The Republican Party primary so far has been an exercise in none of the above. In their turns, Sen. McCain, former Mayor Giuliani, former Sen. Thompson and former Gov. Romney seemed to be or seemed about to be front-runners — only to fall back as the party’s likely voters got a sharper look at each of them. Even my old boss Newt Gingrich, without even announcing, had a handsome surge from 4-5 percent to 18-20 percent in February — before falling back to single digits.
Now former Gov. Huckabee — for the moment surging to the front — is on the receiving end of withering intraparty fire applied with a rhetorical violence usually reserved by Republican polemicists for a Clinton or a Kennedy. Just as social conservatives earlier this fall threatened (for a couple of weeks) to run a third-party candidate if Giuliani got the nomination, so Washington GOP elites are willing to misrepresent parts of what Huckabee has said and written in a savage effort to destroy any chance he might have of being elected.
It is as if each faction of the Grand Old Party feels a stronger passion to defeat its intraparty rival factions than to defeat the Democrats in November. This maximum instinct to deny victory within the party may be a sign of a philosophical rebirth (as in the Goldwater nomination and campaign of 1964), but it is also a sign of a party likely to lose the next general election.
The alleged Huckabee shocker of the week (for the GOP D.C. regulars in journalism and blogland) is his description of President Bush’s foreign policy as plagued by an “arrogant bunker mentality.” This phrase, according to Romney and his journalistic coat holders, is disloyal to President Bush and is right out of the Democratic talking points.
There is just a touch of insincerity in that charge. During the past year or two, one couldn’t have lunch at The Capital Grille (preferred dining spot for big-time D.C. Republican politicians and journalists) or other similar locations without hearing the constant complaint that the Bush White House was arrogant and wouldn’t listen to their friends about Iraq or about domestic matters. Until Eddie Gillespie came in as counselor recently (and started reaching out), the word “bunker” was a plausible and often-used word to describe the White House — even on Iraq policy before the surge this spring.
Perhaps the more honest charge against Huckabee on this point is that it is not politique to say such rude things in public about your own party’s president. On the other hand, criticizing a president whose job approval rating is between 30 percent and 35 percent may not be the least useful thing his aspiring replacement could do with his time and syllables.
There has been some fair criticism of Huckabee’s foreign policy statements. His use of homely schoolyard parables to explain foreign policy hit wide and short of the mark. In supporting the idea of diplomacy, he fails to point out its limitations and risks. And his sometimes-harsh assessment of American intentions is unfounded. In short, it sounds in places a little squishy and insufficiently “nuanced.”
On the other hand, he is for a rapid major increase in the size of the military. He is in favor of military action, if necessary, to deny Iran a nuclear bomb. He demands that we stay and fight and win in Iraq. And his discussion of the risk from radical Islam is as tough and realistic as I have heard. In fact, as the author of a book that was judged alarmist by some on the topic of radical Islam (“The West’s Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations?”), I could find little to complain about in his long discussion of the topic.
Of course, the track record for foreign policy campaign promises is not great. Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt promised to keep us out of World War I in 1916 and World War II in 1940, respectively. Kennedy would fix a missile gap that didn’t exist. LBJ would not get us into a major war in Vietnam. Nixon had a secret plan to get us out of that war. Clinton promised not to parley with Communist Chinese dictators. And George W. Bush promised a humble foreign policy and no nation building.
In a dangerous world such as ours, I would like to hear more (and more careful) words from Huckabee. But basically he seems to be a hawk — and thus not beyond the Republican pale (although his hawkish ways come with a perhaps-rhetorical bow to the current nervousness of needed independent and suburban Republican voters). I also would like to hear more (and more thoughtful words) than the mere GOP boilerplate we are getting from the other candidates, with the exception of McCain and sometimes of Giuliani.
I don’t have a candidate yet. I either disagree with each on important points or have doubts about the electability of each. But most of all, I fear our intraparty fury will destroy all leaders and send us off to a brokered convention — and from thence, probably to defeat. If the Democrats have their candidate by February and we are campaigning harshly until August, we surely would start in a deep hole.