Breaking Down the 2008 Presidential Race

It’s the first week of 2007. And that means, of course, that it is time to break down the races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. Yes, everyone is tired of politics. But in the post-election, pre-Democratic-Congress glow of the holidays, we mustn’t forget about the coming political onslaught. If you thought 2006 was a nasty year in politics, just wait.

The problem for Republicans in 2007 will be finding a nominee who is conservative enough to govern, but well-known enough to win in 2008. No Republican presidential nominee without significant name recognition going into his primary run has emerged victorious in a general election since Warren G. Harding in 1920. Calvin Coolidge had already been president when he ran in 1924. Herbert Hoover had been secretary of commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations (a prestigious and attention-garnering office at the time). Dwight Eisenhower, of course, had been the most famous American general of World War II. Richard Nixon had been a prominent congressman and senator, as well as vice president under Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan had been both a motion picture star and governor of California. George H.W. Bush had been Reagan’s vice president; George W. Bush was H.W.’s son.

Republicans, far more than Democrats, rely on candidate star power to woo voters. It is far too easy for the mainstream media to caricature relatively unknown conservatives (see Dole, Bob or Goldwater, Barry). Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, perhaps the most viable Republican candidate in terms of his positions and experience, may be out.

Who, then, can provide this star power? There are three bona fide Republican stars in the 2008 field: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Each has serious drawbacks, and each has excellent selling points. McCain brings his massive popularity and media-darling status. He also brings his advanced age, his campaign finance reform record, his Gang of 14, his wishy-washy stance on homosexuality (including a vote against a constitutional amendment to protect marriage), his anti-conservative economic populism and his anti-torture positions. Giuliani brings his likeability, effectiveness and unblemished record of crisis management. He also brings his controversial personal history and his social liberalism. Gingrich brings his conservative strength and Southern appeal. He also brings his checkered past and a widespread public perception of extremism.

Of the three candidates, McCain would likely do best in a general election, uniting old-style populism with semi-hawkish foreign policy. His military service is a strong selling point, as is his national experience. The question for McCain is trust: Will Republican voters forgive McCain his numerous forays into "maverick" land?

Giuliani appeals to Republican voters who treasure national security above all else, and he is quickly moving to moderate his rhetoric on social issues. But with the culture wars raging domestically, will Giuliani’s social stances be palatable to an increasingly irritated conservative base?

Gingrich appeals to red state conservatives, and with the Republican congressional loss in 2006, conservatives may once again look to Gingrich to restore principle to the GOP. But with Ohio trending blue and the Northeast solidifying in favor of Democrats, a Gingrich nomination might be a risky nomination.

For the Democrats, the choice is clearer: It’s Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York all the way. Although constant media attention has elevated rookie Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the polls, this is part of a broader Democratic strategy to boost Clinton. The Democratic Party believes deeply that the illusion of political momentum for a candidate emerging from the primaries is more important than actual political momentum. To that end, the Democrats dub a challenger every four years. Every four years, they talk about how popular the new kid is. Every four years, the old warhorse, the candidate obscured by the blinding brightness of the hot new star, emerges victorious. In 2000, the hot new thing was Bill Bradley; the old warhorse was Al Gore. In 2004, the hot new thing was Howard Dean; the old warhorse was John Kerry.

In 2008, the hot new thing is Barack Obama; the old warhorse is Hillary Clinton. While everyone focuses on Obamamania, Hillary goes about her business — shoring up her political contacts, busting her campaign coffers at the seams, lurking in the political background until the time is right. And when it is, Obama will recede, possibly to a second spot on the Democratic ticket.

So it begins. Buckle your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.