Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that he will not run for President in 2008. You can read his statement here. Frist’s announcement didn’t make a very big splash; many observers hadn’t taken him seriously as a Presidential candidate in any event.
I see Frist’s withdrawal quite differently, for two reasons. First, while I have spent only a samll amount of time with Frist, I found him very impressive. As you might expect, given his history, he is a very, very smart man. Personally, I think it would be nice for the Republicans to have a Presidential candidate with Frist’s obvious talents and accomplishments, who spends his spare time saving lives in Africa. Personally, that is, not in the sense that most Congressmen think they’re “saving lives” when they vote to spend other peoples’ money.
Beyond that, though, it seems to me that there is a gaping hole in the Republicans’ lineup of Presidential candidates for 2008. The three announced contenders, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, are all, I think, strong candidates in one way or another. But none of the three is a mainstream conservative. McCain has a conservative voting record, but is widely mistrusted by the Republican base because of his support for restrictions on citizen political activity, his occasional squishiness on issues like tax cuts, and his general willingness to sell out the party when it suits his purposes.
Giuliani is widely admired for his solid stance on the war on terror, his history as a crimefighter, and his leadership qualities and administrative talents. But Giuliani is a social liberal. Not a moderate, a liberal. I can live with that, as long as I’m convinced he will be solid on judges. But can the Republican base? I don’t know.
Romney is an impressive guy in many ways, but a relative newcomer to the national scene. His positions on the social issues appear to have “evolved” since he ran for Governor of Massachusetts. And his Mormon faith may turn out to be an issue; I don’t know.
What we are lacking in this lineup is a straightforward, mainstream conservative whose views align with the party’s base across a broad range of issues: security, taxes, judges and the social issues. At one point, George Allen was expected to fill that role. But to me, Bill Frist was always a far better choice for a solidly and conventionally conservative nominee. With all due respect to Allen, Frist is a far more capable and impressive individual. And, in any event, Allen is now out of the picture.
I still think that if there is a credible mainstream conservative candidate in the primaries, there is a good chance that he will emerge as the nominee. But is there such a candidate? The mantle now seems to have fallen on Newt Gingrich. I admire Newt greatly, but he carries more baggage than Northwest Airlines. And as a national candidate, I’m afraid Gingrich would be an accident waiting to happen. As someone memorably said, Newt’s flaw is that he has never in his life had an unspoken thought. That’s fine for an idea man, which is what Gingrich has become since leaving Congress; not so fine in a Presidential candidate.
So I think the 2008 primary season will be highly interesting, and it’s possible that a down-the-middle conservative may yet emerge. But at this point, it looks far more likely that our candidate will be one of the three front-runners, each of whom is eccentric in his own way. Which is why I thought Bill Frist’s withdrawal from the race was a big deal.
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