OK... I admit it... my Commentaries have been giving the Republican side of this battle for the Presidency in 2008 rather short shrift of late (except for a few "honorable mentions" in passing where what was going on as regards the Grand Old Party related, however indirectly, to the continuing tussle for the Democrats' presidential nomination so recently ended).
I surely hope that the reader understands that this was solely because the Democratic Party's nomination contest was so compelling, while there was actually rather little to say about the Republican side of the ledger until all the Primaries were completed on that side as well come Tuesday 3 June. Only now can we look at how John McCain won his Party's presidential nomination and what that might say about the Arizona Senator's ability to rally the GOP around him and, in turn, what this may portend for his chances come the General Election in November (at least as of this typing-- with the caveat that I might well come to think differently come 15 October than I now think on 15 June, if only because future events that might affect this Fall's Presidential Campaign cannot yet be at all clearly discerned!)
Much has been written about how much support Senator McCain- with his maverick reputation, one that has caused him to so often wag his finger disapprovingly at his own Party over the years he has been on the national stage- can actually expect from rank-and-file Republicans as we go along through the remainder of the Presidential Campaign. I here add my "two cents plain" and, to quote the very language of the American Declaration of Independence itself, "let Facts be submitted to a candid world":
Fact is: right now, the Republican Party US is in- for lack of any better term, let me here turn to a more purely technical political one- "deepest doo-doo"! ;-)
And its very depth therein is largely of its own making.
Truth be told, I have never- during all of my own eligibility as an American citizen-voter (which dates back to 1974, when I turned 18 and voted in my very first election- the New Jersey Primary in June of that year [thus, 34 years ago this very month as I type this]), let alone the entirety of my now over half a century on this planet- seen a Party take a huge victory, such as that the GOP enjoyed in the 1994 Midterm Elections- and only end up throwing it away so unceremoniously (where not also so stupidly!). The Democrats' concomitant defeat in those same elections or, for that matter, the major defeat the Republicans themselves took in the very 1974 Midterm Elections (that which would be the very first General Election *I* would ever participate in as a voter) due to the detritus left behind by President Richard Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal-- none of these even comes close to that which has happened to the GOP (or, rather, should I say the Republican Party brought onto itself?) over the last nearly decade and a half now!
Whether you agreed with all of it, some of it, or thought it all to be pretty much a big bunch of 'hoo-ey', Newt Gingrich's 'Contract with America' was the rare comprehensive outline of where a Major Party actually stood on the issues of the day as it headed into the 1994 Midterm Elections and the GOP was able to ride said 'Contract' into a noteworthy defeat of an incumbent Democratic President: Bill Clinton- then still in his first term- and his political allies in Congress.
So what exactly then happened to the GOP's "bright, shiny victory" of '94?
Some of the blame actually accrues to the very 'Contract with America' itself. As Gingrich's predecessor as Speaker of the House, the late Tip O'Neill, so well put it (and I will here use O'Neill's dictum in its simplest form): "Politics is Local". For not all of the '94 Republican victory was due to the 'Contract'- indeed, much (if not most) of it was more anti-Clinton than pro-GOP and much of this, in turn, was due to how the first nearly two years of the Clinton Administration was seen as affecting the average person "on the ground" (interestingly, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care initiatives [interesting in light of Senator-become presidential contender Hillary Clinton's positions on the Health Care issue during the recent contest for this year's Democratic presidential nomination] were widely perceived as principally a Federal Government boondoggle, antipathy toward which helped fuel the '94 Republican triumph more than the 'Contract with America' itself).
Indeed, this very observation of mine is along the lines of that which has lent itself to the long-since oft-repeated claim, by many Democrats, that so many in "Red State America" (a term I am here only using as a shorthand to better- and more quickly- make my point) vote against their economic interests (those so opining conveniently forgetting that it can fairly be argued that, when other concerns- such as Foreign Policy or Sociocultural Issues- become more important to an individual voter, voters of all ideologies, and in all parts of the Nation, vote against their economic interests).
Perhaps sensing this, the 104th Congress (the first completely Republican-controlled Congress in over four decades) ended up adopting only a few of the 10 main items in Gingrich's 'Contract with America', a failure that- had America a Parliamentary system of Government instead of its Presidential "Separation of Powers" one- would have, soon thereafter, seen a "Prime Minister" Newt Gingrich likely suffering very much the same fate as Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark as the 1970s became the 1980s, a vote of 'No Confidence' (or at least the threat of same) leading to new elections and, in the end, a rather short 'Gingrich Ministry' to be tossed into the ashbin of American History...
but the United States of America is, of course, not a Parliamentary Democracy. Under our Constitution, the President is his own "prime minister" and that "prime minister" (Republican control of Congress be damned!) was a Democrat named William Jefferson Clinton. The Republicans in Congress- led by Speaker Gingrich himself- tried to shut down the Federal Government by simply refusing to fund it (on the theory that President Clinton would be forced to take the blame and give into GOP budget-slashing demands); the strategy backfired... and badly! Bill Clinton simply oversaw the negotiations that resulted in the "Dayton Accords" re: Bosnia ("it's Foreign Policy, stupid"? [;-)]) while Gingrich and the GOP burned, won the "staring contest" and got his budget and then rode the resulting public invective directed against Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in Congress, at least in part, to a second term in the White House.
