Faced with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as their national opponent, Republicans cannot risk disunity in the fall campaign. Whoever is the Republicans nominate must be able to both unify and energize the core constituencies of their party. When South Carolinians go to the polls tomorrow, their choice is between several men who cannot unify the party and one who probably can.
Fred Thompson’s ability to unify conservatives around their core principles should be much on South Carolinians’ minds. As should the record of the other contenders.
Throughout his career, Sen. John McCain has been a divisive force in Republican politics. His most famous victories and defeats were on measures in which he had allied himself with liberal Democrats. The awful campaign finance legislation was McCain-Feingold, not McCain-Sessions or McCain-Cornyn.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum recently spoke to radio host Mark Levin about McCain. Santorum said, “The bottom line is that I served twelve years with him. Six years in the United States Senate as a leader, one of the leaders of the senate, the number three leader. And almost at every turn on domestic policy John McCain was not only against us, but leading the charge on the other side.” McCain isn’t the unifier the Republicans need.
And neither is Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s successes were, like McCain’s, produced by alliances with Democrats. It’s fair for Huckabee to say that was all he had to deal with in Arkansas, but there are other things that compel the conclusion Gov. Huckabee isn’t going to be a unifying force this fall. Huckabee has been campaigning in South Carolina more as a preacher than a politician. And his views have been going farther and farther outside the mainstream.
In Michigan earlier this week, Huckabee said, “I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution…But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that’s what we need to do — to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.”
It’s hard to even begin analyzing that. What parts of the Constitution would Gov. Huckabee change to satisfy his religious views? Presumably, to match “God’s standards” the first thing he would do is repeal the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishing religion. Allegiance to the Founders’ Constitution is a core conservative value. Isn’t it also a core conservative value to appoint judges who are strict constructionists and don’t believe – as liberals do – that the Constitution is a “living” document? How can Gov. Huckabee unify the Republican Party on a “let’s tear up the Constitution” platform? What kind of Supreme Court justices would want to change the Constitution to match “God’s standards”?
Gov. Mitt Romney isn’t likely to unify conservatives, either. His pitch to Michigan voters was based almost entirely on government intervention in the automobile markets to save the faltering Detroit automakers. Speaking to a South Carolina audience the day after his Michigan victory, Romney said, “It makes sense to fight for every single good job…Anytime you see an industry that’s struggling, you say … ‘Is there some way of investing in technology, in innovation? Is there some new idea? Is there some way that America can keep its hold on this industry?’” He added, “If I’m president, I’m going to fight to keep every good job in this country.”
How? By interfering in the free market with industrial policies? Mr. Romney’s approach to solving the problems of declining industries seems to be based on big-government action. In 1979, the Great Chrysler Bailout was supposed to solve the problems of the Number Three US automaker with loan guarantees and such. By 1983 — as the Heritage Foundation wrote then the bailout was already a bust because Chrysler didn’t fix its most basic problems. Which are the same problems that plague the automakers today.
Among the serious contenders in South Carolina is Fred Thompson. Is he the unifying force around which conservatives can rally? His record is based more on personal choices than on alliances with liberals. Thompson’s ability to unify Republicans stems from two things. First, his gut-level conservatism. Which leads to the second, trust.
When asked a question, Thompson reacts comfortably without pausing to ponder which focus group will react in which way. He seems comfortable in his own skin. His avuncular style is a bit too folksy at times, but his answers are consistent and – in a way voters will see – principled. Which means people will trust Thompson.
This year the American electorate is more angry and disgruntled than I have seen it in more than four decades of study. Neither the President nor Congress – having failed to win the war, secure our borders or control reckless government spending – have the voters’ trust. The biggest issue this year may not be the war, or taxes, or the economy. Trust could overwhelm them all. And people trust Fred Thompson.
Fred Thompson is running an insurgent campaign in South Carolina. Having taken a pass in New Hampshire and Michigan, Thompson is operating without the media propulsion that benefit McCain, Romney and Huckabee. But South Carolina is historically friendly to insurgents: the most famous and successful American insurgent of all – General Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox – was a South Carolinian.
Marion gained the trust of his neighbors and then in scores of towns and villages in South Carolina. He had to do it on horseback. Thompson is going by bus. Marion’s insurgency succeeded against great odds, eventually forcing the British to retreat northward. At least one of Thompson’s opponents has already abandoned the field.
Insurgent Francis Marion was a unifying force in the Revolutionary Deep South. Insurgent Fred Thompson may be one this fall if South Carolinians help him tomorrow.