Potential GOP presidential candidate and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson. (NBC)
There is no such thing
as a routine presidential election. They are always turning points. They define our two major parties and the parameters of policy for the next four years. The 2008 election, the first since 1928 without an incumbent president or vice president as a candidate and set against the backdrop of our post-9/11 national debate, will be especially meaningful and tumultuous.
Despite the importance of the contest, at this point it all seems very distant to us here on the left coast. Once again, Washington state – Seattle and Bellevue, specifically – is nothing but a fundraising stop. No matter how frustrated reformers get, the Republican and Democratic national committees legally and firmly control the nomination process, and the RNC and DNC have once again crafted rules that ensure the early campaign states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina get all the attention next year.
The only hope for other states to play a significant role is to schedule their nominating decisions just after the early states. In 2000, Washington came just after South Carolina and became a major battleground in the Republican contest. John McCain and George W. Bush both campaigned here, and President Bush later called his victory in our combined primary/caucus system one of the key moments of the campaign.
This time around, the early states will caucus and vote in January, followed by a huge Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 of 17 states, including California and New York. Washington will be in the next round, with caucuses on Feb. 9 and a Republican primary on Feb. 12. It is entirely possible that either or both parties might fail to arrive at a clear winner on Super Tuesday, and Washington might become a major battleground – for about a week.
Until then, activists
will choose up sides while most local voters watch. In keeping with a liberal, maverick tradition, Washington Democrats seem more enamored
with Barack Obama than New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Nationally, however, it appears more and more that Clinton has the Democratic race under control. She leads Obama by 18 percentage points nationally
, and after trailing earlier she has pulled even in Iowa and ahead in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The Republican contest, on the other hand, is wide-open. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has held a consistent lead in national polls, but he trails
former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 10 points in Iowa and New Hampshire and is barely ahead of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson in South Carolina. Those national polls will change quickly if "America's mayor" loses the first three contests. Arizona Sen. McCain's campaign is severely wounded, but he retains too much stature to be counted out. Actor Thompson lurks, just off stage. Republicans are restive and not yet comfortable with their choices. Why?
Ronald Reagan truly created
the modern national Republican Party. The basic elements of his agenda – conservative social policies, pro-growth supply-side tax cuts, and an aggressive foreign policy backed up by overwhelming military strength and the willingness to use it – became the George W. Bush agenda. Most Republicans aren't looking for change in this agenda, and none of the candidates is running as a change agent. Giuliani might be pro-choice, but he has made it clear that he is perfectly willing to let the GOP stay pro-life. All the candidates support the Bush tax cuts, the surge in Iraq, and vigorous prosecution of the war on terror. All promise to appoint more Supreme Court justices like Samuel Alito and John Roberts. For most Republican activists, the debate is over whom to trust. They probe candidates' backgrounds and find lots of evidence to indicate that none of the contenders are true Reagan conservatives. By and large, activists are either staying on the sidelines or signing up for the candidate they oppose the least.
In 1999, the overwhelming majority of Republicans were enthusiastically willing to trust then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush with the Reagan legacy. That was reflected here in Washington, where a few conservatives supported Steve Forbes and a few moderates, led by former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, supported McCain. The bulk of the GOP establishment, however – led by then-U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, former U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Bellevue, and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco – signed up with Bush early in the process.
Things are very different
this time. There is a small but noisy contrarian element within the state GOP that distrusts the "Bellevue Mafia," the establishment that leads the state party. It's an element that doesn't think any Republican is ever conservative enough. These folks are looking for a true conservative to support but can't make up their minds. Some support Ron Paul, others Tom Tancredo, others Mike Huckabee. Some are fascinated by Thompson. Moderates are split between McCain and Giuliani.
Most significantly, the establishment is divided this time. U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn is the Washington campaign chairman for Guiliani, and his political team is raising money for the former mayor. Gorton, Attorney General Rob McKenna, and former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay have joined Munro in supporting McCain. Dunn has endorsed Romney and has joined his finance team. When was the last time Slade Gorton and Jennifer Dunn were on the opposite sides of anything? This situation reflects the inability of any of the candidates to win trust and create enthusiasm.
Republicans will definitely unite behind the nominee, but given the current state of the race, that might not be until deep into next year. Thompson is the GOP's last hope to avoid that fate. With his relative lack of baggage and obvious communication skills and charisma, he has a chance to generate real enthusiasm and unite the GOP as Reagan and George W. Bush did. Apparently, we will have to wait until just after this Labor Day, when an announcement regarding his candidacy is expected, to find out if he will even try to pull it off.
Finally, an early look
at the general election indicates that despite the conventional wisdom, things don't look so bad for the GOP. Mid-term elections are about the past; presidential elections are about the future. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove left the political stage last week, so he and the president will not be the defining issues in 2008 as they were in 2006. That will help Republicans dramatically in the Pacific Northwest.
Early in the 2000 cycle, polls showed that Bush's "compassionate conservative" message was very popular in Washington and Oregon. Republicans were excited about the possibility of stealing 18 crucial electoral votes the Democrats couldn't do without. The Democrats, however, pounded away on social issues and firmly branded Bush as a pro-life evangelical from Texas, thus driving away enough secular suburban moderates to give both states to Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in 2004. By 2006, with Iraq added to the mix, the president's political standing here became even worse. By next year, however, all that will be in the past. The core Republican message won't change, but the GOP will have a new messenger, and that will make a difference.
The two nominees will define this election, just as the winner will define our future. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg might choose to spend some of his fortune on an independent run, but count me among those who believe it will make little difference, here or nationwide. America is as polarized as at any time in our history. Conservatives and liberals will fear that voting for an independent will throw the election to the hated alternative, and when the main issue is war and peace, the stakes are just too high to risk that. Our next president will be either be a Republican or a Democrat.
Most assume the Ds
have a big advantage this time, but last week Bob Moore, a highly respected Republican pollster in Portland, released an analysis that indicates that the major factor in the 2008 race
[722K PDF] might be the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton. Moore points out that despite the current Bush/GOP malaise, in a hypothetical matchup Giuliani beats Clinton in most polls and has a significant Electoral College advantage. Clinton's favorable/unfavorable ratio is terrible, and she fails to achieve 50 percent against any Republican contender, even the lesser-known ones, indicating a very low ceiling for growth.
While I agree with Moore and others that Clinton's poll numbers must be troubling for Democrats, the generic ballot numbers, and the Bush/Iraq hangover, are troubling to Republicans. Team Clinton knows how to run a national election. This is likely to be a very tough, close race.
Moore concludes that "2008 will not be a repeat of 2006." I agree. It will be a wide-open, incredibly interesting, and vitally important presidential election. As usual.