"Where's the outrage?" cried eventual losing GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole in '96 about what he considered to be the excesses of, where not also even corruption within, the Clinton Administration ...
but it seems Senator Dole would have been far better served to have directed his concerns to those within his own Party!
For Republican congressional hubris continued to be compounded by the Party's seemingly abject political ineptitude. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, you had those infamous hearings, conducted by Congressman Bob Zeliff (R-N.H.), virtually justifying the extremism of the so-called "Militia Movement" ('so-called' because one has had to wonder if those within that movement have ever read the definition of "militia" in the dictionary-- or, for that matter, the Constitution of the United States itself!) which, it can be fairly argued, had fueled the likes of a Timothy McVeigh. Fortunately, I reckon, Zeliff went on to commit political hara kiri by running for the GOP nomination for Granite State Governor in '96-- and losing, perhaps a last bit of old-fashioned Yankee Republicanism coming just before an era in which New Hampshire would end up electing Democrats to its Governorship in 5 out of the next 6 elections (a feat not accomplished by Granite State Democrats since before the Civil War) and # 6 out of 7 might well just be only a few months away now.
But even this was nothing compared to the veritable circus that was the Impeachment Crisis of 1998/99!
Granted, Bill Clinton fairly deserved the "rap on the knuckles" he received from the then-still-Republican-controlled Congress: impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate (a "rap" most Democrats, to this day, think undeserved and many Republicans still think not nearly punishment enough-- but the fact remains that President Clinton did commit Perjury in a Court of the very Federal System he himself had been twice sworn to "preserve, protect and defend"; meanwhile, his Perjury- and the subject matter about which the case at bar dealt [the President's alleged sexual dalliances] had little to do with those aspects of governance with which Impeachment was set up by the Framers to deal). Having said this, however, Bill Clinton- to his benefit- only ended up playing 'Moby Dick' to the Republican leadership in Congress (and its allies amongst the conservatives within the Greater Political Punditry)'s 'Captain Ahab' (I mean- in retrospect: one has to seriously ponder "just what were they thinking?" For, had Clinton actually been removed from Office, Vice President Al Gore would have thereupon become President-- and, although Gore ended up losing in the Electoral College, he ended up with more actual votes from the electorate in the 2000 Presidential Election than the victorious George W. Bush: why, given this, would the GOP have so wanted to give Gore any of the inherent advantages of incumbency going into 2000?)
All in all, it was "punishment for punishment's sake"- without any regard to such things as, say, "efficacy"- and the GOP here had devolved into a group of "sharks" who, while smelling "blood", would only end up discovering that, in the main, the "blood" was merely their own!
Though, to be sure, the "blood" was draining out of the Grand Old Party altogether slowly: if one looks at the political breakdown in Congress "as elected" (that is: not taking into account any Party switchers after an election until another election has intervened), the Republicans had gained a whopping net 54 House seats in '94, only to then lose 3, then 4, then 1 more through the next three Federal Elections. In addition, a United States Senate that had been- even after the 1996 elections - 55% Republican was tied as a result of the elections four years later. By then, Newt Gingrich had already summarily resigned from Congress even before the Senate would vote on the Articles of Impeachment against President Clinton and walked into the sunset as, perhaps, one of the most ineffective Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives in history.
We were thereafter treated to the spectacle of "Tom and the Fat Man" ('can a former bug exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas and a former Yorkville, Illinois high school History teacher co-exist without driving each other crazy?' [;-)]). I recall when, on the still relatively recent (as I type these words) day Dennis Hastert resigned from Congress, someone e-mailed me to remind me that Hastert had been the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House in history, I simply clicked on the "Reply" button and merely typed, into the resulting 'Compose Message' template, the obvious question 'Why?'
The answer to my single-word question, however, is actually altogether as simple as the question itself: because the Democrats foolishly decided to treat George W. Bush the same way the Republicans had treated Bill Clinton. "We don't at all like the polarizing partisanship-- therefore, we will be as partisan and polarizing as they are!", the Democrats seemed to say. "President Bush is a trained chimp and the GOP members of Congress but caged monkeys", many in the Senior Party would- in effect- declaim."How stupid they all are!"
