On Thursday I was making fun of the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee. Today I have a look back at the 2008 field. That's why the ZepBlog is your go-to source for outdated political commentary. As for the 2012 field, it's amusing to find that Michelle Bachmann outraised Mitt Romney in the first quarter of 2011. Still, one should beware of political jokes: sometimes they get elected.
Here’s the thing: the fissures between the party’s religious conservatives and big business conservatives have never been deeper. They’ve lost their ability to set the agenda in Congress, and a whole host of hot-button issues like gay marriage, stem cells, immigration and even tax cuts have lost the juice they once had.
But it’s the Iraq War that creates the biggest headaches for the GOP. No candidate who opposes it can hope to get the nomination, and none who support it can win the general election. The Cheney Regency has steadfastly refused to consider any rational policy to disengage from the debacle, and so GOP hopefuls face the possibility of running for president while shackled to a slow-motion train wreck.
Daddy’s consigliere Jim Baker tried to pull Junior’s fat out of the fire with his bipartisan commission, but it’s doubtful he really expected Dubya to embrace the conclusion that it was time to get out. What the Iraq Study Group tried to do was put a bipartisan veneer on the future course of Iraq policy, but Democrats mostly refused to take the bait. The Republicans own this war, and they fail as it fails.
The ISG’s other goal was to help Repubs put some distance between themselves and the White House, and some have gone through that door, particularly those with tough re-election battles coming up. But while they are willing to criticize the president, none are willing to do anything to stop him, making them look as ineffectual as, well, Democrats.
Anyone with enough brains and cash to get elected to high office can see that Bush’s “surge” is at best, a hopeless punt to the next president, and at worst, a cover for expanding the war into Iran. But none dare oppose it because, well, courage is not a requisite for high office, (some) brains and (lotsa) cash are.
So the pseudo mavericks on the GOP side of the aisle are willing to publicly criticize the escalation of the war, but won’t vote for anything with teeth in it, because it would send the ‘wrong message’ to friend and foe alike–a message “that we are divided and in disarray," as Dick Lugar put it. As if they hadn’t already sent that same message by attacking the plan.
So the First Fratboy, and the dwindling third-to a-quarter of the public that still support him, will be allowed to indulge in their fantasy of a “victory” against “the enemy” for another twenty months or so – at which point it becomes the job of President-Elect Peacenik to unravel the mess.
Things could be well beyond hopeless by then, though, in large part because of the mentality that assumes there is anything left we can possibly win or that we face a single enemy. Islam 101, for those who start wars (or support them) against “enemies” they don’t understand, goes something like this:
There are two kinds of Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites. Dubya didn’t know this before he decided to invade, and many Republicans still don't know the difference. In Iraq, Shiites are the majority, and (more or less) allied to us, while Sunnis are a minority and (mostly) opposed to us. In the greater Middle East, though, Sunnis–including our key allies– are the majority, and one we can ill afford to alienate (further). Meanwhile, the Shiites dominate in Iran, which has been the major beneficiary of our intervention to topple Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship.
Moreover, inside Iraq, there are many factions within the Sunnis and Shiites, along with the Kurds, the third major nationality inside the borders of what the British cobbled together and called Iraq. Some of these factions oppose us and work together; some oppose us as well as each other, and some work with us, for now. All three groups have recent memories of having been betrayed by Washington: the Kurds in 1975 (for one); the Shiites in 1991, and the Sunnis ever since 2003.
Virtually every major decision taken since the war began has alienated the Sunnis and fed the insurgency against our occupation. Now that Iraq is in civil war, the armed militias on each side are basically the only thing keeping their people from being slaughtered by the other side. Our open-ended commitment to arming and training the Shiite theocracy in Baghdad does nothing but make us complicit in their eventual ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis. And our new commitment to combating the militias on both sides–the only thing ordinary Iraqis have to protect them, remember–risks turning the Shiite majority against us as well.
