I’m writing both as a friend and as a sympathetic observer of your possible candidacy. You are probably getting all kinds of free advice right now, most of it worth what you paid. I had a few thoughts about the early days of the campaign for you to add to the pile.
First off, rent some movies. Watch Journeys with George and The War Room to get a reminder of how intense, grueling, and intrusive presidential campaigns are. And if anyone advises you that you can run “a different kind of campaign” that is less demanding, be very skeptical. And while you have seen negative ads against you, of course, in a presidential campaign they will reach an entirely new level.
Second, announce your decision soon. A Republican strategist went through the calendar with me. Many states are holding their primaries on Feb. 5. In those that allow mail-in votes for the previous month, voting will start on Jan. 5. That means you will need more than enough signatures to file by around Thanksgiving. And that, in turn, means that you need to have an organization and money in place “well before Labor Day.” August is mostly lost time, notes this strategist, so you need to “be up and running by Memorial Day at the latest.” Plus, people might get tired of waiting for you to commit.
Third, acknowledge that you’ve gotten more pro-life over time. Twice in recent weeks, you have expressed perplexity that anyone thinks you were once pro-choice. Stephen Hayes quoted you in The Weekly Standard:
“I have read these accounts and tried to think back 13 years ago as to what may have given rise to them. Although I don’t remember it, I must have said something to someone as I was getting my campaign started that led to a story. Apparently, another story was based upon that story, and then another was based upon that, concluding I was pro-choice.”
But, he adds: “I was interviewed and rated pro-life by the National Right to Life folks in 1994, and I had a 100 percent voting record on abortion issues while in the Senate.”
Your record in the mid-1990s was a bit less solidly pro-life than that. A 1994 issue of Republican Liberty apparently quotes you opposing public financing of abortion but adding: “The ultimate decision must be made by the woman. Government should treat its citizens as adults capable of making moral decisions on their own.” That same year, in which you ran for the Senate (and won), you said something similar in a debate: There should be no federal funding, and states should be allowed to enact parental notification and other “reasonable controls,” but government should not “come in and criminalize, let’s say, a young girl and her parents and her doctor as aiders and abettors that would be involved.”
News accounts treated you as pro-choice, and there is no record of your campaign’s trying to dispute that characterization. The National Right to Life Committee did indeed endorse you in that race, and their post-election newsletter listed you among the victorious “pro-life candidates” that year. But that newsletter also grouped you with candidates who were opposed to the Freedom of Choice Act and federal funding of abortion, rather than with candidates who were pro-life across the board.
In 1997, finally, your office sent a constituent a letter about abortion that included this line: “I believe that government should not interfere with individual convictions and actions in this area.”
I think the record suggests that you were always uncomfortable with abortion and prepared to support some restrictions on it, but that your opposition deepened over the course of your time in public life. The whole country’s discomfort with abortion seems to have deepened over that time, too. (In part, that was a result of the partial-birth abortion debate in which you were involved.) If that is what happened, I don’t think pro-lifers will hold it against you to say so. Those pro-lifers who worry about the sincerity of Mitt Romney’s conversion do so because he seemed ardently pro-choice not long ago. As you said, you have a strong record of voting with pro-lifers that goes back to 1995.
Fourth, bone up on stem cells. You’ve managed to avoid taking a detailed position on the issue. And it’s not a top-tier issue. But the issue can get pretty complicated, and you’ll buy yourself trouble if your first remarks on the question have to be modified or elaborated later. I hope that you’ll agree with the president’s position on the issue: against human cloning, and against federal funding for research that involves the destruction of human embryos. If that is your position, it will be advantageous in the primaries, putting you to the right of John McCain and (one assumes) Rudy Giuliani while leaving Mitt Romney no room to your right. And it won’t hurt you in the general election. Very few people vote for candidates based on their position on stem cells, and the pro-life position can be explained in a way that sounds reasonable to most voters within Republican reach, even if they do not themselves share that position.
I would suggest saying something like the following: “I strongly support stem-cell research, including federal funding for stem-cell research. Adult stem-cell research has already led to benefits for some patients. Additional exciting research is being done on stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid, and a few researchers are looking at cutting-edge methods of stem-cell research that were hardly imaginable a few years ago. All of us, however, want this research to proceed with ethical guidelines. My own view is that those lines should be drawn in a way that protects human life in all its stages. Human embryos should not be created for research, and taxpayer money should not be spent on destroying them for research either.”
Fifth, don’t feel pressured to flip-flop on campaign-finance reform. You supported it. So did all the top-tier candidates: McCain, Giuliani, and Romney. More recently, you have said that it might be wiser to remove the limits on contributions and just have full disclosure. This isn’t as contradictory as it may sound to some people, since you were for raising the contribution limits all the way through the process. (And McCain-Feingold did indeed raise them.) I think the line-up of candidates gives you more or less complete freedom to say whatever you want to say on this topic. While I myself favor the libertarian line on it, you shouldn’t feel any need to reverse yourself in some dramatic way to win conservatives’ favor.
Sixth, don’t (just) run on a conventional conservative platform. Right now, a big chunk of your appeal to the Right — aside from your celebrity and sober, no-nonsense manner — is that you have been more consistently conservative than McCain, Giuliani, or Romney. I don’t think that means you would be a weaker general-election candidate than them: Neither McCain’s heterodoxies nor Giuliani’s seem likely to win over independent voters, as Ross Douthat has pointed out, and Romney’s record of flip-flops won’t either.
But a lot of conservatives have been telling themselves that Republicans lost the election because they were insufficiently committed to conservative orthodoxy: that if they had just eschewed pork and prescription-drug benefits, the voters would have been kinder to them. It is a comforting theory with almost no basis in fact.
Running on a strictly conservative platform has not won Republicans the presidency since at least 1988. Since that campaign was heavy on flag-waving, it might be more accurate to say “since 1980.” Even in 1980, moreover, Reagan made some innovations to conservatism: adding supply-side tax cuts to the mix, and backing away from opposition to entitlement programs. More to the point, Reagan succeeded not because his platform conformed to a philosophy, but because it applied that philosophy, creatively, to the problems of the day. If you end up being a successful candidate, you’ll have done that too.
But as with most of this advice, I suspect you already know that.