I have to admit, though, for something that will most likely have results that will horrify me, the Republican in-fighting for the 2008 race is the most fascinating and downright exciting US political competition I've seen in my meager twenty-eight years.
It's actually longer than th...oh, wait, I forgot; before we zoom out for a moment it's Shorter Kathryn Jean Lopez on Mike Huckabee:
What Peggy Noonan said, but with extra bitters.
So...why is the Republican race so fascinating that it threatens to actually spill over into the American consciousness, if any?
1. The elephant in the room. On second thought, time and incompetence may have passed that metaphor by; alongside the massive Iraq bull there's a regular flock* of slightly smaller ones, and Republicans, at long last, find themselves trapped by the trick they've been playing on Democrats for Chad's entire lifespan, namely, the idea that speaking reasonably to Republican constituencies is political suicide. (Witness the attempt to manufacture outrage at Huckabee's "bunker mentality" comment, which was really little more than a bland observation.)
I don't buy that, and I've never bought it. Bush's approval ratings may have found their natural bottom in the 30s after testing Nixon's depths, but sheesh, that's a long way down, and how much of that support is soft? A lot of Republicans would sooner admit that Jesus was a hippie. Recognizing Bush's failure is the same thing as recognizing their own, and that's expressly forbidden by the contract. I'm not recommending telling a churchbasement** of Iowans that Reagan was a racist, but I think there's a level where the whole patriotism=war support thing breaks down.
But of the major Republican candidates, plus Fred Thompson, only Huckabee didn't immediately paint himself into that corner. Which brings us to:
2. The Starsky & Hutch Factor, aka Old Skul Campaigning, aka Billick Takes the Tie in Regulation. That is to say, the distinction between what campaigns are trying to accomplish and what might amount to something approaching Good Government. The modern political campaign didn't begin with Kennedy in 1960 or the Selling of his opponent eight years later; those are Teevee Age precursors. The modern campaign began in Iowa 32 years ago, and both parties have been trying to defeat Jimmy Carter ever since. From early campaigning (his brilliant recognition that the meaningless Iowa caucuses could mean something in the meta- sense) to pop culture ops (Playboy) to gotcha! moments (Ford, Poland) every non-incumbent campaign sinced has traced directly to Mr. Peanut.
Yes, generals are always fighting the last war, and football coaches always play not to lose, and campaign masterminds would never advise anything as ridiculous as taking a position on the merits and announcing that position to crowds that haven't passed through a metal detector. What actual primary contests we've had since '76 have been about alignment, not issues, and our Presidential campaigns since have been about selecting the most congenial beer swiller or avoiding the guy who wore the funny hat. So the supposed hard-core constituency of the Republican party hasn't been asked to think an issue through, let alone change it's collective mind, in so long that the very existence of that mind should be called into question.
But then Giuliani had no choice but to run as Mr. Nineleven, John (I Warned About The War, Really) McCain doubled down in 2004, thinking that was the safest path, and Mitt wouldn't risk rocking any swiftboats with a strategy of going from Zero to Top Spender in 4.85 seconds. And Fred Thompson, well, what would you try to do with him if you could, and why would you even try?
Add to that the crazy competing calculations: Giuliani banking that a national lead in the polls would overcome losing actual votes, Romney believing, conversely, that money and six Iowa farmers would overcome his single-digit excitement, and Fred Thompson imagining that to most Americans "lumber" is an action verb. And McCain getting old enough that he couldn't tell shampoo from guano.
Huckabee, on the other hand, occupied that I'm Sorta Carter But Less Idealistic, Like, Or Perhaps Crazier, Or Both niche (Anderson, Perot, Perot, Nader, McCain 2000) where that Pottery Barn foreign policy was presumed safe. Now that he's moved up enough to hire
And again, I don't buy it. Why th' fuck would you be afraid of sounding crazy to the American public? Look what they watch on television. Look what they eat. Hell, look who they think can cook. And speaking of:
3. Reagan. I don't mean it this way, but it seems a good time to mention, again, Peggy Noonan and that plaintive "Could Ronald Reagan even run in today's Republican primary?" And rather than "Was he conspicuously religious enough without being, y'know, all insistent about it or something?" let's ask what the Great Deficit Cutter would have managed to run on? Republican debt? Reforming Republican incompetence? Reforming Republican criminality? C'mon, Ronald Reagan was as much a prisoner of "Ronald Reagan" as anyone.
You'll recall that The Field fell all over itself making with the Reagan comparisons early, and in this we can't really criticize the strategy much, since Reagan by now is a much more competent leader than he was pre-mortem, But when the stress came the Reagan coalition split like a teenaged swain whose girlfriend's parents just drove up. And that happened in 2005.
* Acceptable: Edward Topsell, Historie of All Foure-Footed Beastes. (1607). He uses "herd" as well, in the same paragraph.
**Not a collective noun, but should be.