October 24, 2008

This Is How It Will Begin

Republicans are already jockeying for position to be on the right end of things when Blame Game 2009 breaks out. This, I suppose, is inevitable. And it could be the way that some serious and much-needed self-examination among the ranks of the GOP begins.

I say "could" because there is a danger that the discussion will not progress any further than "more-conservative-than-thou" and a discussion of tactical missteps. So let me take my opening salvo here.

The question should not be, "Who other than Sarah Palin could have been picked to energize the religious conservatives?" Gov. Palin has been quite good at doing that. For a time after she was picked, local McCain campaign headquarters were literally turning people away because they didn't have enough work for the volunteers to do, and they got more money pouring into the campaign coffers than they could spend before the public financing kicked in. In the sense of energizing and unifying the party, Palin was an excellent choice.

Sarah Palin, herself, was never the real problem. The need for Sarah Palin was. The fact that Republicans could be lukewarm towards a politician like John McCain, the fact that McCain would need to devote so much time and energy reaching out to people within his own party after securing the nomination was the real problem. That demonstrates that the Republican electoral coalition's internal ties -- the sense of a set of different groups with differing interests that they had a common cause -- has all but collapsed. It proceeds as it does because of a combination of intertia, habit, and lack of alternatives.

The last time Republicans found a common cause was the Contract With America led by Newt Gingrich in 1994. Gingrich came as close as anyone has since Ronald Reagan to finding a compelling political message that the entire party could rally around. Himself a social conservative, Gingrich nevertheless realized that what other wings of the party cared about were also important -- and gave those factions meaningful items in his agenda.

I can recall some Christian conservatives grousing that they thought they were supposed to "shut up and go along" with the McCain nomination, as if they had been defeated. Sour grapes Huckabee supporters? No. There were the same types who absolutely rejected Rudy! Giuliani as a candidate, who threatened to bolt the party if he were the nominee. I liked Rudy! and supported him during his brief candidacy; I think his primary campaign is a good case study in both strategic and tactical mistakes because I'm still convinced he could have won the nomination had things gone differently for Rudy! But it's going to be much more useful to examine not why a candidate with as much going for him as Rudy! did nevertheless fell flat, but rather why Rudy!, and to a lesser extent McCain, had such a hard time gathering fans within the party in the first place.

The answer, I think, is not that social conservatives and religious types had too little power. Quite the opposite.

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