Monday, October 27, 2008

The Limbaugh Narrative

Ross Douthat quotes liberally from Rush Limbaugh's pre-emptive explanation of the Republicans' Waterloo: the moderates dunnit. And by "moderates", Rush means everybody from Colin Powell to . . . Ross Douthat!

Ross only engages this argument, if you can call it that, at a very meta level, at least in this particular post. At the risk of merely repeating Ross's own work, I would like to address it in more detail.

While I have to confess to my own bafflement at how John McCain won the nomination (more on this in a moment), I'm not persuaded by Limbaugh's argument that the conservative intelligentsia put one over on Republican primary voters by selling them on the idea that only a "moderate" could win. That is not my recollection. On the contrary, I recall McCain running as a true conservative, plus a compelling biography, plus steadfastness on the war. To the extent anyone thought him a moderate, like NR, they were NOT supporting him.

Now, neither I nor anyone I know bought into the "McCain is a true conservative" line. While many of them appreciated his support for "the Surge" (I did not), this was not enough to outweigh his earlier support for amnesty.

My best explanation for his win was that those opposed to McCain divided their votes between Romney (the men) and Huckabee (the women). But the weakness of this theory is that the "moderate" faction, to the extent we can call it that, also divided its votes between McCain and Guiliani. In the final analysis, it is not clear to me that the conservatives outvoted the moderates at all, which says something about Republican primary voters today.

Neither Romney nor Huckabee were without weaknesses, of course. Romney's conservatism was, politically speaking, only a few hours old, and in any case was not the theme of his campaign. Meanwhile, Huckabee's persona was off-putting to anyone not a conservative southern Evangelical, plus he showed a limited ability to engage arguments about his own policies.

But . . . why McCain? Seriously, since I don't know any McCain voters from the primary, can anyone sketch me a profile of what one looks like?

I now come to my point: McCain's coming defeat in the general election is not because he's not conservative enough. On the contrary, watching McCain is like watching a weird parody of Republican Greatest Hits, 1980 - 1988. It's that his talking points are detached from the reality around us. Promises of tax cuts don't mean anything if you're loosing money. Support for the surge doesn't mean anything if you think the Iraq war has outlived its usefulness to American security. Attacks on Obama's association with William Ayers doesn't mean anything if he can't tie it to some issue that voters actually care about.

As Steve points out today, McCain's campaign isn't about anything. Contra Half Sigma, the only time McCain pulled ahead of Obama this cycle was after his nomination of Sarah Palin, a lead he lost as it became clear that Palin brought no substance of her own to the campaign, and could only repeat McCain's substance-free talking points . . . very, very badly.

UPDATE: We've got a live one!


trumwill said...

Wow. I pretty much agree with your entire analysis.

The thing about McCain is that if he had run as McCain in the primaries, he would have lost*. But the McCain that did run in the primaries was incompatible with the McCain that could have run in the election. In trying to be both, he ended up neither and, frankly, confusing.

I am in the camp that frankly has difficulty seeing any of the candidates for the GOP nomination this time around winning the presidency. I think that's what Limbaugh and others miss. McCain will likely lose, but no less so anybody else. Sometimes it's worth a loss if you can have somebody articulate and provide some focus for future elections, but none of the candidates running this time around were that guy.

Rich said...

Seriously, since I don't know any McCain voters from the primary, can anyone sketch me a profile of what one looks like?

I'm a GOP Primary McCain supporter. It's possible that we may be more adequately defined by what we are not. We're not religiously-motivated or ideological libertarians or of any specific stripe. For the most part, we're Republicans (or Republican-leaning) because we believe that the whole package is more appealing than the Democratic alternative. We usually hold at least some views that are considered anathema to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and so we're sympathetic to heretics. Not to the point that we would support Christine Todd Whitman, but to the point that the constant yelling of "Heretic!" makes our ears go numb to whoever is talking.

Anyway, I guess you could say in overly simplistic terms "moderates" but some of us aren't actually that moderate. We're just not in a particular camp within the party. Contrary to popular perception, the Republican spectrum doesn't really go left-right. Being anti-abortion doesn't make you more likely to support lower taxes. Being in favor of the death penalty doesn't necessarily mean that you're hostile to illegal immigrants. McCain didn't speak to any particular segment of the party, but I think we're suspicious of candidates that come too far from one side or the other because they think that people like us are ruining the party and more practically we're worried about whether or not they have the ability to build the coalition necessary to win the presidency.

In particular, the question I ask myself during the primaries is "Who can win?" and then choose the best candidate that fits that criteria. The only two answers this time around were McCain and Giuliani and in my mind there wasn't much of a contest. In 2000, my answer was Bush. I actually flirted with Romney early on this time around, but it was obvious from the campaign that he run that he was not running the kind of campaign that was going to be competitive in November. And he spoke in a way that was almost specifically designed to turn me off.

If there had been a very articulate and more conservative candidate with a shot at winning, I would have given him a look. I looked at Fred Thompson that way. But it requires a pretty exceptional candidate. Reagan didn't win because he was hyperconservative. He won because he was Reagan. None of the candidates that ran this time around were Reagan (to be fair, McCain didn't poll comparatively well because he was moderate. He polled that way because he was McCain).

There are some limits to my ideological flexibility. I think that Giuliani was on the other side for me where I might have voted for someone that would have lost before I would have voted for him. McCain, though, wasn't across that line for me.

To be sure, there are some people that I would never vote for even if they could win. But I reject the notion that McCain is as bad as a lot of conservative folks say he is and I consider the notion that it would do us well to spend 4-8 years of cooling our heels while Obama has a super-majority to be absurd. There may be a Republican candidate that's bad enough that I'd rather lose, but McCain was not (to me) that candidate. I think for a lot of us, McCain fell under the category of "He'll do" in a race where there weren't a lot of Republicans we could say that about.