Navigating Dire Straits: The GOP in 2008

Though the calendar has turned a new page, the Republican Party has not escaped the problems that have plagued it for the last two years. As its presidential candidates battle for the right to be standard-bearer, the GOP faces both a difficult election and a general malaise not seen since the days of Watergate. And it is not clear if help is in sight, either.

With the voting public unhappy about high spending and a more-difficult-than-expected war, Republicans suffered a hammering defeat in 2006—one from which they have not yet fully recovered. The GOP’s chief problem is that it lacks a leader capable of articulating a compelling vision for the party. With President Bush’s poll ratings still radioactive among independents and Democrats, much of his credibility has eroded. And the congressional leadership hasn’t seized the mantle, either. The Senate Minority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has at times proven himself a wily leader capable of outsmarting his Democratic counterpart, but he is also known for a reserved nature better suited to backroom-dealer than party spokesman. And the House Minority Leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) has also failed to fill the empty niche. Boehner has shown neither the bold leadership of a Gingrich nor the commanding presence of a DeLay.

Because of this lack of leadership during times of trouble, the GOP has become a ship veering dangerously towards the doldrums of American politics. Its natural advantages—such as fundraising and trust on national security issues—have evaporated during this cycle. Voter turnout is down. Political giving is down. Party morale is down. The only way to right the ship, it seems, is to find a captain who can set it on the right course.

As we find ourselves awash in primaries, many look longingly to one of our presidential candidates to provide that missing leadership. But the most frightening thing for Republicans is that each candidate seems flawed in this respect. Mitt Romney, for example, has cultivated an image of a problem-solver—the CEO rushing in to fix a broken system. But he has a credibility issue. Many view his position changes as products of political expediency; he is not helped by the fact that nearly every one of his speeches, soundbites, and laughs seems to be the result of hours of political calculation. In short, many simply do not trust Mitt Romney. They fear he is a politician—not a statesman.

For several other candidates, the issue is not so much confusion about where they stand as much as disagreement over those stances. Rudy Giuliani, for example, has long been viewed by his conservative opponents as a sort of Faustian bargain. Though admiring his leadership abilities in the wake of 9/11, they fear that—while he might be an electable candidate—his social liberalism would split the bonds of the party and destroy a winning coalition. In short, many Republicans think a GOP led by President Giuliani could win the next election but lose four of the next five.

Though less apparent, Huckabee offers a different version of the same problem. While far more reliable on social issues, the former governor of Arkansas often rails about economics with the fervor of John Edwards. With a strong protectionist streak and open hostility towards the Club for Growth, some feel that a President Huckabee would be a poor economic steward who would favor Big Government solutions and high deficits. If so, the exodus of economic conservatives from the party would certainly continue.

On another note, Huckabee’s record as the leader of Arkansas Republicans also gives one pause. Currently, the Democrats control virtually every important office in the state; the Republicans hold only a sole congressional seat. The state GOP cannot even find a legitimate candidate to face vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor. And in terms of political realignment, Robert Novak claims that Arkansas is forty years behind other Southern states like Mississippi and South Carolina. Novak further states, “The state GOP is rudderless and nearly leaderless (which doesn’t speak well of Huckabee’s leadership skills).” If Republicans are searching for a party champion, Huckabee may not be the wisest choice.

John McCain represents another shaky option for the GOP. Long known for his maverick tendencies, McCain has made many enemies among both the rank-and-file and the party leadership. The senator from Arizona not only supported, but championed, such measures as amnesty for illegal aliens, carbon emissions caps, embryonic stem cell research, and limitations on political speech. He vehemently opposed drilling in ANWR, allowing judges to get an up-or-down vote, ending the death tax, defending traditional marriage on the federal level, and granting both of Bush’s tax cuts.

Though McCain has impeccable credentials when it comes to foreign policy, some wonder if he would be better suited to Secretary of Defense than President. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA)—long recognized as a leader of the conservative movement—recently hammered his former colleague, stating, “I’m concerned we’d have a president whose first reaction would be to go to the other side to solve a problem instead of trying to find like-minded Republicans to come up with solutions. There is nothing worse than having a Democratic Congress and a Republican president who acts like a Democrat in matters that are very important to conservatives.” In choosing a party leader, does picking a maverick really make sense?

Next among the contenders is former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. The owner of a solidly conservative record on social, economic, and foreign policy issues, the problem with Thompson is not his positions but his energy. Since his entry last summer, the senator has been criticized for lacking “fire in his belly.” This perceived lack of resolve has hurt his once-high poll numbers and left his campaign teetering. Until Thompson (who, coincidentally, played an admiral in The Hunt for Red October) shows more passion, it seems unlikely that voters will put him in the helm.

The GOP is thus left in a precarious state. With a damaged brand name and a leadership deficit, the party faces an uphill battle in 2008. And it is unclear whether any of the presidential candidates represents the missing factor. What is clear, however, is that someone needs to steer the party to safer waters—and soon.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review