By Ed Rogers
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Phew, I'm glad those elections are over . . . (pause for four seconds).
Now we can focus on obsessing about the results and extrapolating their meaning over two long years to predict who will win the presidency in 2008.
On the Republican side, some party faithful delude themselves that losing is winning -- that the GOP benefits because now the nation will see Democrats at the wheel. Sure, confronted with a lie detector, the GOP candidates would prefer to run against Washington in '08 than defend a stale Republican leadership. But it's never good to be out of power.
The GOP nominating process, perhaps now more than ever, favors front-runners and candidates with a national fundraising base. With the first voting just 14 months away, a contender will probably need at least $60 million before the balloting even starts.
This year's midterm results are just a fraction of what will decide '08. Questions about character, issues of peace and war and surprise events may all still arise. At this point, as good a predictor as any is the contenders' performance and progress over the past year. So who's up and who's down after 2006?
The governor of Massachusetts may have had the best year of all the GOP presidential contenders: Nobody can blame him for what happened in Washington. He hired some well-connected talent for his political action committee, impressed diehard conservatives at the Heritage Foundation and the National Review, and mastered the politics of health care in a one-party legislature by pushing through a respected plan for universal coverage. And he gives the best presentation from the lectern.
But getting the GOP faithful to cheer for a Massachusetts politician will be a challenge. Plus, Republicans quietly wonder about "the Mormon thing," as though it's an aardvark chained to Romney's ankle. (Are we afraid that he may be too wholesome?) More troubling is that Romney, a one-term governor like George W. Bush, has no claim to be a credible commander in chief.
The Arizona senator had some ups and downs in a year that I would rate a net plus for his chances. McCain's biography still serves him well, but doubters question whether the baggage he carries on his left (his partnership, for example, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on an immigration-reform bill) will prevent him from moving to the right as he reaches for the conservative banner in the primaries. Yet McCain could reassure the conservative base that his bipartisan work in Washington is how he moves its agenda to within the realm of the possible.
In U.S. history, there have been times when the presidency seeks a candidate -- not the other way around. This was true for Ronald Reagan, and could be for McCain, too; he's on the right side of such issues as corruption, earmarking and spending. Also, Republicans are hierarchical: We tend to pick the front-runners and rarely reach to the back of the pack.
Gingrich is the biggest wild card in the race -- he is the one person who benefits from the GOP's midterm losses. The Republicans lost the House in part because they strayed too far from the limited government agenda that Gingrich's "Contract With America" envisioned. And it was Gingrich, contract in hand, who helped the Republicans win power in 1994. Who better to get the GOP back on track?
He'll be the most popular candidate on the Lincoln Day speaking circuit, he will shine in a multi-candidate debate, and he remains well liked by conservative activists. But is his ceiling too low? Can he win 50 percent of any audience? One thing is certain: Hillary vs. Newt is the only 2008 combination that could make money on pay-per-view.
New York's former mayor continues to enjoy admiration, both within the party and among the broader population, as a hero of 9/11. But Republican primary voters are different from general election voters. Giuliani is destined to be rejected by the GOP base because he's just wrong on too many key issues -- gun control, same-sex marriage and abortion, for starters. Unlike most candidates, he would be diminished by running and losing. He has such a reservoir of goodwill and respect that I think he'll make the calculation not to tarnish himself with a losing campaign.
Conventional wisdom is now singing in unison that the Senate majority leader from Tennessee has no chance at winning the White House. Frist may take heart from the fact that the conventional wisdom is almost always wrong -- but you know it's a bad year when that's the best thing your candidacy has going for it.
He's dead. Watching Allen's campaign this year was like watching a snuff film. Once an emerging contender, the senator from Virginia now has a big "Loser" stamped on his forehead. Apparently, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are the only ones who can say racist things, receive forgiveness and redemption and have their records expunged. For Republicans, it stays with them forever. Allen is probably now serving a political life sentence with no time off for good behavior.
The Rest: Yawn
Dick Armey, Sam Brownback, Chuck Hagel, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter and George Pataki have all visited Iowa. But their candidacies would need a series of plane crashes and assassinations imaginable only in Hollywood to move to the front of the pack.
There's no right-wing favorite now among the GOP field, and that's unusual. Allen's collapse and Frist's failure leave the party's conservative wing wide open. Can McCain get there? Can Romney outflank him? Can Gingrich fill the vacuum? Personally, I'm still holding out for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, my friend and former business partner, to enter the race, even though he has told me privately what he also says in public -- he won't run.
And then, of course, there are the Democrats. I take an unavoidably simple-minded look at things: In American politics, what is supposed to happen tends to happen. Only twice since 1850 has a president completed two terms in office and then seen someone else from his party succeed him. So, it should be the Democrats' turn to win.
But a Democratic victory is far from certain. The party could renominate one of the duds it put on the ballot the past two elections. Or, it could suffer amnesia and again nominate someone who couldn't find the center of the road if two bright yellow lines were painted on it. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been trying to steer toward the middle since the day she became a Yankees fan and a senator from New York, but she'd need her husband's skills and charisma to make Middle America ignore her Senate voting record or forget her efforts to socialize health care. Her record will hurt her as a national candidate as much as it will help her in the Democratic primaries.
We know what winning Democrats look like: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Carter is the last Democrat to receive more than 50 percent of the popular vote, in 1976, and Clinton is the only Democrat to win election twice since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner looked most like Carter and Clinton. But he dropped out -- to sighs of relief from Republicans everywhere.
One year from now, anyone who isn't a front-runner will face certain death unless he or she can alter the dynamics with bold gambits or flashy gimmicks. Look for candidates to announce their running mates before the primary voting even starts. Look for the campaigns to get uglier earlier, as the pack tries to take down a leading contender. That's the one sure bet: Folks on both sides will have to get creative and reckless -- and it will be one heck of a show.
Ed Rogers is chairman of Barbour Griffith & Rogers, a government relations firm. He was deputy manager of the 1988 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush.