Peggy Noonan is the latest in a string of conservative columnists to have abandoned the Bush Administration over the past year or two. These breaks usually take the form of "I didn't leave the party, the party left me" by overspending, undercommunicating, overaggressing, and now caving on immigration. The U-turn on global warming is also symbolic although rarely cited.
Most of the current GOP presidential candidates are trying not to be a "party guy" in their bid to become the party guy. But with so much of the party, and all of the other party, so disenchanted and disappointed and disillusioned with the party, I wonder whether becoming the next party guy helps or hurts in Election 2008, and I wonder whether the Fred Thompsons and Mayor Bloombergs would be better served by entering the race as independents. In local elections you normally have to have the party machine behind you to win. That is unfortunately but probably true in national politics as well. The traditional thinking is that the money and the attention follow party lines, and although the current dynamics of money and media may be changing those rules, I don't think we're quite there yet. The two-party system is too entrenched and too powerful. The political machine requires that stability and predictability and discipline and well-defined pockets of influence.
In any event, Thompson will run as a Republican because he clearly is one, and because his message is all about bringing the platform back to its roots of less government, more liberty, lower taxes, rule of law, social conservatism, and so forth. His message is that "none of the other guys on the platform are true to the call," and he has an opportunity to take up the mantle in a way that the lesser-known conservatives (Huckabee, Brownback) just can't.
I heard yesterday that Fred intends to limit his running around shaking hands and focus more on blogging, podcasting and media appearances. That's smart - it plays to his strengths, gets the message out broadly and uniformly, and is a better use of time and resources in this day and age. There is a lot of Republican money still waiting on the sidelines and he is going after it hard, looking to gain serious momentum and PR in July. He has his message pretty well constructed, it is clear and recognizable, and it appeals to the base. I think we'll see this thing narrow down to Rudy, Fred and Mitt when it heats up. I don't think even McCain thinks he can win. He's a party guy who bucks the party and has not demonstrated the necessary measure of ideological discipline. Nobody who seriously entertains an offer to become John Kerry's running mate has a chance of getting the Republican nomination, and that's just one example - his list of disqualifiers is lengthy.
It's being portrayed as a tricky business, this effort to be the next party guy, distancing yourself from Bush and standing for something in your own right. Giuliani is now boasting that he is his own man, calling it like he sees it (like on abortion), and take him or leave him. I think a lot of people are hoping to leave him if a better option comes along, which may or may not be Romney. Fred has a better and simpler formula, which is to restore the party to the historic ideological foundation from which it has strayed. Newt was hoping to be that guy, and he can't be happy with this development because Fred brings the message with all the gravitas and likeability and without the baggage. We like Fred and are giving him the benefit of the doubt until he should prove unworthy of it.
Anyway, Peggy Noonan delivers a nice summary of why she and others have bailed on Bush.
One of the things I have come to think the past few years is that the Bushes, father and son, though different in many ways, are great wasters of political inheritance. They throw it away as if they'd earned it and could do with it what they liked. Bush senior inherited a vibrant country and a party at peace with itself. He won the leadership of a party that had finally, at great cost, by 1980, fought itself through to unity and come together on shared principles.
Mr. Bush won in 1988 by saying he would govern as Reagan had. Yet he did not understand he'd been elected to Reagan's third term. He thought he'd been elected because they liked him. And so he raised taxes, sundered a hard-won coalition, and found himself shocked to lose his party the presidency, and for eight long and consequential years. He had many virtues, but he wasted his inheritance.
Bush the younger came forward, presented himself as a conservative, garnered all the frustrated hopes of his party, turned them into victory, and not nine months later was handed a historical trauma that left his country rallied around him, lifting him, and his party bonded to him. He was disciplined and often daring, but in time he sundered the party that rallied to him, and broke his coalition into pieces. He threw away his inheritance. I do not understand such squandering.
Now conservatives and Republicans are going to have to win back their party. They are going to have to break from those who have already broken from them. This will require courage, serious thinking and an ability to do what psychologists used to call letting go. This will be painful, but it's time. It's more than time.
Everything moves left over time. The Republican party has moved left, and if the conservative base can't bring it back behind a conservative candidate, then the party will have left the conservatives and the conservatives will have no party. That is why there is such lukewarm feeling about Giuliani and McCain. They don't represent what the party has long said it stands for, so there is unresolved dissonance because conservative voters have no one to vote for, which makes Fred a real and viable force, and I'm pulling for him if not behind him at this point.