Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 23, 2008
POLITICS: Ideas Don't Run For President; People Do
With the failure of the Fred Thompson campaign, there has been predictable and understandable wailing and gnashing of teeth in conservative quarters about the state of the GOP and what this all means for the future of conservative ideas. Fred ran as a full-scale, across-the-board movement conservative, and he went nowhere. Among the four remaining major candidates, we have two who are genuine conservatives on some core issues but basically apostates on others (Rudy and Huck), a moderate who is generally if not as dramatically out of step on a large number of issues (McCain), and one candidate (Romney) whose positions have changed so much from his past positions and record that nobody really knows for certain how trustworthy he might be if he actually won the general election. Conservatives are asking: has our party abandoned us? Have GOP voters rejected our ideas?
No, it has not, and they have not. Remember Article II, Section 1 of our Constitution: "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." President, singular, individual. Flesh-and-blood human. That's who holds the job, that's who gets elected to the job. No perfect vessel, no incarnation of ideas. And that fact must be repeated again and again until people understand that winning and losing elections and choosing leaders is about picking the right person from the available choices. Ideas don't run for president, people do.
We got the field we started with because these were the men who were willing to ask for the job and able to raise the minimum amount of money and signatures and staff to initiate a campaign. That limited our options to the people who had - or thought they had - the qualifications and the right political moment to run in 2008, not some other year. We got the field we have now because along the way, some of the contenders failed to promote themselves well, or made a bad impression, or ran out of money, or found better things to do with their time. That leaves the four men who remain, plus of course Ron Paul. We have no choice but to take each them as a whole - platform and record, experience and character, skills and resources. And it is just one of those remaining men, as a whole, with whom we will go forth to battle in November.
An awful lot of angst could be avoided by remembering this simple truth. And an awful lot can yet be spared if the folks who live in this big and querelous tent we call a political party - which we would all like and hope to see function as a majority party - would remind themselves of it: we have been asked to choose among men, not ideas. While our choices certainly reflect our view of the ideas each man champions, it is deeply mistaken to read the choice of one man over another as the final and definitive statement of what ideas we truly support. I, for one, as a Republican would like to know that the candidate we settle on - or settle for - has more people behind him than just the ones who agree with every one of his ideas.
A lot of libertarians, for example, got burned because they forgot this, and started acting as if Ron Paul was a clear vessel containing nothing but the purest ideas, like that cipher John Galt. Instead, they had to deal with Dr. Paul himself. Old, shrill, slightly loopy-sounding on television, with an actual record (complete with earmarks for his district) and actual skeletons in his closet (photo-ops with crackpots and hatemongers, nasty racist newsletters published under his name). And more than a few of them ended up either distraught over his failure to make waves with the electorate or with egg on their faces for having signed themselves over lock, stock and barrel to this particular man. The mistake they made was in believing in Ron Paul the movement, Ron Paul the ideas, Ron Paul the platform, when the average voter was still going to ask whether the executive power should be vested in Ron Paul the man who is standing behind a podium waving his fingers.
Conservatives, being more worldly folk and by nature cynical about the perfectability of Man, ought to be able to absorb this lesson more easily. Fred and Sam Brownback and Duncan Hunter all had their flaws as campaigners and as potential presidents. It so happens that each man - the total package all wrapped together - failed to catch on with the voters. What does that mean? Personally, I don't think it means a full-scale, across-the-board movement conservative could not win the nomination and the general election. But it does mean something we ought to know by now: that a full-scale, across-the-board movement conservative can't win the nomination and the general election every four years.
Can a lefthanded pitcher win the Cy Young Award? Can a high-tech company's stock deliver better-than-the-market returns from an IPO? Can I win Monopoly if my opponent has all the railroads? Can a coin land heads-up? If you want to test a theory, you need to test it repeatedly to come up with results that have more explanatory power than random chance or the particular conditions of the moment. And Fred Thompson, big a fella as he is, is way too small a sample size to generalize about the conservative movement.
So too with the opposite conclusion: that the success of one candidate equals some sort of insult to other parts of the coalition. Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee represent opposite ends of the GOP spectrum, with little overlap among the issues on which they each do and don't appeal to conservatives. But like so many things, their role in the race says as much and more about themselves and the unique political moment of 2008 as it does about the GOP as a whole over time. If Rudy didn't have the record and personality he has, he would not have gotten as far as he did; same with Huckabee. Their successes and failures may owe a measure of influence to the particular positions they take, but there are so many other variables at work that nobody should take umbrage if they do or (as seems more likely for both) don't get the nomination.
The same goes for John McCain, and probably goes double because McCain is so many voters' second rather than first choice. Maybe 2008 is the right moment for a moderate Republican, and maybe it is not; but circumstances (including the specific characteristics of Mitt Romney, his strongest remaining opponent) will determine only whether it is the right moment for this particular moderate Republican.
We can whine and moan about the way the world works, or we can do the best we can with the time and the tools that are given to us. We were fortunate, once upon a time, to have a man named Reagan. We are not so fortunate every four years. We have been presented with quite a collection of men, each with his own particular virtues as a candidate (and each of what was once the "Big Five" has some significant virtues to offer). We should not take as a personal affront the inevitable process by which one of them is chosen. It was ever thus: ideas don't run for president. People do.