Monday, July 09, 2007

Before they leave the starting gate

American elections have become absurdly drawn-out circuses - for 2008, the chatter about candidates started as soon as the 2006 mid-term elections were done. With our politics dominated by the media and media consultants, I suppose there's no going back to, say, six-month campaigns.

About the Democratic possibilities, there's little left to say. It's virtually certain that Hillary will be the nominee. For VP nominee, the media-liberal-activist choice is Obama. The smart choice is Richardson. We'll have to wait and see what she does.

A few months ago
, the Republican side was dominated by Rudy, but with Romney providing a significant challenge. Even though Romney would be a better president in many ways, his campaign since then has fallen flat, while Giuliani's has gone from strength to strength. Rudy doesn't have it sewn up the way Hillary does, but unless some major unexpected detour happens, he will be the Republican nominee. Fred Thompson is making a big splash right now as the "real conservative," but his candidacy is unlikely to go anywhere - it's a Web-driven Deaniac-type bubble.

Romney's big mistake is that he's trying to be everything to everyone. He's trying to hold on to the liberal Republicanism inherited from his father, former Michigan governor George Romney, that formed the core of his success in Massachusetts. At the same time, to appeal to the religious wing of the Republican party critical in the Republicans' newly consolidated Southern base (about a quarter to a third of Republican voters), he's playing up his conservative side. But he's a Mormon, and that puts off conservative Christians and others ... you see his problem.

Giuliani, OTOH, knows exactly who he is: a former mayor of New York, a liberal Republican through and through - plus his name ends with a vowel. He's perfectly happy to take votes from conservatives, but he doesn't pretend to be one, a powerful advantage. Not that most Republicans have become liberals; rather, the conservative wing of the party is paralyzed by its ambivalence about modern big guvmint, and the religiously-tinged statist populism of Bush (with neocons, white Southerners, and Catholics in tow) has come a-cropper, big-time. Although the latent appeal of the latter is still powerful, it's been discredited for the time being. Only the liberal Republicans can save the party from its current mess.

The Republicans have a better-than-even advantage in the 2008 presidential race: thus Giuliani is likely to be the next president. They will also probably take the Senate back.

A final curious thing to note: 2008 will the first presidential election since 1960 in which (1) a senator has a serious shot at becoming president, and (2) the major candidates and likely winner are not from the Sunbelt (South, Southwest, West).* Does this presage a shift of political power back to the older Northeast and Midwest? Probably not. It's due to the fact that the Democrats' former base in the South, strong until the mid-90s, has been largely wiped out, and the Democrats cannot be a majority party without it. The Republicans' center of gravity continues to shift, along with the country as a whole, west and south. Their stronghold however is no longer the Midwest and West (a legacy of the Civil War), but the South (a legacy of the 1960s-70s breakdown of the New Deal coalition). This gives the Republican party a different flavor from the old Lincolnesque midwesterners and the more recent Goldwater-Reagan individualism - more populist, more overtly religious, friendlier to big government and machine politics.

In the next generation, the new, post-1994 character of the Republican party will continue to be a source of both electoral strength and a lot of turmoil. While it's put the Republicans in a good position vis-a-vis southern and Catholic voters, it has also antagonized and alienated the older Republican base of conservatives and right-leaning independents.
* Hillary is from Illinois and now lives in and represents New York. Romney is from Michigan and now hails from Massachusetts. Giuliani is New York City born and bred.

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