White House 2008: The Republicans

Can the GOP win a third consecutive presidential term?


Last week the Crystal Ball tackled the Democratic candidates for President in 2008–figuratively, at least (click here: http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/LJS2005022401). Now we turn our attention to the possible Republican presidential wannabes.

Before we analyze specific candidates, remember that in 2008 the GOP will be completing eight years as the governing party in the White House. In order to achieve the task of grasping a third consecutive presidential term, the Republicans almost certainly must fulfill several conditions:

  • President Bush must have had a successful second term, with significant policy achievements in several areas.
  • President Bush must be relatively popular–which for this polarizing president means maintenance of a job approval rating around 50 percent or better in national surveys.
  • The economy must be fair to good, and the international outlook (terrorism, Iraq , etc.) must be generally acceptable to the American people.
  • Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the GOP must nominate a moderate-conservative within the American political mainstream, taking care not to go too far right but also not too far to the left of the dominant conservative activist corps.

Should a moderate somehow win the GOP nod, say in a split field of conservatives, this political earthquake would likely generate a third-party, right-wing candidacy that could doom the Republican nominee in the fall by splitting the GOP vote. There can be little doubt that conservatives would mount such an effort, arguing that the loss of the White House for a term or two would be worth the lesson to the party for its apostasy. Let us quickly add that, unlike some others and contrary to the early polls, we do not expect any moderate-liberal Republican to secure the nomination in 2008. The GOP base is simply too conservative, and the risks for the GOP of a moderate-liberal nomination would be obvious to most party activists.

These are a quartet of tough conditions, though they have been met four times in the past century–and very nearly seven times. These are not bad odds for the governing party. The GOP governed for sixteen consecutive years from 1897 to 1913 (McKinley, T.R., and Taft), losing in November 1912 only because of the Roosevelt-Taft vote split. Then the Republicans regained power in 1920 and held the White House for three terms (Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover). The age of FDR, extended by Harry Truman, lasted a full twenty years (1933 to 1953), through five presidential elections. And Ronald Reagan not only won two terms easily in 1980 and 1984, but he bequeathed his third term to George H.W. Bush in 1988. Add to this the GOP’s narrow miss in 1960, when two-term President Dwight Eisenhower‘s substantial popularity nearly elected his vice president, Richard M. Nixon. The Democrats had two similar near-misses, in 1968 when Vice President Hubert Humphrey lost in a squeaker to Nixon after eight years of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, and in 2000 when Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote and nearly gave the Clinton Democrats twelve consecutive years in power.

Thus, over the past 108 years, continuity has actually defeated change. In the last 28 presidential elections, Americans have opted for the incumbent party 17 times (61 percent of the time). Put another way, there have been 11 handovers of White House power from one party to the other between 1896 and 2004: 1896, 1912, 1920, 1932, 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, and 2000. In just five of these cases had the incumbent party served only eight years–the length of time usually thought to be normal between party turnovers. In another five instances, one party had held the presidency for 12 to 20 years before losing it. (Only twice–in 1896 as Democrat Grover Cleveland finished his second nonconsecutive term and in 1980 with Democrat Jimmy Carter–did a party lose its lease on the executive mansion after a mere four years in office.)

Now let’s turn to the specific Republican candidates for 2008, actual and speculative. As we did with the other party, we stress to you how tentative these judgments are. Some of the politicians mentioned here won’t run in the end. Others not named in this space will surprise everyone and decide to throw their hats into the burning ring.

Still, the presidential selection process is so taxing and time-consuming that most of the likely contenders are already known, since they need four years to organize their efforts. There are probably only two exceptions to this rule, Vice President Dick Cheney and Florida Governor Jeb Bush. They are extremely well known and both would have instant credibility. Moreover, they could quickly build massive financial war chests that would dwarf most of their competitors’ purses.

We may be proven completely wrong, but we do not believe that either one is running. Both currently insist they are not candidates–which is enough to make many political observers suspicious. Yet Cheney’s age in 2008 (67) and his prior history of four heart attacks make his protestations credible. Obviously, if something–God forbid–should happen to President Bush before 2008 and Cheney has succeeded to the presidency, then he might well run for a full term. (Sadly, American history is replete with examples of presidential death and assassination, so this possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand.) Moreover, we should note that astute observers such as Fred Barnes, with their excellent instincts and contacts, regard the wily Cheney as tanned, rested, and ready for 2008–simply awaiting a late nod from President Bush or Karl Rove that will take the rest of the Republican field by surprise and storm.

