These are trying times for Republican souls. Many sunshine patriots in the party have grown weak-kneed in the face of a relentless barrage of bad news, and increasingly edge toward giving up on taxes, Iraq, and a host of other signature Republican policies. Morale has plunged to such depths that euphoria erupts following a narrow Supreme Court decision holding that the Constitution does not prohibit governments from banning an abortion procedure that liberal Democrat Pat Moynihan once termed “as close to infanticide as anything I have come upon in our judiciary.” What would have been common sense a decade ago is now a cause for celebration.
To be sure there are early signs that the 2006 elections were not merely a short-term manifestation of revulsion against the ethical and fiscal failings of the Republican Congress and a revolt in public opinion against President Bush’s war policies. Polling shows that under-30 voters favor Democrats by 30 points in the generic Congressional balloting. A recent Pew poll shows Democrats enjoying a massive 15-point identification advantage over Republicans.
But when one scratches beneath the surface of this news, one sees that the news is not really so bad for Republicans heading into 2008. Most other surveys do not find the same pronounced advantage for Democrats as does Pew — Rasmussen, for example, pegs the gap at 5.7 points — an improvement of a point-and-a-half since December of 2006. While the 30-point gap among young voters is troubling, these voters are the least likely to vote and are among the most malleable voters. One can imagine that a poll of baby boomers would have looked similar at the height of the Vietnam War and Watergate crises.
The best news for Republicans, though, is that they have the strongest field of presidential candidates that they have enjoyed in a generation. Consider the field. The front-runner is a successful two-term mayor of the largest city in the country, who cut taxes, strengthened law enforcement, cracked down on smut peddlers, and ended affirmative action in the city. The other top-tier candidates include a popular Senator from Arizona with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 82.3 (Majority Leader McConnell’s is 89.7), and a successful governor of the nation’s most liberal state, who has found his conservative voice, and who has the total presidential package: Looks, family, money, presence, and increasingly, policy.
Even the Republicans’ second tier is comprised of candidates who would be first-tier candidates in other years. Tommy Thompson is a four-term governor of a swing state who pioneered welfare reform and school choice, and who was a perennial Vice-Presidential option in the 90s. Mike Huckabee had similar success in his state that is still blue at all levels other than presidential. Sam Brownback has two years less federal experience than the three Democratic front-runners combined.
Compare this to the 2000 field, which consisted of a one-term governor of a red state, who put social conservatives ill at ease, the Senator from Arizona (who was not yet well known), Lamar(!), and a number of candidates who had never held office, including Elizabeth Dole, Steve Forbes, and Gary Bauer. Or the 1996 field, whose front-runners included an endearing but clearly past his prime Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan (who was in the process of going so far right he came out on the left), Lamar(!), and a then-socially-liberal Steve Forbes (oh yeah, and Arlen Specter.) 1988 was even thinner, with a sitting Vice-President who had campaigned as a pro-choice opponent of supply side economics eight years earlier, Senator Dole, Pat Robertson, Donald Rumsfeld, and Jack Kemp (then a Congressman) vying for the nomination.
The strength of the present Republican field is even more apparent when compared to the Democrats’ field. The current front-runners there are a one-term Senator with the highest disapproval ratings of any declared candidate, and an inkblot who has served two years in the Senate and never faced a serious race. The top-tier is rounded out by a trial attorney who speaks of “two Americas,” but who recently purchased a house large enough to house the other America, who enjoys $400 haircuts, who took millions of dollars in income as a distribution from his S corporation law practice (legally, but with the effect of avoiding paying FICA or Medicare tax on it), and who spent much of the past two years as a consultant for a hedge fund that kept its assets in the Cayman Islands to avoid subjecting some investors to taxes. Throw in a qualified-but-overlooked governor from a small state and two senators who have been in Congress since I was in diapers and you have a completed field.
The results of this mismatch are unequivocal. Rudy Giuliani has led the Democrats’ “big three” in every public poll taken except for eight. John McCain fares somewhat worse, but leads in most polls against Senator Clinton and in about half of the polls against Senator Obama or Edwards. (Mitt Romney, with much lower name identification has not fared as well.) And this comes at a time when Republican fortunes are supposedly at an all-time low.
Many conservatives will complain that, while the Republican field may be performing well, there is not a Reagan conservative in the field. But I wonder how many of these conservatives would have viewed Reagan in 1979 — a man who signed into law the most liberal abortion law in the country, who approved tax hikes to balance the state budget, who had announced a moderate Pennsylvania Senator as his proposed running mate in 1976, and who was too old, too Hollywood, too divorced to be elected President, much less be a reliable conservative. While none of the current candidates are perfect, many of them are pretty darned close, and all are gravitating in a more Reaganesque direction, while maintaining their strength in the polls.
Thomas Paine wrote “The Crisis” at the darkest point of the American Revolution. While the current crisis in the Republican party may signify deeper problems for the conservative movement, I think a closer read shows merely that we may be living in the darkest hours that inevitably come before the dawn.