At which point all hell breaks loose. It wouldn’t even take a majority of the Shiites to oppose us (though it’s worth noting that polling shows a majority of them want us to leave, and consider attacks on our troops to be justified). Just “taking out” Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, as right-wing radio gasbags fantasize–or even significantly engaging his militias–risks an attack on our extremely vulnerable supply lines. Needless to say, Dubya’s fantasy of taking out Iranian nuke facilities gives the same result.
And in the meantime, our client government headed by al-Maliki depends on Sadr for support. The client “government,” of course–a cluster of politicians in the Green Zone who’ve thrown in their lot with us–is leaking cash, weapons and intelligence to the various forces opposed to us, while those allied to us have a habit of disappearing in the heat of battle.
A 15% increase in troop strength does nothing to alter these facts on the ground, nor would a 100% or 200% increase, the only numbers that could possibly make a difference in the security situation–or might have, if they had been deployed four years ago by semi-competent military strategists.
So all of that kind of makes life difficult for the aforementioned Republicans running for president in 2008. Not as difficult as for the people trapped in the hopeless meat grinder called Iraq, but still.
The president’s approval ratings are in Nixonian territory. By a three-to-one margin, Americans feel their country is on the wrong track–historically staggering poll numbers–and the titular head of the Republican party has just decided to head ever faster down that track.
So coming up in less than a year is the first presidential campaign since 1928 without a sitting prez or veep in the race, and the first GOP contest since 1972 without a Dole or a Bush on the ticket (assuming nobody tabs Liddy or Jeb as a running mate). In a normal year, there wouldn’t be much point to discussing the GOP horse race. Democrats sometimes nominate dark horses like Carter or Clinton, but Republicans never do. Generally, whoever the big money guys anoint early on goes on to win the nomination, and the religious conservatives come along for the ride.
This time, though, the presumptive nominee is the oleaginous John McCain, whose name has rightfully been married to Bush’s disastrous surge policy (by John Edwards, who cleverly dubbed it “the McCain Doctrine”). McCain’s poll numbers have tanked as a result of his advocacy for escalating the war. Social conservatives despise him for his attacks on their leaders in 2000 and desperate attempts to pander to them ever since. The man has alienated voters of the left, right and center, and largely destroyed his unearned reputation as a “straight talker.” It’s hard to see how he gets the nomination. But his potential rivals Giuliani, Romney and Gingrich all come with significant baggage, either for GOP primary voters, and/or for the electorate in general.
The dark horse candidates face similar electability equations. Sam Brownback has actually opposed the escalation–which would have to help any eventual nominee, but he’s too far right to be elected. He wants to outlaw gay marriage and abortion, though he can’t seem to bring himself to oppose gay adoption, which doesn’t help with the religious right. Rep. Ron Paul, who previously ran for president as a Libertarian, has stronger anti-war credentials, but is too much of a maverick for his new home party. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore couldn’t keep his own office out of Democratic hands after he was term-limited out, nor that of Sen. George Allen–previously considered a top-tier ’08 candidate, now defunct. Rep. Tom Tancredo’s one-issue xenophobia platform may show surprising resilience among primary voters, but dooms the GOP among Latinos should he ever get the nod. And Rep. Duncan Hunter is running as well, presumably on the strength of avoiding indictment in the Abramoff scandals (so far).
Presumably, that leaves the field wide open for a middle-tier candidate like former Governors Thompson, Huckabee, or Pataki to capture the imagination of GOP voters and sweep into the White House against a Democratic ticket with possible females or brown people on it. I wouldn’t bet the farm subsidies on it, though.
For my money, the only declared GOP candidate who can make a go of it is Michael Jesus Archangel. He works as "a volunteer Secret Agent for the Central Intelligence Agency without pay," and his platform is "the fact that America is an official Theocracy." He’s manly enough to have been arrested for murder, which ought to play well against wimpy Democrats. Sure, he’s certifiably crazy–but so is the incumbent. And given the inevitable disaster that the latter’s Iraq War is creating, only a miracle can save the Republicans in 2008.
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