Saturday, February 23, 2008

In Love? In Line?

It seems like at least half of the adage is true: Democrats really have fallen in love with their two leading candidates for the nomination. Obama and Clinton supporters get weak-kneed at the sight of their icons and go all gooey when hearing their sound bites on the evening news. Republicans, on the other hand, aren't quite where they need to be to hold up their end of the adage. The most powerful single faction in what they refer to as their "big tent," the Christian conservatives, those who like their politics with a heavy admixture of that old-time religion, aren't yet falling in line. Sure, evangelicals/fundamentalists have held their noses and taken the plunge for McCain, but the Huckleberries, the Reverend/Governor Huckabee's die-hard supporters across the Bible Belt, are in danger of leaving the tent.

For the Democratics there is the charm of genetic diversity. Both candidates are visibly, genetically different from every person who has ever held the office for which they are running. As the party that has certainly gone farther out of its way to champion diversity, it must make their hearts go pitter-patter that, regardless of which of their candidates wins the nomination, they will have the chance to produce the first president who is not a white male. There seems to be, floating around the rank-and-file Democrats, an attitude of "It's about time" with regards to this.

It has, in fact, become almost impossible to focus on any differences between Clinton and Obama, except for their gender and race. Excluding the occasional shrill note, both Democratic candidates seem to be involved in a genteel, gloves-on type of campaign. How could they not? The angles and lines of their positions are so similar that they are nearly congruent. Is Obama masking his relative lack of experience by becoming Hillary's policy doppelganger, a less divisive, more charismatic offering, who brings most of the benefits with fewer of the disadvantages of a Hillary candidacy? Is Hillary hewing so closely to the same policies and themes, which she knows are largely mirrored by Obama, because she lacks the vision and/or the charisma to strike out into the uncharted territory of new ideas? Or can we believe that their common policy positions are so nearly perfect that they do not require change?

The Democrats' choice will finally boil down to which voting constituencies believe they have the most to gain from choosing either the experienced, but divisive, woman or the charismatic, but relatively unknown, black man. This is not—repeat: NOT—really a step forward for either a colorblind or a gender-neutral society. Other than their personalities, however, their avowed policies give us little but their race and gender to tell them apart.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have already found their candidate, but Huckabee's Huckleberries don't seem to have noticed. Or they just don't care. I have written at length in previous posts about possible motivations for the Reverend/Governor Huckabee's remaining in the race, despite the statistical impossibility of winning. I have written almost nothing about the Huckleberries. The truth is that they are behaving like Democrats: they have fallen in love with their candidate. The Reverend/Governor is everything the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party wants: a rock-ribbed social conservative, who blurs the church/state line and whose powers of communication rival that of Ronald Reagan. For them, the chance to vote in support of an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian presidential candidate, who has clearly intimated that he would favor their religious convictions over those of their fellow citizens, trumps the possibility that they might be damaging their party's chances to win the White House in November.

Besides, they can't really wrap their hearts around supporting McCain, who has yet to convince them that he will be any more conservative on social issues than whichever candidate the Democrats serve up.

This state of affairs represents quite a change from the fight for the Republican nomination in 2000, when quite a few Republican moderates were falling in love with John McCain. It might be difficult to recall, after eight years of watching him kiss up to a more than moderately incompetent Bush administration, but McCain was a maverick candidate, who offered a breath of fresh air after two terms of Hillary's husband. We must, in deference to the Truth, admit that Barack Obama is right in saying that "the wheels have fallen off the Straight Talk Express," but eight years ago McCain's brand of straight talk won the hearts of moderates. Although it could overcome neither the inertia of the evangellically-anointed Bush candidacy nor the wiles of Karl Rove in the South Carolina primary, McCain's candidacy struck a chord with those moderates who had fallen in love with the idea of a Republican candidate who did not kowtow to the religious right on every issue.

This time around McCain, despite the fact that he kowtows daily to the religious right, has acquired an inertia of his own, having allowed Romney and Huckabee to split the Christian conservative votes in the early primaries while he built up a substantial lead in delegates. When Romney dropped out, Huckabee's numbers surged and he began to win states in the Bible Belt, but the miracle necessary to overcome McCain's inertia has not materialized. Most Republicans are falling in line behind this candidate, who seems unappetizing to some, but appears to be the best option on their party's menu to win in November.

Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line. This year Democrats' love for their both of their candidates seems to be uniting their party far more than dividing it. For the GOP, however, the Huckleberries' love of their candidate, which has extended past all reasonable hopes of his winning the nomination, is widening the cracks in the coalition that has brought them such great electoral success.

In 1988, the far right wing of the Republican Party fell in line behind the more moderate George H.W. Bush because he had served under Reagan and because he made the right noises about sharing their values. Now, after decades of having been the gatekeepers for their party's nomination, the Christian conservatives are having difficulty falling out of love with Huckabee and into line behind McCain.

1 comment:

Earl said...

So Will, you raise some interesting points but I think you are off a little (but that's just me picking a fight :)

It is clear that the Republicans don't love their boy and the Dems love both of theirs, but the lengthening of the Democratic battle just makes it easier for McCain to reach out to the conservatives and creates hardening divisions between the supporters of Obama and HRC (Hillary Rodham Clinton for the uninitiated).

It is true that Obama and HRC are more similar than different, their approaches are very different and point to different tacts on governance. Obama is looking to expand the middle ground for everyone to work from and HRC is clearly defining a path and plan to be executed. They are coming from similar places but going forward in very different ways.

It is fun to watch your take on this at this point and it will be interesting to continue to watch the evolution of McCain. BTW, George the senior also had to take a much more conservative bent to get the nomination vs. his original positions in 1980.