The real loser last night

To the extent that a skewed caucus process in one state can produce a loser, last night that loser was mainstream conservatism. That’s because the only two major Republican candidates who take mainstream conservative positions across-the-board both fell short of expectations. Mitt Romney finished a distant and disappointing second, while Fred Thompson failed to finish a strong third, which he said he needed to do at a minimum. Thompson is plainly on the ropes and Romney will be if, as I expect, he fails to win in New Hampshire.
By contrast, Mike Huckabee (who deviates from conservative orthodoxy on economic issues and has Carteresque tendencies when it comes to foreign policy) and John McCain (whose deviations need hardly be recounted) are sitting pretty today. And Rudy Giuliani (who isn’t a social conservative) emerged from last night unharmed. None of these candidates can even claim to be a hardliner on illegal immigration, supposedly the “table stakes” of playing successfully in the Republican primaries this year. As mayor, Giuliani told illegal immigrants that he wanted them in his city. Huckabee wanted to give them college scholarships and failed to enter into an agreement with the federal government to cooperate on enforcement of the immigration laws. McCain was a main supporter of legislation that would have led to citizenship for millions of illegals.
How is it that mainstream conservatives find themselves on the verge of having no viable like-minded candidate early this year? The easy answer is to focus on the flaws of Romney and Thompson. Romney has only recently embraced conservative positions across-the-board. In addition, his religion probably hurts him and he seems to have difficulty connecting with voters. Thompson entered the race late and has failed to show the fire voters apparently are looking for.
But the deeper answer, I think, lies in the perception that Republicans haven’t governed very well during the past seven years. If the Republican Congress had performed better in general and if President Bush had handled the war in Iraq better (or arguably if he hadn’t launched it), one can easily imagine that George Allen (or perhaps Bill Frist) would be the frontrunner for the nomination right now. The perceived failures of Congress and of the president knocked both of these Senators out of the box, and Bush’s lack of popularity has Republicans flirting with non-traditional Republican options.
There’s irony here because I would argue that the flaws of the Republican Congress and of the Bush presidency don’t stem from adherence to conservative principles. But life is unfair. I’ve long suspected that the Republican party (which is synonymous in large segments of “the public mind” with “conservative”) isn’t perceived as having performed well enough to elect a mainstream conservative president this year. It may turn out that it isn’t viewed as having performed well enough even to nominate a mainstream conservative.

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