I just completed a day at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). There were as many buttons, signs, and T-shirts displaying anti-Senator John McCain sentiments as for him.
The Republican Party has been ideologically adrift since July 1997. The ill-fated “Palace-Coup” by House conservatives against Speaker Newt Gingrich signaled an end to their 1994 revolution. From that moment on the great Conservative-Republican coalition formed in 1978 fell apart. Only the disarray among the Democrats and 9-11 forestalled the complete collapse of the GOP until 2006. Today the Republican Party is shattered into numerous warring factions grounded in single-issue groups, candidate-specific committees, think tanks, and journalists.
Those of us who helped shape the GOP’s twenty-year power arch are hoping that a Reagan will arise from our midst, unify us, and return us to our “promised land”.
John McCain is not that leader. It is, therefore, up to the GOP and conservative faithful to play out two stark scenarios:
Scenario #1 Do the Republicans fight to keep the White House with someone who is mostly conservative? McCain’s lifetime American Conservative Union [ACU] Rating is 83%. Hillary Clinton’s lifetime ACU Rating is 9% while Senator Barack Obama’s ACU lifetime score is 8%. Do we really want America to go through four years of liberal mayhem?
Scenario #2 Do the Republicans move into full opposition, regroup, and resurge? If 2008 is a year that strongly favors the Democrats, then 2010 may favor the GOP in the off-year elections. A failed Democrat in the White House might give the GOP a change of retaking everything in 2012. This is what happened in 1976. The GOP lost with the moderate incumbent Gerald Ford, but resurged in the 1978 off-year elections and then won by a landslide with Ronald Reagan in 1980, even retaking the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1954. Will history repeat itself?
The great dilemma with both scenarios is the killer question for McCain during the autumn debates, “how will you be different from George W. Bush?”
The answer is going to be extremely difficult. “Change” is the buzzword of the year. If McCain says he will be too different from Bush he risks losing those who are still loyal to Bush. If McCain doesn’t differentiate himself enough, he risks losing everyone else.
Realists know that President Bush is a very unpopular President. They also know their history. In the last 128 years only three people, from the same party as their processor, have been elected in their own right. They were: William Howard Taft after Theodore Roosevelt in 1908; Herbert Hoover after Calvin Coolidge in 1928, and George H.W. Bush after Ronald Reagan in 1988. In all three cases, the outgoing President enjoyed high popular and was viewed as successful. So how can McCain add his name to this list?
The GOP cannot assume that Obama and Clinton will tear apart the Democratic Party on the way to their nomination. It is really up to McCain and his campaign team to reintroduce him to the American public during the GOP National Convention six months from now. They only have this one last chance to get it right with the electorate.