Here in South Carolina, where God-o-Meter will be operating for the next several days, the conventional wisdom is that Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney are in a two-man duel for GOP’s evangelicals in this Saturday’s primary. That’s what makes tonight’s briefing from Family Research Council Action, legislative arm of the beltway’s top evangelical lobbying group, so darned interesting. Intended as a state-of-the presidential race update, the FRC briefing is most noteworthy for which Republican candidate it barely mentions: Fred Thompson.
While heaping praise on Mike Huckabee (no surprise there), Mitt Romney (another testament to his success winning the evangelical elite), and John McCain (more evidence he’s no longer the Christian Right’s bete noir), the briefing offers one fragment (mostly parenthetical) on the man once expected to be the savior of the GOP’s distraught social conservative base:
…Fred Thompson (who has all three legs [of the Republican coalition] but is struggling to interest voters in them when his manner suggests his own lack of passion for them)…
God-o-Meter is witnessing this phenomenon on the ground in the Palmetto state. Thompson’s events draw a high evangelical quotient, including a fair number of home schooling parents and activists, but many seem more impressed before seeing him speak, because of his conservative record and National Right to Life Committee endorsement, than after.
The rest of the memo Family Research Council memo:
The Race vs. The Base in the GOP
The lesson that some are drawing from the results of the Republican presidential voting to date is that the race for the party’s nomination is wide open. The deeper lesson is that the race for the GOP agenda is anything but wide open. The Republican caucus and primary contests to date prove incontrovertibly what we and others, like our friends at the Heritage Foundation, have been saying all along, and that what a few GOP leaders like Dick Armey were saying, and doing, last year is false and dangerous.
The simple truth is that the conservative coalition–a three-legged stool–stands when social, economic and defense conservatives work together on an interlocking agenda. The coalition collapses when any of the legs is missing. Armey and others, especially the early enthusiasts for Rudy Giuliani, suggested that the social conservative leg of the stool is dispensable, or at least that it can be appreciably shortened without impact on the greater stability of the coalition. This thesis is not only false in theory, it now has been decisively shown not to represent what the conservative coalition actually believes. The three winners of the contests to date are each emblematic of one of the legs of the stool, and each is attempting to shore up his standing with the other two “legs:”
Iowa: Mike Huckabee, Social leg
New Hampshire: John McCain, Defense leg
Michigan: Mitt Romney, Economic leg
In Michigan, these three individuals, now leading their party’s nomination race, won more than 85% of the vote. The remainder went to Ron Paul (who represents the small, doctrinaire libertarian portion of the coalition), Fred Thompson (who has all three legs but is struggling to interest voters in them when his manner suggests his own lack of passion for them), and Rudy Giuliani (trailing badly now because each leg of the coalition has a much better option than he is). Giuliani’s crushing last-place finish in Michigan only underscores the larger point: the GOP coalition is looking for coherence on all three parts of the message and the base constituency of the party is fairly evenly split among those who hold each of these legs highest when forced to choose among them.
Somehow or other, if the conservative coalition is to re-form, these three legs need their favorites to unite around the strongest themes of each, to wit: 1) the surge worked, and it is no longer business as usual against radical Islamic terrorism – we will take the fight to them and win for our values (McCain); 2) the government is run with all the efficiency of a barroom brawl where the sailors are bad enough but it’s actually the drunken captains doing the damage, and someone with business acumen has to clean it up (Romney); and 3) moral values are indispensable to a free nation that hopes to have and keep small government, and we can’t get there without some Old-Time Religion, and those old-timers, our nation’s almost uniformly Christian founders, knew it (Huckabee).
Obviously, each of the three leading Republicans can lay some claim to the other two themes that are not their primary ones (e.g., McCain as a budget cutter, Romney as a convert to traditional values, Huckabee as a no-tax pledge – but none of the three can make a clean sale to the rest of the coalition). There is probably nothing they could do that would be more unifying than to rally now around a platform that embodies the coalition in full.
The message: the GOP electorate is asking its leaders to reassemble the stool, plant it firmly in the cockpit of the party, and get the plane fast down the runway and off the ground. The message to Rudy? The tailwinds have passed you by, and the party you want to lead is moving on. The race is not wide open. A unified agenda beckons the GOP to a surge of its own.