Politics & Policy

Game Over?

GOP life after South Carolina.

In the wake of the Nevada caucus and South Carolina Republican primary on Saturday, National Review Online asked a group of political experts: “Is it all over or has it only just begun? What should conservatives bear in mind as we head into the Florida primary and Super Tuesday?”

Kellyanne Conway

We’ve only just begun, folks. The only clear frontrunner in this race is the economy, and even that is new. With the exception of Nevada (which was not competitive), in each contest so far, the GOP winner has been rejected by a majority of voters participating in that Republican primary or caucus.

That should please conservatives, since it means free-market competition and not that silly fiction called “electability” (“he can/can’t win”) govern this race and that we, the consumers, eventually will decide which product on a crowded shelf of choices is superior. What a refreshing departure from the royalist party’s recent past.

Conservatives should not buy into this notion that the movement is so fractious and the party in such disarray that we must quickly coalesce behind a single man to show unity and start preparing for the general election. Why? The best preparation for the eventual nominee is a protracted primary contest where people are forced to present concrete plans, explain their ideas (and their past votes and actions), and demonstrate their differences. Beats the fluff and no-stuff of “hope,” “change,” and “optimism.”

And as for who best to unify the various constituencies of the Republican party, we’ve already found that candidate: Hillary Clinton.

 – Kellyanne Conway, is president and CEO of the polling company(tm), inc./WomanTrend.

Alvin S. Felzenberg

Well, it’s not over, but the Republican nomination for president may well be settled before the super-duper 20-state primary on February 5. The moment is at hand for conservatives to make an important decision. Do they want to continue the revolution Ronald Reagan started by reducing the size of government and bringing the nation’s enemies to their knees, or are they prepared to be shunted to the sidelines as a Democratic president and Congress raise taxes, stifle economic growth, and, in the name of making the United States “more popular” in the world, let down our guard in face of Islamic fanatics who wish to murder more of our fellow citizens and destroy our way of life?

In short, the moment is at hand to rally behind Senator John McCain and begin to help him plan for a successful campaign and administration. Like armies who always seem ready to fight the last war, conservative pundits and talking heads, with limited exceptions, have not been able to rise above past disagreements with the senator to see that he is the only Republican with the best chance of enacting their agenda.

No candidate can do that without winning. And to win, that candidate will need the votes not only of non-conservatives, but also of non-Republicans. McCain shows signs of going into the race without the personal baggage, ideological inconsistencies, and limited appeal of his rivals.

More importantly, McCain has passed the test worthy of a great president and the Democrats know it. During the bleakest moments of the Iraq war, with reporters belittling him day in and out, McCain stood his ground. While others opted to “wait and see,” McCain said that he would rather lose an election than a war. He may yet be the man who wins both.

By getting behind McCain now, conservatives can rekindle what was once a strong, vibrant, and effective movement — and with a strong, proven leader at its helm. They can begin funneling ideas and talent to McCain’s effort as he plans for what is certain to be a long and difficult campaign. Or they can continue to allow past and diminishing differences with him to push them into other camps, whose conservatives credentials are less established, and whose resolve to govern as conservatives are less certain.

More than 50 years have passed since Barry Goldwater stood before a Republican National Convention and told conservatives to “go to work.” This coming week is the time for conservatives of all stripes to do what conservative voters have done. They should “get over it,” “stop whining,” “go to work,” and, yes, do what is right for their country.

 – Alvin S. Felzenberg, a veteran of two Republican presidential administrations and an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, is author of the forthcoming, Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. (Basic Books).

John Hood

For all its drama, its twists and turns, the pontificating and punditry and “whither the conservative movement” hand-wringing, the past three weeks of early-state voting hasn’t come close to picking a winner. It was the regular season. Five teams with plausible routes to the championship began the season in Iowa, along with a couple of entertaining long shots. Now, with Mitt Romney winning his third contest in Nevada and John McCain edging out Mike Huckabee for his second in South Carolina, the regular season is over.

The playoffs begin with the Florida primary. It’s the wildcard game. Romney and McCain have won their respective divisions and are guaranteed to compete on Super Duper Tuesday. Romney, who has actually polled the most votes and scored the most delegates so far, is now the candidate of mainstream conservatives. McCain, the darling of the news media, is now the candidate of moderates and cranky conservatives. The noble and eloquent Fred Thompson tried but failed to earn a wildcard spot. Regarding of whether he formally withdraws or hangs in until Florida, he’s no longer competitive. Not sure whom that helps more, because Thompson’s voters are mainstream conservatives on the issues but he’s closer to McCain in style and personality.

Oddly enough, the real contest to watch in Florida is going to be between the two most dissimilar candidates, Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. Each must do very well — win or run a strong second — in order to survive as a viable candidate on Feb. 5. Neither McCain nor Romney need necessarily do either, though they are certainly capable of doing so. I think we get essentially a three-man race after Florida, and a two-man race after Super Duper Tuesday. Sorry for the jarring switch of metaphors, but past performance does not guarantee future results. As the field narrows, lots of previously committed activists, commentators, donors, and voters are going to be reverting to second and third choices. Who will they pick? Or will they pick at all?

John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation.

Lawrence Kudlow

Sen. John McCain capped off his big win in the South Carolina primary with the single best victory speech of anyone in the campaign season so far. Following his New Hampshire win, Mac gave a boring, stilted, vision-less, down-market talk that pursued him throughout his Michigan defeat.

Saturday night, the senator gave an uplifting and patriotic speech that highlighted America-first security and freedom against the jihadist enemy abroad and heavyhanded government at home. Focusing on conservative values and pro-growth economics, McCain defended the free market, low taxes, and small government.

In an interview McCain said he would make the Bush tax cuts permanent, cut the corporate tax, and restrain spending. On the so-called stimulus package, he said he would not support a larded up pork-barrel package. This is a well-balanced tax-and-spending-cut message.

It’s a welcome relief from what McCain consultant Charlie Black has been putting out. Black keeps telling interviewers about spending cuts to reduce interest rates. Pure root-canal austerity. Rubinomics. Not true analytically, with rates sinking in the slowdown economy, and not a trace of pro-growth tax-cutting. Every time Black appears, he loses McCain five percent of the primary vote in whatever state he is speaking.

Let Jack Kemp, who just crafted a big corporate tax-cut package for the senator, or Phil Gramm, become McCain’s economic spokesman.

Finally, I really liked Mac’s references to God, country, and service. He told the crowd “I will not let you down, so help help me God.” And then he closed with: “God bless you, as you have blessed me.”

With a strong and positive speech, and a big smile on his face, Sen. McCain is going to roll into Florida. If he stays on message, he’ll keep rolling right on to the nomination.

 – Larry Kudlow, NRO’s economics editor, is host of CNBC’s Kudlow & Company and author of the daily web blog, “Kudlow’s Money Politic$.”

Yuval Levin

The prospects of an endless messy Republican nomination process are probably overstated. One of Saturday’s two winners — John McCain or Mitt Romney — will very likely be the Republican nominee. Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee both needed to do well in South Carolina, and both tried so hard they prevented each other from succeeding. Neither can look forward to a state with better demographics and politics for him, and although Huckabee can hang on and perhaps win one or two of the February 5 states in the south, neither man can go further.

Rudy Giuliani could still surprise, to be sure, but he has allowed himself to sink while betting everything on Florida, which has badly hurt his national standing, and yet hasn’t even assured him of a win in Florida. He has gone nearly broke and has so far nowhere placed better than fourth — which seems a most unpromising path to victory.

Romney and McCain are both stronger than they seem. The knock on Romney is that he can’t connect with voters, but he has won more voters than anyone else, and twice as many delegates to the convention as McCain. McCain, meanwhile, routinely wins head-to-head match-ups with both potential Democratic candidates in national polls.

The trouble for both of them is that although one of them is likely to win, the field will not clear quickly enough for Florida and Super Tuesday to be two-man match-ups. So Romney can’t quite run as the anti-McCain (the generic if newly minted conservative who will spare us the maverick drama) and McCain can’t present himself as the anti-Romney (the conviction politician who knows where he stands and doesn’t care what you think). One of them will win, but not exactly by defeating the other. What a year.

  Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of the The New Atlantis magazine.

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