The principal product of this misbegotten presidential primary cycle isn’t going to be the best pair of candidates in November: it’s anger. Especially among the disparate groups that call themselves Conservatives or Republicans, the frustration continues to build as each primary and caucus concludes.
Conservatives are frustrated with Bush Republicanism because – first among many big problems — it has failed to win a now six-year old war. When Mr. Bush leaves office, his legacy will be that (including a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran), two superb Supreme Court justices and a bloated government only a liberal could love. As this week’s Economist reports, in Mr. Bush’s seven years he has signed legislation containing about 55,000 earmarks worth $100 billion. Congressional spendaholics — both Republican and Democrat — are fattening it as if it were a Strasbourg goose.
The president’s relations with Congress are so bad that — as one senior member of the Judiciary Committee told me — the lobbying efforts by his cabinet members are counterproductive. Voters cannot miss the hostility between the White House and Congress played on their television screens almost every night. They blame both for the failure to deal with a whole host of issues from the war to illegal immigration to the apparent recession. Anger is voters’ reaction because they feel powerless to get their government to do what so obviously needs to be done. (That peoples’ opinions on what those things are differ does nothing to defuse the anger. In fact, the disagreement increases the anger.)
The Republican candidates seem to be dealing with the anger by ignoring it sometimes and fueling it others. “I assume that I will get the nomination of the party. I assume unifying our party is a very critical item and I believe we can do that and get everybody together and working together. And I’m confident I can do that,” Sen. John McCain told a Nashville rally on Saturday.
Many conservatives, myself included, are aghast at the prospect of a John McCain candidacy this fall. And those who oppose other Republican aspirants — especially Mitt Romney — are over the top in their anger at his actions as Massachusetts governor. They’re getting to be as shrieky as the Ron Paul supporters are at anyone who criticizes their guy. The problem is that none of the candidates — Romney included — has been able to connect solidly with many people outside his own core group. Which means none — especially McCain — is likely to be able to unify the party.
The candidates too often reflect the anger of their supporters and detractors. When Sen. McCain starts calling an opponent “…my friend…”, his grin brings to mind an old Western movie when the gunslinger — hand on his Colt .45 — tells the other guy to “smile when you say that, pardner.” Mitt Romney’s negative commercials haven’t paid off in votes, just in fueling the fires of anger among the candidates themselves.
“Let me explain something to Mr. Romney and his supporters who have said that. It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” So said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee answering Romney supporters who say he should drop out of the race. Huckabee — a distant third to Romney – is seen by Romney supporters as spoiling their man’s chance to close the gap separating Huckabee from front runner John McCain in tomorrow’s round of primaries. So their anger is aimed at Huckabee, not at their own man for failing to connect with the voters Huckabee is winning.
Huckabee’s statement — though tough — is noticeable for a lack of the tension and rage that defines most of the primary competition. Though tomorrow may well settle the nomination, but there’s no guarantee that it will. Mitt Romney may win enough states to make it a race for another month. And regardless of the results, they won’t settle the anger. It’s too deep-seated in the past seven years of the Bush administration.
The two Democratic presidential candidates aren’t doing much better. With Bill off the leash, Hillary’s campaign went ugly early, angering black voters. Now he’s supposedly under her control and behaving. That will last as long as it takes for him to cut another deal with Khazakstan or provide the fuel for another of the “bimbo eruptions” that made the 1990s almost tolerable for us. Or as long as it takes for tomorrow’s results to come in.
Bill Clinton can’t stand being out of power. Neither can Hillary. So when the smoke clears on Wednesday morning, and it’s clear that Hillary doesn’t have the nomination sewed up, Bill will chew through his leash and take off against Obama and all others who oppose Hillary. All it’ll take is one more racial reference to ignite a firestorm against his wife. Worse still, anything that’s seen as attempting to capitalize on the friction between the black and Hispanic communities will blow up nationally. That anger, if ignited, could be sufficient itself to sink Hillary before the Democratic convention.
The Dems have to deal with those and a lot of other anger-inducing issues. Though it may be with a wink and a nod, Hillary is (so far) opposing the CodePink-MoveOn.org radical antiwar types. Obama isn’t, and has just received the MoveOn.org endorsement. If Obama is skillful enough to turn the antiwar rage against Hillary, it will hurt her significantly. As will the pressure on her to join with Obama in what a lot of Dems think would be a “dream team” ticket.
Hillary will not agree to having Obama as her running mate. The Clintons will never admit it, but as desperate as they are to gamble on the electability of a liberal woman, they’ll do anything to avoid adding whatever risk they perceive of adding a black man to the ticket.
As horrible as the Republican primary system has been, the Dems’ is worse. Obama could still beat Hillary and after tomorrow neither of them will have yet captured their party’s nomination. Most Republican primaries are winner-take-all: few Democratic primaries are. While Mr. McCain may be given breathing room to raise money and begin his presumptive post-nomination campaign, the Clinton-Obama fight is only at about round ten of a fifteen-round match. It will get ugly again – more so than before — because that’s the way the Clintons campaign. Their surrogates will be everywhere, blasting Obama.
For Democrats, there’s no solution to the anger. For Republicans, there’s a possible cure. Newt Gingrich suggested it months ago.
For a Republican to cool the anger, he will have to make some sort of break with President Bush. Both McCain and Romney have defended the troop surge correctly, but neither has said what comes after. On the war, the economy, and a host of other issues, the Republican who — respectfully, but forcefully and clearly — breaks with the Bush administration can dampen the anger. And be in the best position to unify the party.