New Smoke-Filled Room

The Republican contest for 2008 is now a dead heat between three attractive candidates, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain, who will likely be joined by other potentates in the next months. The contest is early, and events can galvanize the party toward a lone boom. However for now, peering ahead, this looks similar to conditions that created the notorious smoke-filled room of the Blackstone Hotel in the GOP convention of 1920, when a handful of tobacco-stained party bosses chose a truly unknown dark-horse for President, Sen.Warren G. Harding of Ohio.

What are the conditions that point the GOP toward a smoke-filled room and a last-moment choice? The primary explanation for the standoff is that the party’s affections for the major candidates are evenly divided between the big three factors for a successful candidacy, money, region and ideology (though it’s not wrong to say the big three are plainly money, money, money). Rudy Giuliani is a feverishly clear personality, a tragic hero on the Met stage, who has strong appeal in the big cities on the coasts, from New York to Miami to San Francisco. His ability to raise presidential scale money is untested but as potent as the zip codes that admire him. His regional strength in the primaries looks to the big states of New York and California. His ideology is a many-colored quilt of long term convictions, such as his law and order regime, near term inventions, such as his foreign policy, and foxhole conversions, such as his obfuscations about reproduction, which disturbs the party’s savants but has not yet caused the conservative tribunes to become stampy-footy.

Mitt Romney is much less vivid character than his rivals, who bases his appeal on his experience in governing the eccentric Massachusetts. Like President Bush, he is a party brat, the son of the Michigan governor and presidential candidate George Romney, and this means a deal to the sentimental vote. In casting parlance, not an indifference to the GOP, he is character actor who longs to open a movie. His ability to raise money depends upon wealthy party elders, chiefly former Massachusetts’ Gov. William Weld, and a collection of the old school tie crowd who used to be called by shrewd Westerners such as Richard Nixon, the Eastern Establishment. Romney’s ideology is a work in progress that cannot stand up to YouTube sound bites. He has demonstrated commitment to healthcare reform, scientific rigor and religious conviction that put him at odds with conservative respect for capitalism, intelligent design and evangelical worldview. The surprise so far is that the right wing has not barred the door, and this alone explains Romney’s healthy start.

John McCain bases his appeal on his incomparable military service and the fact that he has been everywhere, mused on everything and met everyone, including his Vietnamese torturers, in his three decades of political passion. McCain, like Teddy Roosevelt, is a force of Nature who, if he didn’t exist, would be a stunning creation by a novelist with Thackeray’s skills. His ability to raise money is certain, and he has already signed on veteran elements of President Bush’s finance and media teams, which makes McCain a primary dynamo, especially in the Southern bellwether of South Carolina. McCain’s regional strength is a jigsaw puzzle, because huge questions remain about his support in California and the red realms west of the Ohio where conservatives roam. McCain’s well-earned maverick credentials are a constant threat to him. His heartfelt pro-life and Herculean national security convictions are persuasive; however over the years he has repeatedly confounded the right on the crown jewels of taxes, immigration, healthcare, and the intuitive issue of party loyalty. McCain’s road depends upon his skill to ride past the right’s resentments and to corral the party’s unbranded.

In 1920, after a deadlock of four ballots, the GOP threw itself into six more ballots on one steaming day, June 13, in at the Coliseum in Chicago. Downtown, at the plush Blackstone Hotel, the managers of Harvard physician, Indian fighter, Rough Rider and T.R. compatriot Gen. Leonard Wood looked across the smoke-filled room to the managers of Illinois governor, graft fighter and businessman Frank Lowden, and then both teams looked at the managers of California maverick, Progressive Party founder, and T.R. compatriot Hiram Johnson. It was standoff worthy of titans, and no one team had the strength to overwhelm the other two. They did have savvy. In the Coliseum, on the seventh and eight ballots, Johnson delegates leaked and the undistinguished Ohio freshman senator and matinee handsome Sen.Warren Harding rose slightly. On the ninth ballot, Wood’s forces, to frustrate Lowden, broke to Harding, who went over the top on the tenth ballot to uniform shock, especially to the candidate, who had already deceived the bosses that he didn’t have embarrassments to conceal from the electorate and his wife.

In the new smoke-filled room clouding up for 2008, it is not unwise to lay in plenty of filters and to prepare for that Republican fascination with none of the above.