for Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-
Neb.) and even some of the Moderate Squad – Gov. Romney,
for example, fought hard on marriage following the Bay State
Supreme Judicial Court's Goodridge decision.
But there appears to be a shortage of movement conservatives
with national stature. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, once
pronounced the nation's best governor by National Review,
appears to be a non-starter due to marital problems and low
name recognition outside of his home state and the Beltway right.
Even Republicans will be likely to suffer anti-dynastic "Bush
fatigue" that would make a run by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush seem
In politics, you often have to settle for less than you want in
order to get anything. But my sense is that a candidate to the
right of President Bush on some key questions – such as
immigration – could probably win a national election. Certainly, a
Republican to the right of Rudy Giuliani could do so.
A period of four years is like a century in contemporary
American politics. Will there be a viable conservative candidate
who will answer the call in 2008?
W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American
Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The
views expressed above represent his alone.
Enter Stage Right -- http://www.enterstageright.com