In the wake of the Michigan Republican primary, National Review Online asked: “What questions should conservatives be asking themselves as they look at the GOP field post-Michigan?” Here are some responses.
Steven F. Hayward
Mitt Romney’s win in Michigan ought to elevate a peripheral place and a bundle of issues that hitherto have been out of focus for much of the campaign. The place — California, whose primary hasn’t mattered for either party’s nomination at least since 1984, even though California keeps moving it up (this year on Super Tuesday, February 5). The issue cluster: the economy and the prospect of fiscal collapse in Washington over the next generation.
While Romney adroitly capitalized (so to speak) on the economic doldrums of Michigan, in California a similar drama is playing out — a huge budget deficit ($10 billion and growing) at a time when the state’s economy has been reasonably decent. This has been a long time coming. Governor Pete Wilson warned in the early 1990s that California was heading into a permanent structural fiscal crisis unless fundamental changes were made to the state’s out-of-control public sector, but the unexpected dotcom boom bailed out the state’s economy and the big spenders in Sacramento. Now the planets are in line for California to follow Michigan with economy-killing tax hikes and debt finance to keep the game going. California’s agony is merely a preview of what awaits Washington with the entitlement spending explosion of the next two decades.
The candidate who would seem to be ideally suited to speak to this issue is the former mayor of New York, who knows a thing or two about containing the public sector, if he has the wit to develop the theme. Romney’s private sector emphasis could offer California Republicans a useful contrast, especially as the nation increasingly worries that it is slipping into recession.
– Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980. He is presently at work on a second volume, The Age of Reagan: Lion at the Gate, 1980-1989, from which this article is adapted.
So, it’s Mitt Romney by, oh, a quarter mile. By the previous standards of this quirky and often-silly electoral season, the political talk shows ought to start speculating about Romney’s strategy for November and columnists ought to be tossing around potential veep picks. It’s all still way too early, of course, which was also true last Tuesday night in New Hampshire and the previous Thursday in Iowa. The GOP race remains competitive. Both practicality and politeness argue for letting voters in other states have their say before packing it in.
Apologists for the other candidates will discount Romney’s win by pointing to his native-son status, the exceptional nature of Michigan’s economic challenges, the lack of a real Clinton-Obama fight to boost political interest, and the weather. The apologists will be right. But where were they when Romney defenders pointed to the idiosyncrasies of Iowa and New Hampshire, and the odd media snub of Wyoming’s Jan. 5 vote (which actually awarded more delegates than Granite State voters did)?
If there is a deeper significance in Romney’s Michigan success, it is that the conservative establishment within the Republican Party retains influence and cohesion. Among the GOP candidates, the divide is between two candidates on the one side (Romney and Thompson) running as conservatives in the traditional triad of economics, foreign policy, and social issues and three candidates on the other (McCain, Huckabee, and Giuliani) running as conservatives in one or two of those issue sets but not all three. The latter group essentially believes that the current GOP coalition is inadequate to defeat either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the fall. Romney and Thompson disagree, believing that Republicans must secure their base and then pitch independents on particular issues where the Democratic nominee will lack credibility or be out of step.
For good or ill, the conservative establishment agrees with the optimists, Romney and Thompson. These establishmentarians don’t feel inclined to abandon conservative principles that they believe are both correct and politically effective. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, many of them have gravitated to Romney (with a smaller group preferring Thompson on grounds of either resume or consistency). The Michigan results please them, though few seem to have yielded to irrational exuberance. That is wise. Super-Duper Tuesday is still to come, then a long, hard slog to November.
The question Republicans need to be asking themselves is: Who is the real conservative in this race? While that question leaves a lot to debate, the outcome in Michigan has clearly demonstrated who is NOT a conservative.
Huckabee is continuing to prove that he is unable to attract strong support beyond the Evangelical community, and even unable to hold onto a significant majority of the Evangelical vote in some cases. In Iowa, Huckabee captured a plurality of votes with a substantial Evangelical majority voting in the caucuses, but these same Evangelical voters did not come to Huckabee’s rescue in Michigan. Last night, Huckabee split the Evangelical vote with Mitt Romney straight down the middle, capturing 16% of the total vote while Evangelicals constituted 35% of the Michigan electorate. There is good reason for Huckabee’s poor showing. Despite his dimpled smile and social conservatism, Huckabee’s liberal record on economic, law and order, and foreign policy issues continue to form an insurmountable ceiling. Ultimately, Huckabee cannot win the Republican nomination by relying on half of the Evangelical vote.
Similarly, in the first four primaries, John McCain has failed to capture a majority of the Republican vote even once. His victory in New Hampshire, which injected life into his moribund campaign, relied on Independents—he actually lost Republicans to Governor Romney by a point. And last night, Romney dominated among Republicans and conservatives in Michigan. As with Huckabee, John McCain is floundering because of the many times he has abandoned conservatives on key issues. Sure, Senator McCain is popular with Independents, but he cannot win the Republican nomination without winning a majority of Republican voters.
While there will continue to be much discussion about who is the best conservative in this race, it is clear that voters do not think that Mike Huckabee or John McCain fit the bill.
— Pat Toomey is the president and CEO of the Club for Growth.