Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 23, 2008
POLITICS: Ideas Don't Run For President; People Do


With the failure of the Fred Thompson campaign, there has been predictable and understandable wailing and gnashing of teeth in conservative quarters about the state of the GOP and what this all means for the future of conservative ideas. Fred ran as a full-scale, across-the-board movement conservative, and he went nowhere. Among the four remaining major candidates, we have two who are genuine conservatives on some core issues but basically apostates on others (Rudy and Huck), a moderate who is generally if not as dramatically out of step on a large number of issues (McCain), and one candidate (Romney) whose positions have changed so much from his past positions and record that nobody really knows for certain how trustworthy he might be if he actually won the general election. Conservatives are asking: has our party abandoned us? Have GOP voters rejected our ideas?

No, it has not, and they have not. Remember Article II, Section 1 of our Constitution: "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." President, singular, individual. Flesh-and-blood human. That's who holds the job, that's who gets elected to the job. No perfect vessel, no incarnation of ideas. And that fact must be repeated again and again until people understand that winning and losing elections and choosing leaders is about picking the right person from the available choices. Ideas don't run for president, people do.

We got the field we started with because these were the men who were willing to ask for the job and able to raise the minimum amount of money and signatures and staff to initiate a campaign. That limited our options to the people who had - or thought they had - the qualifications and the right political moment to run in 2008, not some other year. We got the field we have now because along the way, some of the contenders failed to promote themselves well, or made a bad impression, or ran out of money, or found better things to do with their time. That leaves the four men who remain, plus of course Ron Paul. We have no choice but to take each them as a whole - platform and record, experience and character, skills and resources. And it is just one of those remaining men, as a whole, with whom we will go forth to battle in November.

An awful lot of angst could be avoided by remembering this simple truth. And an awful lot can yet be spared if the folks who live in this big and querelous tent we call a political party - which we would all like and hope to see function as a majority party - would remind themselves of it: we have been asked to choose among men, not ideas. While our choices certainly reflect our view of the ideas each man champions, it is deeply mistaken to read the choice of one man over another as the final and definitive statement of what ideas we truly support. I, for one, as a Republican would like to know that the candidate we settle on - or settle for - has more people behind him than just the ones who agree with every one of his ideas.

Hindenberg-Paul.jpgA lot of libertarians, for example, got burned because they forgot this, and started acting as if Ron Paul was a clear vessel containing nothing but the purest ideas, like that cipher John Galt. Instead, they had to deal with Dr. Paul himself. Old, shrill, slightly loopy-sounding on television, with an actual record (complete with earmarks for his district) and actual skeletons in his closet (photo-ops with crackpots and hatemongers, nasty racist newsletters published under his name). And more than a few of them ended up either distraught over his failure to make waves with the electorate or with egg on their faces for having signed themselves over lock, stock and barrel to this particular man. The mistake they made was in believing in Ron Paul the movement, Ron Paul the ideas, Ron Paul the platform, when the average voter was still going to ask whether the executive power should be vested in Ron Paul the man who is standing behind a podium waving his fingers.

Conservatives, being more worldly folk and by nature cynical about the perfectability of Man, ought to be able to absorb this lesson more easily. Fred and Sam Brownback and Duncan Hunter all had their flaws as campaigners and as potential presidents. It so happens that each man - the total package all wrapped together - failed to catch on with the voters. What does that mean? Personally, I don't think it means a full-scale, across-the-board movement conservative could not win the nomination and the general election. But it does mean something we ought to know by now: that a full-scale, across-the-board movement conservative can't win the nomination and the general election every four years.

Can a lefthanded pitcher win the Cy Young Award? Can a high-tech company's stock deliver better-than-the-market returns from an IPO? Can I win Monopoly if my opponent has all the railroads? Can a coin land heads-up? If you want to test a theory, you need to test it repeatedly to come up with results that have more explanatory power than random chance or the particular conditions of the moment. And Fred Thompson, big a fella as he is, is way too small a sample size to generalize about the conservative movement.

If anybody should be upset, it's the "progressive" movement, because they have a candidate who is aligned with the base and is genuinely charismatic and well-funded and apparently viable in the general election, and the nomination is drifting away from him. But even there: Obama isn't "progressive" ideas. He's a junior Senator from Illinois, with a limited resume and his feet planted in the mire of Chicago politics. And his opponent has her own personal advantages, from name recognition to money to her gender to her husband, who personally occupies a unique position in his party. If Obama loses, the "progressives" have a cause to be upset, but it's only in the context of the longer history of their movement within their party and the electorate as a whole that they should evaluate the viability of their agenda.

So too with the opposite conclusion: that the success of one candidate equals some sort of insult to other parts of the coalition. Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee represent opposite ends of the GOP spectrum, with little overlap among the issues on which they each do and don't appeal to conservatives. But like so many things, their role in the race says as much and more about themselves and the unique political moment of 2008 as it does about the GOP as a whole over time. If Rudy didn't have the record and personality he has, he would not have gotten as far as he did; same with Huckabee. Their successes and failures may owe a measure of influence to the particular positions they take, but there are so many other variables at work that nobody should take umbrage if they do or (as seems more likely for both) don't get the nomination.

reaganarmed.jpgThe same goes for John McCain, and probably goes double because McCain is so many voters' second rather than first choice. Maybe 2008 is the right moment for a moderate Republican, and maybe it is not; but circumstances (including the specific characteristics of Mitt Romney, his strongest remaining opponent) will determine only whether it is the right moment for this particular moderate Republican.