Jeb Bush is, if anything, even more insistent than Cheney that he will not run in 2008. That is probably wise. True enough, America has had plenty of political dynasties, from the Rockefellers and the Kennedys to the Adamses and the Harrisons. However, no family has been able to secure more than two presidencies, and no family member has ever succeeded another family member. It’s just too much, and Jeb Bush senses it. Had JFK lived to serve two terms, Robert Kennedy might well have tried to capture the family’s third term in 1968–the Kennedys were rumored to have been making plans along these lines–but our bet is that it wouldn’t have happened. Americans have a love-hate relationship with their celebrities, politicians and entertainers alike, and the public is fickle. After all, voters in a nation born of anti-monarchial revolution will naturally recoil from the establishment of a political royal line. After a few years past 2008, Jeb may be a possibility, and who would bet against another Bush serving in the Oval Office at some point in the future? (Don’t forget about Jeb’s dashing Latino son, George P. Bush, who possesses the perfect profile for the century of ethnic diversity to come.)

Now let’s get to the real contenders. The Democrats were divided into liberals and moderates, so we can be consistent by separating the Republicans into moderate and conservative camps. Just as Democrats usually favor liberals, conservatives have a big edge in the GOP.

The moderate Republicans, or some of them, lead the early, misleading horserace polls. Rudy Giuliani is usually on top, followed closely by Senator John McCain of Arizona. Giuliani is well to the left on some social issues such as abortion and gay rights, and despite his national hero status from 9/11, his social liberalism will likely be enough to eliminate him from the Republican nomination. McCain is not a liberal as much as a maverick. Democrats like mavericks and will nominate them. The last Republican maverick nominated for President was Wendell Willkie, who lost to FDR in his third term bid in 1940. Republican activists appreciate ideological and personal predictability, and if there is one thing McCain isn’t, it’s predictable. The Beltway/New York establishment news media just love McCain and that should be the final blow to his nomination in a party that detests most of the mainstream press. Given McCain’s age in 2008 (72) and his bout with skin cancer, he may not even run, though he certainly enjoys flirting with the idea.

Other GOP moderates or mavericks are likely to be equally unsuccessful in 2008. New York Governor George Pataki is both too liberal and too boring. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will never overcome the constitutional prohibition on non-native born presidents; the amendment may eventually pass, but not in time for Arnold. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel is a McCain photocopy, presumably only in the running if McCain bows out. He has all of McCain’s liabilities, is relatively unknown, and from a small state. Republican activists would be unlikely to nominate any moderate, but if several men of this ideological stripe run, they will simply split the quarter to a third of the party available to a moderate.

The eventual Republican nominee is much more likely to be a conservative, of course. But given the free-for-all nature of the first presidential race since 1952 with no incumbent president or vice president in the contest, in-fighting on the GOP right could be wild and wooly–and debilitating, if not carefully managed.

For the moment, the frontrunner among the conservatives is arguably Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. He’s had a meteoric rise to the top during his two Senate terms, and despite the loads of problems on any leader’s desk, he can claim part credit for the significant legislative victories of 2003-2004. (We’ll see about 2005 and 2006. Court nominations alone could trip him up with the right-wing, should Frist be unable to get Bush’s picks confirmed.) Frist has an unusual combination of impressive brainpower and a pleasant personality. His medical background and business leadership set him apart from the lawyers in the candidate pack. Nothing recommends him as much as his shrewd decision to honor his two-term pledge and step down from the Senate at the end of 2006. Running for president from the Senate, and the leader’s post in particular, is usually deadly–just ask the several dozen senators who have tried in modern times, JFK narrowly excepted. Should the Republicans want a solid, smart, experienced conservative with a high likeability quotient, Frist may be the one. The Tennessean is unexciting, but signals continuity. Yet that adjective “unexciting” sends a warning signal about Frist’s chances. Moreover, the conservatives who control the GOP are often unforgiving, and they may well make Frist pay for every legislative loss of the second Bush presidency–not to mention the big-government Medicare prescription drug plan and any backlash resulting from a possible Social Security tax increase.

There are so many other conservatives on the possible/probable list that the mind boggles. Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is media-genic, wealthy, and dynamic, but do Republicans trust anyone–even a fellow party member–from the liberal Bay State? Senator George Allen of Virginia has a sunny disposition and a successful record in the Old Dominion, but does he have the stature and talent to make a credible presidential nominee? Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is a hero to social conservatives and comes from a key swing state, but is he too far right to get elected in November? Governor Bill Owens of Colorado is popular in national GOP ranks and could have appeal in the West, but has he lost his grip on his own state, not to mention his marital difficulties? Then there are the long shots that might run and make a splash (Governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas) and the long shots we doubt will run at all (Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich–although a couple of our best sources tell us not to rule out Haley Barbour so quickly, and we’re listening.)

Confused? You ought to be. It’s just too early to place bets. The horses haven’t even decided whether to head to the starting gate. And then there are the unimaginable events that will occur before 2008 that will scramble the puzzle. Earlier, we mentioned the possibility of a Cheney candidacy as the incumbent president. What about the opposite extreme? Health problems could force Cheney out of the vice presidency, giving President Bush the opportunity to name his own successor as party nominee and, possibly, chief executive. How does this sound: vice president and GOP presidential nominee Condoleezza Rice? Stranger things have happened in American history!