How A Social Moderate Can Win The GOP Nomination In Six Easy Steps

With Rudy Giuliani leading Patrick Ruffini’s web-based straw poll of potential 2008 presidential candidates for the second month in a row, Karol Sheinin thinks the right blogosphere is being out of touch and unrealistic about the fact that a socially liberal candidate can really win in the Republican primaries. (Via RedState). And Rudy’s not the only one: several of the potential 2008 Republican candidates, as well as unlikely-to-run “dream” candidates like Condoleeza Rice, face lingering questions about their pro-life credentials and other commitments on issues of importance for social conservatives.
Speaking as a fairly socially conservative voter myself – albeit a deep-blue-state social conservative – I believe that it is, in fact, possible for a candidate who has established a record or reputation as a social moderate or liberal to win the GOP nomination, if he or she follows six simple steps:
1. Don’t Run Against The Social Right
People vote on issues; they vote on personalities; but they also vote, on a deeper level, for that hazy space between the two, a set of ideas about the world and a sense that the candidate is more on their side than the other guy. Which is another way of saying that people can vote for a candidate they don’t personally like (more than 50 million people pulled the lever for John Kerry), and they can vote for a candidate they don’t always agree with, but they will not vote for a candidate if they identify him as being against them. And this is particularly true of social/religious conservatives (I use the two terms here as largely synonymous, although there are culture warriors on the Right like Stanley Kurtz who aren’t especially religious), who are accustomed to feeling beseiged and sneered at by the leading lights of popular culture in journalism, entertainment and academia.
The classic example of running against social conservatives was the brief and unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign of Arlen Specter, who openly cast himself as the man to save the GOP from the Religious Right. John McCain is perhaps a more graphic example: while McCain himself has a solidly socially conservative, pro-life voting record in the Senate (he voted for both Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork for the Supreme Court, among other things), he repeatedly picked fights with social conservatives in the 2000 primaries. Many of those fights were with the crazier people on the Right – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones – but what mattered was that McCain went beyond simply distancing himself from those figures to openly inviting the media to play the traditional morality play of Good McCain vs. Bad Religious Right. Unsurprisingly, the voters McCain thus implicitly portrayed as villains abandoned him in droves (see here for a contemporaneous example of the push-back).
The lesson: far more fatal than saying you disagree with voters is to abet the media’s efforts to demonize them. Before people listen to your actual position, they want to know you respect them and are on their side.
2. Federalism, Federalism, Federalism
On many – indeed, most – social issues, what social conservatives fear most of all is to have issues taken away from the democratic process in the states and decided by federal judges. While social conservatives have certainly not been above seeking to use the power of Congress and the federal courts to push a social conservative agenda, a compromise position of preserving/restoring the authority of local communities over many social issues is a compromise that socially conservative voters are mostly willing to live with.
One significant advantage of taking the federalist position on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control and medical marijuana, among others, is that it can enable a candidate to come around to a functionally different position without the need to execute an unconvincing and transparent flip-flop: it’s easier to persuade people that you’ve accepted a compromise than that you have actually changed your mind on a matter of high principle. (For a good example of this, see Mitt Romney’s pledge that as governor of Massachusetts he would not seek to change the state’s positions on abortion).
Moreover, as I have stressed before, America is both a progressive country and a conservative one: progressive in the sense that people are broadly accepting of social change, conservative in their resistance to having such changes forced upon them by the government, particularly by the courts. Consider a candidate who can say to social conservatives, in the primaries, something like this:

I, like many of my fellow New Yorkers, support a woman’s right to choose an abortion, and support the right of gay men to express their commitment in marriage. But I also respect the fact that not everyone in this country lives in Manhattan, and not everyone shares the same beliefs. And so I will oppose any effort to force people in Texas and Alabama to live the way New Yorkers live, for the same reasons why I wouldn’t want New Yorkers to be forced to accept the community mores and values of any other city or state. In short: this is a great country, and it’s big enough for a lot of different communities and lifestyles.