Yes, indeedy-- so "stupid" that the GOP gained 7 House seats and 2 Senate seats in '02 and 3 more House seats and 4 more Senate seats in '04 (not to also mention the re-election of George W. Bush as President that same year!). In fact, in the immediate wake of the 2004 Elections, the Republicans held more seats in both chambers of Congress (again, "as elected") then they had held at any time since the GOP had first won congressional control in 1994!
Yes, 'tis true that 9-11-2001 helped the Republicans more than a bit during the period (per the political adage that Security, as an issue, helps Republicans more than it helps Democrats come election time), but it certainly didn't help matters when you had Democratic political operatives openly comparing "Blue State" what they called 'Metro America' to "Red State" 'Retro America', an implication of expressed cosmopolitan sophistication versus implied provincial backwardness that much of the Nation was certain to find (and rightfully so!) insulting.
Nevertheless, the Grand Old Party "emperors", indeed, had no clothes!
One of the things that Newt Gingrich did do (and it is one that is even praised by many not otherwise to be counted amongst Gingrich-supporters) was reform the way the House of Representatives itself operated internally- for example, weakening the "old boy"-style Seniority System as regards Committee and Subcommittee Chairmanships, among other things. The DeLay/Hastert days brought it all back again by gutting the Gingrich reforms (which, to be sure, the Republicans in Congress who have been around long enough to have served during Gingrich's Speakershop never really all that much liked anyway [why go through all that trouble to run for, and then have to defend, a House seat every two years if you don't actually end up with all those nice perquisites at taxpayers' expense?]) and, for all the talk about Republican fiscal conservatism (as compared to what the GOP has taken to calling "tax-and-spend liberal" Democrats), the six most recently Republican-led Congresses only ended up spending like drunken sailors on too-much-extended "liberty"...
and the only "Shore Patrol" around was in the form of those very Democrats: hence, the Democrats' taking control of both houses of Congress as a result of the 2006 Midterm Elections (though it also helped that the Democrats had recruited candidates for the Senate and House- as well as Governor- that showed, by '06. they had abandoned all that 'Metro' versus 'Retro' crap!)
For the Grand Old Party, the party (a dozen years of so very often confusing Action with Accomplishment) was- indeed- over (how temporarily, of course, remains yet to be seen!)
Going into 2008, then, the Republican Party found itself at a crossroads: a choice between its generally recent, and become more usual, downplaying pragmatic economic and foreign policy (neither of which were particularly popular among the "security first" crowd emerging in the wake of 9-11-2001) in favor of continuing sociocultural righteous indignation or actually offering up a pragmatic, "zig while everyone else in my Party zags" presidential nominee who actually had the potential ability to keep the White House in Republican hands, despite the recent GOP political defeats and the unpopularity of an incumbent Republican President (who- and, for this, the Grand Old Party as an institution should actually be grateful!- could not run for re-election because of constitutional Term Limits), unpopular even with many Republicans!
And- shock of all shocks!- the GOP is actually now on the very verge of, instead of descending into bickering over just which faction can best hold to those most strongly-held principles over which the Party's factions themselves tussle, actually putting all that aside in order to try and win an election that otherwise might have been unwinnable!
To this end, John McCain's victory in the Republican presidential nomination contest is as compelling as Barack Obama's on the Democratic side, yet is so much more "under the radar" (one wonders if the former U.S. Navy aviator- become Arizona Senator at least once in a while thinks that, had he been a younger man, he might have gotten a chance to fly, say, a 'stealth' fighter... in a sense, however, he has already done so politically).
Here, at least to me, 2008 very closely resembles a presidential nomination story from nearly a century ago- that of 1912. Historians seem to concentrate much more on the "sexier" contest, on the Republican side that year, between incumbent President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt- one which led T.R. to declaim "we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord" as he led the Progressive 'Bull Moose'-ers out of the GOP that year; yet the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination was actually just as interesting, one which led to an intellectual former University professor and professional historian-turned-Governor of New Jersey named T. Woodrow Wilson besting Speaker of the House James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark, easily the "front runner" for that Party's nomination in 1912.
From an historical perspective, Wilson's triumph (and his winning his Party's nomination is actually more triumphant than his eventual election to the Presidency, as his victory come November 1912 was largely due to the Taft/T.R. split amongst the Republicans) was as much "under the radar" as McCain's nomination seems currently to be (with the obvious disclaimer that it is impossible for me, as I type this, to provide any historical perspective on a 2008 Presidential Election yet to be even held!)
