Power sharing and its discontents

The Washington Times reports that Gary Bauer has issued an appeal to social conservatives to “keep an open mind about Fred Thompson’s candidacy, even as we work to strengthen his stand on some key issues.” Bauer adds that “a Thompson vs. Hillary race would be an easy call for me to make.”
One would think that the natural response to Bauer’s statement is “duh.” However, Dr. Randy Brinson, chairman of Redeem the Vote, promptly faulted Bauer for making it. Although Bauer stopped short of endorsing Thompson, Brinson said that Bauer had violated the spirit of an agreement reached by a number of social conservative leaders not to endorse a candidate yet.
Thompson has come in for criticism from social conservatives for not being sufficiently staunch on the abortion issue and for not being a regular churchgoer. Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister and ardent pro-life advocate, has been criticized by James Dobson and Tony Perkins for suggesting that the administration should negotiate with Iran and for saying that “we broke Iraq.” And, of course, leading social conservatives have said that they will not support Rudy Giuliani under any circumstances.
What is going on? Part of it, I imagine, is simply jockeying for position by pro-Thompson and pro-Huckabee factions within the social conservative movement. But the fundamental force at work is that social conservatives are tired of sharing power with other kinds of conservatives. And the phenomenon runs both ways. One can easily detect among Giuliani supporters, for example, the desire to see the party break free of what they see as domination by social conservatives, and the urge to “get beyond” the abortion debate. And many of John McCain’s supporters probably regard social conservatives and certain other elements of the Republican base with the same lack of fondness that McCain himself has exhibited in the past.
These feelings are normal, if not inevitable, as we approach the end of eight fatigue-inducing years of Republican rule. In fact, third party candidacies are the rule, not the exception, in such circumstances. Just ask Al Gore, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter (in his sorry case, four years in office were sufficient to generate a third candidate), Hubert Humphrey, and Harry Truman (16 years of power sharing gave rise to third and fourth party candidates in 1948).
It’s easy to see why. People don’t like getting their way only some of the time. They are willing to accept this inherently unsatisfying arrangement when they have endured a period of seldom getting their way. But as the memory of that period recedes, the natural desire to prevail just about all the time kicks back in. When coupled with the contempt that familarity breeds, the stress on a governing coalition tends to be overwhelming. In these circumstances, even name of Hillary Clinton, and the devastating impact her presidency would have on the social conservative agenda, may not be enough to hold the coalition together.
There’s no doubt that the smart play for social conservatives is to support Giuliani if he’s the nominee. There is probably at least a 50 percent chance that Giuliani would appoint Supreme Court Justices willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. And it’s likely that he would have the opportunity to appoint enough such Justices to do the deed. By contrast, if Clinton is elected, it is virtually certain that Roe won’t be overturned during the lifetime of Randy Brinson, Tony Perkins, or James Dobson. Instead, the Supreme Court will continue to issue rulings that undermine much of what social conservatives stand for.
But invoking this reality is likely to fall on a great many deaf ears in 2008. It is asking a lot for social conservatives to support a man who disagrees with them on their most important issue, and one which involves bedrock moral principles. To ask this after eight years of power sharing is even more ambitious. My sense is that Bauer’s more modest request — keep an open mind about Fred Thompson — may be about as much as can be expected this cycle.
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