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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 speeches.

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 untenable.

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.


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