Sabatos Crystal Ball


How Should the GOP Go in '08--and in '07 on Iraq?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics July 12th, 2007


Over the decades the Republican Party has secured a reputation as the orderly bunch in our (mainly) two-party system. Its members like to have a designated successor in the White House wings, someone who has worked his way up and deserves the nod. Let the Democrats roam the countryside looking for an antiestablishment maverick, under whose standard they will probably lose. The GOP, the managerial party drawn disproportionately from the organized business class, has learned the importance of a tidy succession in the corporate board room. The king is dead; long live the king; let the crown prince reign!

Have we exaggerated history a bit? Of course. In major surprises, the Republicans picked insurgent Wendell Willkie in 1940 (can a Wall Street executive really qualify as an insurgent?) and “bombs-away” Barry Goldwater in 1964. Both lost rather badly, and unlike the Democrats–who repeat their mistakes with greater frequency–the Republicans learned quickly that bomb-throwing of any kind on the campaign trail is usually a ticket to oblivion.

In any event, the mainly winning Republican crown-prince model is off the table for 2008, yet another unfortunate (for the GOP) by-product of a deeply unpopular President Bush and his wholly owned subsidiary–the Vietnam-without-the-jungle called Iraq.

The top tier of the party isn’t even in the race. Vice President Dick Cheney, after four heart attacks, was never seriously considered. After Cheney’s unrelenting advocacy of the Iraq War, the Scooter Libby scandal (Democrats)/the Scooter Libby framing (Republicans), his ludicrous creation of a Vice Presidency not in the Executive branch to avoid disclosure of his activities, and a little accident involving a gun in Texas, it’s fair to say that Cheney has “shot” whatever small chances there may have been of a convention draft. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convincingly says she’s out, and her large role in Iraq would have made her nomination problematic for the Republicans. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, unlike a certain someone on the Democratic side, seems to recognize the dynasty dilemma–and also that the chances of the American public choosing another Bush in 2008 is precisely zero. (That must wait until 2016, after the electorate has completely forgotten the events of 2001-2009.)

The 2008 Republican presidential field has instead been shaped by four would-be Presidents. Only a year or so ago in front-page banner headlines, Senator John McCain was touted as the likely frontrunner, partly because he had corralled many of George W. Bush’s 2000 fund-raising “Pioneers.” This extraordinarily superficial analysis ignored the GOP base’s rather intense dislike of McCain–a mistrust that had been built by the press’ closeness to him in 2000 as well as his positions on campaign finance, immigration, and other topics. McCain’s support in money and many polls is now so weak–single digits in Iowa and some other places–that his nomination would rank as one of the biggest upsets in modern American political history. This week’s embarrassing campaign shuffle is actually more of a symptom than a cause of McCain’s troubles.

As of his entry into the GOP field in February 2007, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani became co-frontrunner with McCain. While his campaign has fared much better than McCain’s, mainly because of his enduring 9/11 image, Giuliani has drifted down in the polls nationally and in many individual states as the focus shifts to his Achilles heel–his liberal positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control. However, due to the continuing terror threat at home and abroad, Giuliani does not share McCain’s status and cannot be called a long shot for the nomination, not yet anyway. But he’s a shaky frontrunner, if indeed he can be termed that at all.

The surprise candidate of the GOP field has clearly been former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Strong fundraising, an attractive image and family and good positioning on the issues has enabled Romney to partly overcome his own negatives–especially flip-flopping dramatically on social hot-buttons over the years as well as the deep suspicion his Mormon religion generates among many evangelical Christians. Romney is now a leading player, apparently ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, with a decent chance to capture the GOP standard in St. Paul next summer.

About equal with Romney is the certain-but-not-yet-announced candidacy of former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson. Sensing that McCain was failing some time ago, this Hollywood star revived GOP memories of another figure from Tinseltown: Ronald Reagan. (As we’ve said many times, the Democrats keep looking for another John F. Kennedy and the Republicans continue to search for a second Ronald Reagan; neither party will ever find its man.) Thompson is called lazy and a drab speaker by some, but he’s in a good position to inherit the mantle of the Southern favorite. No region has more convention votes or clout at a GOP convention. Thompson also matches Republican orthodoxy in most areas, though not campaign finance where he backed McCain’s crusade for reform.

