Three unexpected developments have given Republicans a shot this year at winning — once thought impossible, given the normal desire of the electorate for a fresh party after eight years, and worries about Iraq and the economy. All can change, but for now they have a real shot.
The first, of course, is the radical turnabout in Iraq. Had we been seeing over 100 dead a month, the loss of Baghdad, and a failure of the surge, McCain would be finished and his Republican rivals would have carved out a third position between Bush and the Democrats that would have been still rejected by the voters.
Second, no one anticipated the surge of Obama, and the Clintons’ overt and clumsy efforts at personal destruction that turned off even liberals — a development that explains why a McCain in theory could be palatable to disaffected Democrats and Independents. No one knows whether Thursday night’s reconciliation will last. But I doubt it, since Obama was figuring his nice guy image gained him ground, while Hillary worried that unleashing Bill and knee-capping her rival lost her percentages. But when it gets down to winning and the race narrows, each will readjust and it will get nasty again. Bill is ungovernable, and growls and gets toothy in periods of quiet and tranquility when he recedes from the news
And third, the unanticipated November implosion of Rudy Giuliani coalesced many moderate Republicans behind one candidate, the once moribund McCain, while base conservatives were never quite energized over either Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Fred Thompson, and either diluted their support or never embraced a candidate with real passion.
It is understandable to lament the absence of conservative purity, but ahistorical to suggest that any recent Republican president would have met any of the litmus tests now demanded, given the dependency of the middle class on entitlements and its touchy-feely worldview.
Reagan, and Bush I and II all adjusted to that unfortunate reality. A Democrat did not appoint Souter, O’Connor, or Kennedy, nor raise payroll and gas taxes in the 1980s, nor sign amnesty and de facto open-border legislation in 1986, nor, later, increase federal spending well past the rate of inflation, or offer amnesty again in 2007. Tax cuts were great, but without caps on spending they were unfairly slurred as revenue reducers once deficits soared. Recent Republican congressional scandals mirror-imaged some of the Clinton-era roguery.
Reagan’s pragmatism on taxes, amnesty, new federal programs and government expansion, was continued by both Bush I and II. In that regard, McCain seems a continuum, not an abject disconnect. His problem is mostly temperament — when he strayed he was blunt about what he was doing and sometimes gratuitously offended his base in a way that neither Reagan nor the Bushes dared. That is a legitimate concern of tactical aptitude, but not one so much of ideology.
He also never was a conservative idealist that voiced conservative themes on the campaign trail which he could not enact once elected. But in terms of judicial appointments, foreign policy and the war, and federal spending, he is not much different from any of the prior three Republican presidents, and might well prove tougher, given his age and occasional contrarianism. We worry over his immigration stance, but his former mistaken position was Reaganite to the core and reflected the Bush consensus. His new stance of closing the borders first would be a radical departure, and a conservative remedy.
In short, anyone who saw the Democratic debate Thursday night can envision the new future on their horizon: identity politics and self-congratulation over race and gender; tax increases (back to estate tax hikes, income tax rates go up, payroll tax caps lifted, etc); internationalism for the sake of internationalism (defer to the U.N., E.U., apologies for past conduct, contextualizing terrorism), more government (teachers, the poor, the middle class, etc. all need new government programs to add to those we have), and legislating judges (more Ginsburgs and Breyers).
Given all of the above, I don’t think it’s in the interest of conservatives for much longer to worry about McCain’s class ranking at Annapolis or how many planes he was nearly killed in.