That’s a message that can easily be retooled into a winner nationally, even to socially liberal voters whose experiences in recent years have re-awakened them to the virtues of federalism. And, of course, it dovetails naturally with #1 on the list: supporting federalism is a way of giving some real backbone to the message that you respect the people you disagree with, respect them enough to let them govern themselves.
(Rudy, as a guy who pressed for huge expansions of federal criminal law as US Attorney, may be an awkward champion of federalism. But if he can’t do it, another candidate can).
3. Promise to Appoint Conservative, Pro-Democracy Judges
Of course, pledging fealty to federalism and respect for differences of opinion is toothless symbolism if you put the likes of David Souter on the Supreme Court. So, a socially moderate candidate needs to make extra-clear that he or she is going to put conservatives on the courts.
But unlike a socially conservative candidate, a social moderate/liberal, to have a coherent message, can’t just issue generalized paens to “strict construction” and denunciations of “judicial activism”. Instead, the candidate needs to explain, clearly and repeatedly, that he/she believes in judges who will not use vague or unwritten constitutional theories to take power away from the people. (In fact, a message of constitutional “minimalism” appeals, rhetorically, even to liberals). And yes, that means making it explicit that you have no problem with overturning Roe v. Wade, even as you still support keeping abortion legal in your own home state.
An early way to signal this approach – particularly for a candidate, like Giuliani, who isn’t already in the Senate – is to support John Roberts. What we’ve seen of Roberts so far has tagged him as precisely the kind of cautious but principled conservative that a pro-democracy, pro-federalism but socially moderate/liberal candidate can get behind. And the base knows that losing the Roberts fight would be a critical blow.
(The pro-democracy aspect of conservative judging is another topic I’ve covered before at greater length, here and here).
4. Show Some Backbone In Other Areas
One of the sneaking suspicions held by many conservatives is that a candidate who is pro-choice on abortion is probably so due to an inability to stand up and take some guff in his or her social circles, to be demonized as a right-winger by the media, etc. And indeed, long experience has shown that many pro-choice Republicans are the same sorts of people who run from a fight on the budget, or tax cuts, or other issues of importance to the base.
To rebut that suspicion, a social moderate/liberal needs to build a reputation as a real battler on a few other issues – foreign policy, crime, taxes, spending, immigration, etc. – and show a willingness to take the heat for those positions. For example, a governor who slashes taxes and spending can say, “yes I’m pro-choice, but I’ve shown that it’s because I’m a principled fighter accross the board for smaller government.” (This is one area where Rudy doesn’t have to worry – as one of the most famously combative figures in American politics, there may be doubts on how much of an economic conservative he is, but there’s no question he will stand his ground where he plants himself).
5. Do No Harm
Of course, on some issues the federal government has taken a stand on social issues. Understandably, on some questions – like stem cell research or gays in the military – a social moderate may want to change the existing policy. But such a candidate has to make clear that large-scale, radical changes in policy are not going to be the order of the day, and that for the most part, things will stay status quo on some of the battles social conservatives have won in the past, like some of the executive orders pertaining to abortion.
6. Nominate A Conservative Running Mate
Rudy or Condi could be on the ticket, but not both. Even after sewing up the nomination, a social moderate/liberal would need to convince social conservative voters not to stay home. While conservatives can’t, after the Souter/read-my-lips fiascoes, be convinced solely by having a running mate from the Right, picking one will send an important message that social conservatives remain a valued part of the team.
Anyway, maybe Rudy Giuliani is the guy who can do it, and maybe he’s not. (More: Michael Goodwin on Rudy). But I do believe that, by following the road map laid out above, a candidate who, for example, personally supports legal abortion could nonetheless win the GOP presidential nomination, and do so with his or her principles more or less intact.

15 thoughts on “How A Social Moderate Can Win The GOP Nomination In Six Easy Steps”

  1. How Guiliani Can Win, Redux

    Similar to my prescriptions, but Baseball Crank elaborates and hits ones I forgot, like this one: 1. Don’t Run Against The Social Right People vote on issues; they vote on personalities; but they also vote, on a deeper level, for…

  2. What will kill his candidacy is that he is anti-gun. Gun owners can’t possibly overlook this.

  3. I think it can reasonably be suggested that your prescription for how a social moderate can capture the GOP nomination essentially boils down to ‘promise not to be socially moderate’.

  4. That’s partly the case, but the point here is that these are issues that can be finessed (in part, at least) by passing them back to the states, whereas, say, a foreign policy liberal like Chuck Hagel is very unlikely to win the nomination no matter what he does.

  5. One thing I do agree with (although the first part of this you may not see the same) is that a secular social conservative like McCain might be able to get away with picking fights with the religious right, but a pro-lifer like Rudy never will. Given the clout that the religious conservatives have come to take for granted, it might be tough to avoid a third party candidacy if someone like Giuliani does manage to make it through.

  6. I doubt the third-party thing – Rudy won’t get through unless he can win enough social conservatives over. The really major third party threat, other than McCain himself, is if Hillary (who supported and supports the Iraq war) gets the Dem nomination, and a candidate who’s not really anti-immigrant wins the GOP nod, and you get a third party Perot-type who runs an isolationist/nativist anti-war, anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade campaign that draws from voters on both sides.

  7. Socially moderate means altering the current position of gays in the military to something more expansive? Hmmm I wonder if said candidate “promises” to appoint non-activists” judges could be taken seriously.
    I believe this is what makes people like McCain and Spector so replusive. They will rely not on the wishes of the people but use the courts to push agendas that are replusive to the bulk of the American people.

  8. A good breakdown, Crank. I especially like your hypothetical statement about the country being big enough for everyone. That would be an admirable stance for ANY politician.
    I was just remarking to a friend yesterday that if the republicans would allow McCain to get the nomination, there is little question in my mind he would beat whoever the Democrat is.
    I’m not so sure about Guiliani. Rice would be a formidable candidate from a personality standpoint and the fawning treatment she would no doubt recieve from the media. They could tack her at VP onto nearly any white guy Pres and pull voters over.

  9. As a few people have pointed out lately, McCain’s problem with the base isn’t about ideology, it’s about partisanship – people who have gone to bat for the party repeatedly over the years just viscerally don’t want to follow a leader who has so regularly set himself up publicly in opposition to his party. A lot of Republicans agree with John Hinderaker, who said he would trust McCain with his life but not with his party.
    I like McCain, voted for him in 2000. My main concern with him in 2008 would be his age.

  10. McCain would be 72 year old. That would of course make him the oldest first term president. People are confused about why conservatives are cool to the idea of a McCain candidacy. The real reason is “senatitis,” which is a disease that affects long term senators. They confuse being liked by the schedulers of Sunday morning talk shows with being presidential.

  11. I was just remarking to a friend yesterday that if the republicans would allow McCain to get the nomination, there is little question in my mind he would beat whoever the Democrat is.
    The same can be said about Lieberman in the Democratic party, especially in ’00.
    Were McCain to run a typical conservative campaign, a-la Bush in ’00, he could win despite some of the more moderate stances that he has because he’s a conservative on the core policies. That said, running against the right and against tax cuts won’t help him any year, no matter who the opponent is.

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