By George F. Will
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The first year of the 2008 campaign -- think about that -- has clearly established that the Republican Party's prospects are cloudy. In the first two major contests, Mike Huckabee has finished first and third, John McCain fourth and first, Mitt Romney second twice. Rudy Giuliani has been treading water, waiting for Florida, which on Jan. 29 will allocate more convention delegates (114) than Iowa, Wyoming and New Hampshire combined (92). So, clinging to cliches as to a lifeline, Republicans congratulate themselves on how evenly the party's strengths, such as they are, are spread among their candidates.
But although only one-third of 1 percent of the national electorate -- those who have participated in the Iowa, Wyoming and New Hampshire nominating events -- have spoken, the Democrats have even more reason than they did three weeks ago to look forward to a rollicking November. Realistic Republicans are looking for shelter.
Nov. 4 could be their most disagreeable day since Nov. 3, 1964. Actually, this November could be even worse, because in 1964 Barry Goldwater's loss of 44 states served a purpose, the ideological reorientation and revitalization of the party. Which Republican candidate this year could produce a similarly constructive loss?
Today, all the usual indicators are dismal for Republicans. If that broad assertion seems counterintuitive, produce a counterexample. The adverse indicators include: shifts in voters' identifications with the two parties (Democrats now 50 percent, Republicans 36 percent); the tendency of independents (they favored Democratic candidates by 18 points in 2006); the fact that Democrats hold a majority of congressional seats in states with 303 electoral votes; the Democrats' strength and the Republicans' relative weakness in fundraising; the percentage of Americans who think the country is on the "wrong track"; the Republicans' enthusiasm deficit relative to Democrats' embrace of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one of whom will be nominated.
Iowa and New Hampshire were two of the three states (New Mexico was the third) that changed partisan alignment between 2000 and 2004 -- Iowa turning red, New Hampshire blue. This month, Democratic participation was twice the Republican participation in Iowa and almost 22 percent higher in New Hampshire. George W. Bush won Iowa by just 0.67 percent of the vote. Whomever the Republicans nominate should assume that he must replace Iowa's seven electoral votes if he is to reach Bush's 2004 total of 286.
Republicans try to take comfort from the fact that 61 Democratic members of Congress represent districts that President Bush carried in 2004. But 37 of those won with at least 55 percent of the vote. Furthermore, 14 Republican representatives won in 2006 by a single percentage point or less.
Granted, in the past 150 years, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter (barely) are the only Democrats to achieve 50 percent of the popular vote. And this year Democrats might still give Republicans the gift of Hillary Clinton, who probably has a popular vote ceiling of 52 percent. A subliminal -- too much so -- subtext of Obama's message is that Clinton cannot receive the big mandate required for big changes: Enactment of Social Security in 1935 followed Franklin Roosevelt's 57.4 percent victory in 1932, and in 1965 Medicare came after Lyndon Johnson's 61 percent victory over Barry Goldwater.
But even if Democrats nominate Clinton, Republicans must remember that Bush's 2.4-point margin of victory in 2004 was unimpressive: In the 12 previous reelections of presidents, the average margin of victory was 12.9 points. Bush's 50.7 percent of the vote in 2004 was the third-smallest for a reelected president (Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton won 49.2 percent in 1916 and 1996, respectively). Kerry's 48.3 percent was the largest ever against a president being reelected. (In the 12 previous reelections, no losing candidate received more than 46.1 percent; nine of the losers received less than 45 percent.)
Tuesday's Republican primary is in one of the nation's worst-governed states. Under a Democratic governor, Michigan has been taxed into a one-state recession. Native son Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate who best understands how wealth is created, might revive his campaign by asking: Whom do you want to be president in 2010 when the Bush tax cuts, which McCain opposed, expire? Can automakers endure more regulations such as the fuel efficiency mandates that climate-fixers such as McCain favor? Do you want a president (Mike Huckabee, proponent of a national sales tax of at least 30 percent) pledged to radically increase the proportion of federal taxes paid by the middle class?
Republicans should try to choose the next president. They cannot avoid choosing how their party will define itself, even if by a loss beneath a worthy banner.