We can whine and moan about the way the world works, or we can do the best we can with the time and the tools that are given to us. We were fortunate, once upon a time, to have a man named Reagan. We are not so fortunate every four years. We have been presented with quite a collection of men, each with his own particular virtues as a candidate (and each of what was once the "Big Five" has some significant virtues to offer). We should not take as a personal affront the inevitable process by which one of them is chosen. It was ever thus: ideas don't run for president. People do.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:02 PM | Politics 2008 | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

Crank: I was heartened to see your reference to the Constitution. Being a lawyer, did you ever read Ann Coulter's first book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors? If so I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Posted by: Dodger Steve at January 23, 2008 11:48 PM

Sorry, not a Coulter fan. I only read her when someone links to one of her columns. Which can be quite good, at times; more's the pity that she is usually off her rocker.

Posted by: The Crank at January 23, 2008 11:53 PM

Give High Crimes a try, I'm sure you can find it cheap on amazon. It is much different than her newer works. As a lawyer, I think you'll enjoy it. I'm not a lawyer and I was fascinated by the depth of the anaylsis of the Constitution and how it applies to impeachment.

Posted by: Dodger Steve at January 24, 2008 12:13 AM

I'm curious, Crank, what constitutes "conservative values" at this point, since the movement seems to have lost its bearings for so many years now. In what ways do Rudy & Huckabee encompass "conservatism"? Huck's anti-abortion stance? Rudy's "tough on terror/continue the war in Iraq"? Rudy's tax policy?

What ever happened to limited government? States rights? Fiscal conservatism? Is true "conservatism" more isolationist or more interventionist? Protectionist or free trade?

I can't help but feel that part of what you & other Republican are concerned with is the lack of compass that Bush has offered over the past 7 years. As much as you seem ambivalent about McCain, part of me wonders if he's not the best medicine for the GOP at this point. At least he's "moderately" honest and more-than "moderately" electable.

In a way, he could be for the GOP what Bill Clinton was to the Dems 16 years ago -- a bit watered down on message, but not a wandering off course into who-knows-what.

Just food for thought.

Posted by: Mike at January 24, 2008 6:50 AM

Calling McCain, a man for whom I hold a lot of admiration, moderate is ridiculous. But nevertheless, I am glad you agree with me. Essentially, that the purebread (non-muggle?) clowns who are far right and left wing are so busy looking for perfection, they get irate if their candidate is anything less.

Here is a quote from you: "The same goes for John McCain, and probably goes double because McCain is so many voters' second rather than first choice. Maybe 2008 is the right moment for a moderate Republican,"

I still say he isn't moderate, just a bit less conservative, but the point here is that he is positioning himself as everyone's second choice. Smart man who understands history (which I consider among the most important qualities of a president)--that is exactly how Lincoln did it. He was very few people's first choice, but smart dude that he was, he let Stanton, Chase and company duke it out, leaving them with not nearly enough votes in the convention, but let Lincoln get it in the end.

Posted by: Daryl Rosenblatt at January 24, 2008 11:38 AM

McCain is a conservative on most issues. But I also think he's a guy who will look to cut deals on issues that aren't real core beliefs for him, which is why a lot of conservatives are leery of him. Not to mention that he actually is a moderate when it comes to immigration.

Posted by: Jerry at January 24, 2008 11:45 AM

understands history (which I consider among the most important qualities of a president)

Thus the disaster that is the current dry-drunk, disinterested, C student WH occupant.

Posted by: El at January 24, 2008 1:35 PM

I assume you mean "uninterested" rather than "disinterested" in referring the GWB.

Before you make fun of C students, it may be a good idea to know the meaning of the words you use.

Posted by: strict grammarian at January 24, 2008 3:09 PM

Reagan. . . Reagan . . . yeah, I've heard of him. Didn't he sell arms to Iranian terrorists and divert the money to the Contras in direct violation of U.S. law? Is that the same Reagan who lost control over his White House and let madmen run amok in the White House basement? And fell asleep during meetings? And went to Bitburg? And gave support to Saddam Hussein? Surely this can't be the Republican role model. Unless you're referring to another Reagan.

Posted by: steve at January 24, 2008 4:08 PM

In what way is McCain not conservative? His unwavering anti-abortion stance? his role in getting Bush's judicial nominees approved whilst preserving the filibuster for Republicans to use in thwarting the 2006 Democrats and giving them a lower approval rating than even Bush? his staunch support of the Iraq war with criticism of inept management that prevented victory? his stands against pork in the budget, including pork in the defense budget that left less money available for necessities?

If republicans refuse to support McCain and thereby restore the Clintons they deserve the title of stupid party. Me, I want to see a Democrat in the White House so I'm glad the right wing wackos are against the only candidate who could beat the Democrats this year.

Posted by: Jim Linnane at January 24, 2008 4:30 PM

I don't see McCain winning the general election. I still have a hard time believing he will be the GOP candidate of choice. Over 12 months of showing it all to America I don' think the overall is going to vote for a REALLY old guy. He's Bob Dole lite.

Posted by: jim at January 24, 2008 5:59 PM

I assume you mean "uninterested" rather than "disinterested"

Sophistry defending incompetence.

Posted by: El at January 24, 2008 8:39 PM
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