Monday, February 7, 2011

Totally Different, Except For Being the Same

This First Read punditry annoyed me when I read it, and it's still annoying me, so might as well do an's this:
When you now look back at the 2008 GOP presidential field, what is striking was its ideological diversity. You had someone who supported abortion rights (Rudy Giuliani), a candidate who had previously defended Roe v. Wade and embryonic stem-cell research (Mitt Romney), another person who backed comprehensive immigration reform (John McCain), and even another who opposed the Iraq war (Ron Paul). But four years later, no matter who ends up running, the 2012 GOP field will be much more homogeneous.
Anyone spot the problem? First of all, the candidate who once was pro-choice and for stem-cell research is running again this time around, so that can't possibly be different. Then there's Ron Paul -- but Ron Paul may well run, and whether he does or not Gary Johnson is at least as heterodox in his views as Paul was.

Now, we'll have to see whether Jon Huntsman really runs, but his issue positions are at least as nonconforming as McCain's were in 2008 (of course, he's not apt to be a leading candidate, so that one isn't quite parallel).

Of course the real truth about this is that (Paul aside) the 2008 GOP contest wasn't a battle of contrasting versions of conservativism. Instead, those candidates who had once held unacceptable views on various issues mostly either converted, and hoped that their conversions would be judged sincere -- or downplayed their deviance, and hoped it would be ignored or forgiven.

Not that the Democrats in 2008 were any different. They just, for whatever reason, had a set of candidates with relatively long records of orthodoxy, so it didn't come up.

It is, in fact, still very possible that we'll see a true significant policy rift between GOP candidates this time around. It's possible that one of the major candidates will depart from feel-good sound bites (whether it's on immigration, or the budget, or foreign policy) and actually stake out a position that might help with GOP primary voters, but is highly risky with the November electorate. For example, a candidate might actually give a detailed spending cut plan -- a real one, not smoke and mirrors. (No, I don't expect it to be defense cuts). If a top-tier candidate runs on that, would the others have to match (and perhaps top) it? Would it be sufficient to just up the ante on the feel-good sound bite? What about if a major candidate runs on a policy of attacking Iran, or of withdrawing from Geneva? What happens then?


  1. I disagree somewhat. While I agree his argument overlooks the fact that Romney is still running, I'm not sure what purpose there is in bringing Ron Paul into this. It was Paul's heterodoxy that made him not a serious candidate, and will this time around also.

    Candidates who had a serious shot at the nomination but had flirted with what at the time was considered heresy in the GOP's rank-and-file had to flip, at least part-way. Like McCain did on a range of issues. Like Romney did on abortion. Like Rudy did when he started talking about "strict constructionism," which everyone knows is a code-word for "I'll appoint justices who will overturn Roe."

    But flips only were enough to keep these candidates alive, so to speak. They would still be widely perceived as more "moderate" because of their past heresies. So I would argue that the chief contenders did represent different strands of the conservative coalition, even though they all had to pretend to accept the whole program. Huck represented social conservatism; Romney represented the business-oriented GOP; McCain represented the war hawks; and so on.

    The larger truth is that the GOP's orthodoxy has tightened since 2008, in the sense that there will be more heresies from candidates' past that the candidates will be forced to distance themselves from.

  2. "It was Paul's heterodoxy that made him not a serious candidate, and will this time around also."

    It's also Paul's heterodoxy that gave him any opening at all. Remember, he raised over 20 million dollars in the 2008 primary. He would probably do the same if he ran again in 2012. Were it not for Paul’s unorthodox libertarian positions, it’s hard to imagine the elderly Texas Congressman getting any traction.

  3. @Couves

    I can see your point, but it's tangential to the simple fact that Paul's unorthodoxy--however it may have helped him get fame, attention, and money--does make him unelectable in the GOP primary contest today. That doesn't mean he would be electable otherwise, but it does mean no one with positions like his, whoever they may be, can get the nomination.

  4. Well, fine, but my point is just that there's no change from '08. Either Paul counts as a major candidate from that cycle or Paul/Paul/Johnson doesn't count in '12; there's no way one can count '08 as more diverse because it had Paul.

    I suppose it's not wrong to say that different candidates represented different groups within the GOP in 2008, but that's likely to be the case this time, too. Real diversity, however, would mean that, say, McCain would have actually dissented on some issues that Huck was pushing, but that didn't really happen in '08. Paul, yes, but the rest, not really.

  5. Well, there are two questions here:

    (1) Could a candidate who was viable in '08 be rendered not viable today because of his positions?

    (2) Are there positions that a viable candidate today cannot hold but which he could have held in the '08 race?

    The second question is relatively easy to answer. There are several positions held by '08 candidates that have since moved into the "not viable" category. In '08, viable candidates could support cap-and-trade and immigration reform. Now, they can't. Huck has even been reduced to claiming, against all available evidence, that he never supported cap-and-trade. And while no one in '08, not even Romney, was pushing for a federal version of the MA health-care plan, it's not clear that a viable candidate couldn't have. Now, that position is by definition verboten.

    The first question is more difficult, because as Romney demonstrated in '08, even a highly transparent flip-flop may be enough to keep a candidacy alive. As long as you make it clear how you're going to govern in the future, you'll be at least marginally forgiven for your heresies in the past.

    But it's not clear that someone like McCain would be a viable candidate for the 2012 election. Obviously, he isn't now, given his age and his legacy as a general-election loser. But if McCain had been a little younger and had not gotten the nomination in '08, it's not clear he'd be viable today, no matter how many flips he took to reach current GOP orthodoxy.

    Ultimately, though, the question of whether there was more ideological diversity before centers on the second question. It is clear that the range of positions a viable GOP candidate is allowed to take has narrowed since the '08 election. So even though First Read may have argued this point weakly, I do think it is basically correct.

  6. Off-topic but can one of you translate what Obama is saying in these two answers to Bill O'Reilly?

    At around the :50 second mark of the interview

    "Well, you know, he’s only he knows what he’s going to do but here’s what we know is that Egypt is not going to go back to what it was."

    At around the 5:11 mark of the interview.

    "That, that, the, uh, I mean if you are talking about the Wall Street Journal editorial page, you know, the uh, you know, that’s like quoting the New York Times editorial page."

  7. You don't think that Romney and Huckabee tried to paint McCain as a moderate?

    And McCain did diverge with Romney and huckabee on immigration. Huckabee and Romney did diverge on economics. Huckabee was to the left of McCain on foreign policy.


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