Back during the week before this past Thanksgiving, in mid-November of 2007, I was asked by some Democratic friends of mine- with whom I was having dinner- who I thought the "most dangerous" Republican in the presidential contest would be (and, I should here make clear, the term "most dangerous" was being used solely in its political context-- that is: I was being asked which Republican presidential contender had the best chance of defeating whomever the Democrats put forth as their nominee [at the time, the consensus among my dinner companions seemed to be that the nominee would be Hillary Clinton, re: whose chances I ever advised caution- though I, too, thought her the most likely nominee]). My immediate response, without any hesitation whatsoever, was: John McCain.
Of course, at the time, Senator McCain looked as if he would be lucky to leave Iowa with his shirt still on his back! For his campaign had been running into financial and other operational woes and I even said to my friends, with a wry smile (knowing they would be glad, should my assessment actually be correct, of such a thing): "Shame he won't be around long enough to even sniff the nomination!" (shows what *I* know! [;-)])
So, what then happened?
Simple: Senator McCain utilized the very strategy Hillary Clinton had failed to utilize on the Democratic side. His campaign clearly figured out that, if the 'anti-McCain' forces could be split between more than one contender, and he could win in New Hampshire (he would have been "toast" had he failed in the Granite State), he would thereafter be able to put together a formidable delegate lead by the day after 'Super Duper' Tuesday, helped- in no small way- by the use, on the Republican side, of Winner-Take-All (many of which, at least, were really "Winner-Take-Most") Primaries for which the Democrats do not even allow. (In essence, all the"backbiting" of McCain by conservatives within the World of Political Punditry actually aided the Arizonan, especially since those very same pundits could, in the end, not "put Mitt Romney together again" [what with so many Christian evangelical conservatives having more than a few problems with Romney's Latter-Day Saints faith- which caused these to, instead, favor Mike Huckabee])
Conservative talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity could repeatedly intone Ronald Reagan's "No Pale, Pastel Colors" dictum but: what happens when, while the paintings made from such colors still hang on the walls, no one any longer wants to pay admission to your "museum"?
In the end, the Republican rank-and-file realized whom they wanted to have as their Party's nominee and it was John McCain. Conservative intellectuals and commentators could (and, to be fair, not all of them did so) criticize McCain for so often seeming to be so easily able to "dine with the devil" (even, at times, without the proverbial "long spoon"!) but, if Republicans- of any ideological stripe- really and truly wanted to win a Presidential Election in a year in which the question is not so much 'will the Democrats retain control of Congress?' but, rather, 'how few seats will the GOP have to lose?' (Democrats have, as of this typing, already won 3 House Special Elections to the current 110th Congress in otherwise long-Republican Congressional Districts, including the seat vacated by former Speaker Hastert), their best hope for doing so lay with the former Vietnam Conflict Prisoner of War-turned- politician.
When "push comes to shove", supporters of a political Party want to win far more than they might want to advance abstract principle and lose! And so, even as the votes cast in the Presidential Primaries of this past 4 March were still being counted, McCain was already the Grand Old Party's nominee-presumptive.
So what about all that conservative "backbiting"... won't this adversely affect McCain's ability to unite his Party around his candidacy as the Presidential Election campaign moves forward?
Take a look at this website's Presidential Primaries at a Glance chart and look over all the Republican Presidential Primaries after McCain seemingly clinched the nomination back on 4 March...
not only did McCain win all of them but, in addition, there is either an 'L' (for a Landslide Majority, indicating at least 60.5% of the vote for McCain) or no letter at all (which would indicate at least 75.5% of the vote for the Arizona Senator) next to his name in all the later Primaries on that table. Indeed, the lowest percentage of the vote McCain received in any of these Primaries was just under 70% in Idaho back on 27 May!
Simply put: if the overall "protest vote" against an inevitable nominee in a Presidential Primary is going to be at all effective, it had better be significantly higher (and, in addition, consistently so) than less than 30% of those who actually go to the polls (and, as for those who might have stayed home, I can only quote- as I have quoted him before on this website- political analyst Jay Severin: "If you don't vote, you don't count"... I will put it somewhat less delicately than Mr. Severin: if you don't vote, your electoral position [that is: who you do- or don't- support] is of absolutely no use- or, for that matter, even of interest- to me, because I'm not going to find your electoral position amongst the numbers within the actual election returns... after all, I can't analyze what data I don't have!)
Thus, I have absolutely no doubt that those who would more likely trend for a Republican presidential nominee (or, for that matter, against a Democratic presidential nominee-- or even Senator Obama per se) will be behind John McCain come the Fall.
And it will be likewise on the Democratic side as regards Barack Obama.
The only election-only-related issue remains turnout- and from whence said votes so turned out might, in fact, come- and we are still so far away from 4 November 2008 for me to really begin considering that!