Parties Trading Places

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

As the first actual voting in this year's presidential contest is finally about to begin, the two parties have swapped places. The Democrats, by tradition the party of irreconcilable factions, are, for all their election-eve squabbling, more united than they've been in decades. The Republicans, by tradition the party that submerges its differences to rally 'round the front-runner, have become a collection of distinct, disconsolate camps.

Barack Obama and John Edwards are just now having at it, and each is touching distinct themes in the final appeals to Iowa voters. Obama seems more in the tradition of the early-20th-century progressives, middle-class reformers who sought to clean up politics to restore a functioning democracy. Edwards is more in the tradition of the early-20th-century populists, railing at the monied interests that really ran the country.

But Obama is a rather populist progressive, a onetime community organizer who understands the power of organized popular protest. And Edwards is a progressive populist, heir to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, not William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long.

Time was when the Democratic presidential field would extend from the hawkish Henry Jackson to the dovish George McGovern, neither of whom could count on the other's Democratic supporters in a race against the Republican. These days, the differences dividing the Democrats are far narrower, and the Democrat who wins the party's nod will command nearly consensual Democratic support. The same cannot be said for the Republicans.

Indeed, half of the Democrats polled in November by NBC and the Wall Street Journal said that they could support either Hillary Clinton or Obama "with enthusiasm"; 36 percent said that of Edwards. Among Republicans, however, only Mitt Romney, at 35 percent, approached the Edwards level of enthusiasm; and the rest of the major GOP candidates lagged far behind.

It's not hard to see why. Mike Huckabee has brought not just the Old Time Religion to the campaign but also a populist touch that appalls the economic right. With each passing day, moreover, he looks less and less ready for prime time. It's difficult to imagine Huckabee commanding much support outside the party's Christian right -- just as it's hard to imagine Rudy Giuliani commanding much support inside the party's Christian right.

Besides, the resurrection of John McCain as a credible candidate has damaged Rudy's claim to being the toughest anti-jihadist on the block. More precisely, McCain comes off, some of the time, as a judicious anti-jihadist, at least when compared with Rudy's one-note obsessive anti-jihadist.

McCain's problem may be that he's too good for the Republicans this year. On two of the defining moral issues of our time -- whether America should torture its enemies and how America should treat the 12 million undocumented immigrants already among us -- he has consistently exhibited decency and common sense that shouldn't be in the least bit notable but which stand out given the demagogic savagery that his rival Republican candidates have championed. McCain would hardly be a slam-dunk if he won the GOP nomination -- he'd still have to explain why he thinks the Iraq war was a good idea and why our forces should stay there indefinitely -- but he'd certainly be the strongest candidate the GOP could select.

What's not clear is how McCain can win the nomination, given the anti-immigrant torrent sweeping the Republican base and the Republican elite, who never liked McCain to begin with. In 2008, nativism shapes up as the one issue both to mobilize the party's core voters and sway undecideds into the Republican column. It's the only issue that has worked for congressional Republicans in off-year special elections; it's clearly the card that GOP members of Congress plan to play to hold on to their seats in November -- though how they could do that if McCain headed their ticket is a difficult question. McCain could switch his position on immigrants, but not without damage to his damn-the-torpedoes, straight-shooter image.

Which leaves the GOP with Mitt Romney, whose prime virtue is that he's minimally acceptable to all wings of the party. Indeed, the reason that venerable conservative standard-bearer the National Review gave for endorsing Romney is that he is the candidate most likely "to keep the [conservative] coalition together." But Romney's strength is also his weakness: He doesn't offend Republicans for the positions he takes; he offends Republicans for all the back-pedaling and 180s he's had to perform in order to espouse the positions that don't offend them. Besides, standing at the midpoint of the GOP may be a dubious general-election asset to an electorate that increasingly rejects the Republican worldview.

Is McCain too authentic to win the GOP nod? Is Slick Mitt too inauthentic to win the White House? Come tomorrow, voters will start sorting this, and more, out.

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