What the GOP race needs is a little less authenticity. Supposedly, the moral of the GOP story to date is the opposite. Romney’s stand on the issues leaves him poised to unite the Republican coalition. Yet people feel that somehow he doesn’t mean it. They worry that Romney has switched positions for purely political reasons, and as well that his public presence seems scripted. On the other hand, candidates like Huckabee and McCain, who seem more authentic (personally, and on positions) do well. True enough, but the authenticity dynamic also works in reverse.
Rudy Giuliani could have cornered the nomination some time ago, yet he’s effectively thrown it away (so far) because of an arrogant belief that he could dump a central part of the Reagan coalition. There are so many things Giuliani could have done to meet social-conservatives half-way. He could, for instance, have energetically denounced the Iowa gay marriage decision as a deeply dangerous example of judicial activism (which it is), without changing his substantive views; moreover, he could easily have found a way to meet opponents of abortion half-way. Instead, Giuliani decided to take an implicit swipe at Romney by emphasizing his superior authenticity. “At least I tell you honestly who I am and what I believe,” Rudy said. “This is me. Take it or leave it.” They took it, left it, and decamped to Huckabee.
Authenticity is all well and good, but politics is a balance between authenticity and convincing your constituents that you’re both listening and willing to represent them. Instead, Rudy arrogantly assumed that he didn’t need to cater to social conservatives. Giuliani believed he could win without them, and even seemed to relish the idea of a coalition that left social conservatives in the cold. Big mistake — authentic, arrogant — and wrong.
John McCain is Mister Authenticity (and, I fear, Mister Arrogance as well.) McCain’s lonely, persistent, and now perhaps victorious struggle is a tribute to his stubborn self-confidence — a trait we both want and need in a leader (but only to a degree). Unfortunately, McCain’s success is now in danger of confirming him in his ornery-ness. The danger is that McCain won’t see that his very success now requires him to change in order to unite the party. Like Rudy, but even more so, McCain often seems more interested in transforming the Republican coalition than in leading it. McCain may squeak by with the nomination, but if he isn’t careful, he’ll collapse in the general election, whatever the polls say now. Rudy was fooled by positive polls; McCain will likewise be fooled if he misses the urgent need to make a fundamental compromise with the coalition he says he wants to lead.
Over and above any policy issue, McCain has seemed to enjoy triangulating against conservatives. If McCain wants Republicans to accept him as their leader, he’s got to do something to counteract their impression that he enjoys dissing them.
Even Fred Thompson was a bit too much himself. Thompson didn’t want to campaign the way every other presidential candidate has to campaign. He seems to have hoped to reinvent candidacy itself. That was totally untenable for someone with relatively little leadership experience, and a need to prove that escape to an acting career wouldn’t prevent full commitment to the toughest job in the world. “Jump,” says the presidential game. Fred should have said, “How high?”
Again, what we need is some well-placed inauthenticity. McCain and Rudy can still take a lesson. We already know these guys are authentic, self-confident, even stubborn. What’s more, we (rightly) like that. But Rudy and McCain need to understand that Republicans also need proof of their sensible side. We need to know that they are willing to make the fundamental compromises necessary to take on the leadership of the still-existing Reagan coalition. That is politics in the best sense, not cravenness or self-betrayal.
Huckabee seems furthest from the coalition mainstream. What’s more, Huckabee appears relatively uninterested in trying to revise that impression. Huck is another one of those folks with authenticity to spare, but too little respect for the coalition he aspires to lead. Does he really expect to win, or is he just running to be president of evangelical America? I don’t know if that’s a fair criticism, but the fact that folks seem to think it’s true is a sign that Huckabee isn’t trying hard enough to meet the coalition half-way.
Thompson appears to be too far down to come back. Maybe so, but if anything can save him, the current configuration of this race may be it. If Romney drops out or is seriously damaged, Thompson may get a second look from folks who eagerly waited for him to enter, but were disappointed by his early performance.
Rudy needs to make significant gestures toward social conservatives — and he needs to do it now. There is no other way, nor should there be. Rudy also needs to convince voters that he is significantly better on immigration than McCain. McCain needs to take still further steps toward conservatives on immigration. Perhaps equally important, McCain needs to somehow convince Republicans that he will largely govern as a conservative. Can McCain get away without doing this? For now, maybe. But remember what happened when Rudy took his poll numbers for granted.
Since he’s riding high, let’s have a closer look at McCain. Hugh Hewitt’s important post on McCain,
particularly Hewitt’s interview with Rick Santorum, will raise serious concerns for many conservatives. If this is the authentic McCain, and I suspect it is, the Republican coalition may not be able to unite behind him. The intense scrutiny brought to bear in a presidential campaign will make it next to impossible for McCain to hide his true self from an already suspicious Republican base. The Hewitt interviews are only the beginning.
If there’s a solution for McCain, Scott Johnson points to it in a very thoughtful reading
of the senator’s autobiography. McCain’s authenticity — his great strength — derives from an intense sense of honor. I don’t doubt that this sense of duty and honor kept McCain alive and sane in the toughest of human situations in Vietnam. And surely that same sense of duty and honor has enabled McCain to persevere heroically on behalf of the surge, and against seemingly insurmountable odds in the current campaign.
Yet too often our greatest strengths are the source of profound weaknesses, as well. Johnson argues persuasively that McCain’s life-giving sense of honor is so powerful that he mistakenly elevates issues legitimately subject to pragmatic resolution into ultimate tests of personal integrity. McCain needs to re-calibrate his imperfectly drawn line between genuine questions of personal honor and reasonable matters of political compromise. What’s more, McCain needs to convincingly show Republicans that he is knowingly doing this. There is no danger that McCain will lose his powerful sense of honor and integrity; there is considerable danger, however, that in his anxiety to guard an acute personal sense of honor, McCain will lose the opportunity to make an honest, fair, and respectable peace with his base.
I’ve argued that Romney should not give up. His decision to pull advertising beyond Michigan sends out a bad sign. That’s penny wise and pound foolish. This is the moment for Romney to show his heart and give it all he’s got. In any case, given the problems with Rudy and
McCain, it’s too early for Romney to drop out. But it’s not too late for Giuliani, Huckabee and McCain to show they can engage in reasonable compromise with the coalition they aspire to lead.
Americans don’t want to be led by a hollow yes-man. But we don’t want to be ruled by an arrogant SOB either. A little less authenticity, please, and a little more listening up.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.