The other candidates add spice and surprise, at least on occasion, but no one else is considered a serious contender at this stage. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich cannot be so easily dismissed, should he decide to make the run in the fall, but the Crystal Ball believes that his past personal and political problems, not to mention his massively high unfavorable ratings among the general public, will condemn him to also-ran status.

Naturally, everyone focuses on the candidates vying for the GOP nod, but the biggest elephant in the room is not them but Iraq. There will be many factors producing the 2008 November result, but none so critical as the state of the Iraq War. If the situation is anywhere near as bleak as it appears today, it is difficult to imagine any major Democrat losing the White House, even the weakest of the major Democrats, Senator Hillary Clinton. (Antagonism towards her creates at least 46 percent of the vote for a Republican in a two-way race before the campaign begins in earnest–not a bad starting point for the GOP nominee.) Any Republican candidate–any Republican candidate–is going to be held accountable for Bush’s policies, no matter how much the presidential hopeful tries to distance himself. (See Humphrey, Hubert Horatio, the election of 1968 and President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam disaster.) That is the way our party system works, and arguably should work.

We have heard and seen more than a few Republican leaders brighten up about their 2008 prospects by saying, “2006 was the worst of it, and 2008 will have to be better.” They are dreaming. Not only can 2008 be as bad as 2006 for the GOP, it can be a good deal worse. Something we’ve learned from studying the 220 years of our Republic’s elections: the political party that is found whistling past the graveyard usually ends up six feet under.

Dissension about the Iraq War has dominated this week’s congressional headlines, but it is unlikely that major change will come this summer. Possibly the last real pre-election window for the Republicans to change the Iraq paradigm will come this autumn, after the report of General David Petraeus. The distinguished general will have no credibility if he paints a truly rosy picture, so logically he will either admit the failure of the “surge” or claim that it is a partial success with lights ablaze at the end of the tunnel. Here’s betting it’s the latter. After all, when has anyone in power come before the President and public and admitted his best efforts have been for naught–especially when it is crystal clear that General Petraeus’s commander-in-chief wants to hear a positive spin? Interestingly, the GOP is far better off with “partial success” as the general’s evaluation. That gives congressional Republicans and other senior GOPers the opportunity to give President Bush a political ultimatum if they dare. Either he announces a gradual but noticeable troop pull-out by year’s end, or they will join Democrats in going beyond vague benchmarks to an actual, legislatively mandated, de-escalation schedule. We suspect that the recent Republican defections from the Bush-Iraq model (Senators Gordon Smith of Oregon, Susan Collins of Maine, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Dick Lugar of Indiana, George Voinovich of Ohio, John Warner of Virginia, and Pete Domenici of New Mexico) are the vanguard of a much larger, deeply concerned party contingent.

Just as Senator George Aiken of Vermont advised Presidents Johnson and Nixon to pursue a strategy in Vietnam that came to be known as “declare victory and get out,”* so too can today’s Republicans–the ones who, unlike Bush, are on the ballot in November 2008 and can lose–see a persuasive motive to push for a significant troop withdrawal by election time. Even 50,000 troops on the way home might well lower the voting saliency of Iraq for much of the public, who would believe the crisis is on its way to being resolved. Then other issues, more favorable to the GOP, could rise on the voters’ agenda and give the sitting White House party a real shot at holding its fortress on Pennsylvania Avenue.

From the vantage point of summer 2007, little else holds promise for a troubled Republican party. Can congressional Republicans gather the kind of high-powered conservative delegation that visited Richard Nixon in early August 1974? Senator Barry Goldwater and his colleagues laid bare the facts before a sinking President, and however reluctantly, Nixon resigned. No one is seriously talking about a Bush resignation or impeachment, but the electoral stakes for Republicans are just as high. Could George W. Bush be more resolute–or stubborn–than Richard Nixon? In a few months, nervous Republicans may find out.

* The Crystal Ball staff did a little research on Senator Aiken’s advice, because we have always wondered whether he actually uttered those particular words. Most news accounts over the decades have suggested that he did, printing the words as a direct quotation. It may be of some interest to our political-junkie readership that, as far as we can tell, Senator Aiken never actually spoke these words. His famous 1966 Senate floor speech in which he expressed doubts about Vietnam was exceptionally un-quotable, with nothing that approaches a memorable soundbite. Apparently, Aiken’s “quote” was lifted from an April 1971 New York Times article that paraphrased Senator Aiken’s floor speech. If any of our alert and able readers have any information to the contrary, please let us know.