On Monday I wrote about Mitt Romney’s problems in his effort to become the True Conservative Alternative in 2008 to John McCain and Rudy Guiliani, and suggested there may be a bit of a vacuum on the Right. Since politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, I suspect there will be a lot of trial balloons getting hoisted in the months ahead for dark horse candidates who could theoretically seize the mantle of the Conservative Movement. Indeed, it’s already happening.The latest name to emerge is Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, who has been quietly working as head of–and presumably a lobbyist for–the national Life Insurance association since leaving office in 2003. Keating’s a Catholic and certified Right-to-Lifer with big-time law enforcement credentials, having been an FBI agent back in the day, and Associate Attorney General under Reagan. Interestingly enough, his resume boasts of service in an FBI anti-terrorism effort in the early 1970s. It’s hard to have gotten onto the anti-terrorism bus much earlier than that.Keating achieved some national notice during the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, and was briefly on George W. Bush’s vice-presidential short list in 2000. He’s not exactly Mr. Charisma (he apparently has a bit of a problem with uncontrolled rage), but again, we’re talking about a conservative movement that’s exploring the bottom of the barrel looking for that unspoiled apple.Speaking of the bottom of the barrel, conservatives could always resort to Newt Gingrich, who is already more or less into the race. His main calling card is his claim to be the man who launched the very Republican Revolution in Congress that his successors allegedly betrayed, which nicely echoes the rationalization that so many conservatives are making in dismissing the ideological implications of the 2006 elections. To burnish his national security credentials, ol’ Newt has become a cheerful and outspoken advocate of the idea of morphing the Global War On Terrorism into a rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ World War III, with potential invasions of Iran and North Korea to ease the pain of Bush’s Iraqi fiasco. (Way back in the early ’80s, Gingrich spent some time urging state legislatures to adopt Lessons of Granada resolutions to celebrate that famous victory as an antidote to the Vietnam Syndrome; this is a guy who knows the value of starting wars to cheer people up after military defeats).On the down side, the Newtster has a few problems, including his serial marriages, his really bad Civil War novel, and his record as Bill Clinton’s punching bag during the last half of the 1990s. But hey, you can’t blame the guy for trying.Indeed, Newt makes a lot of sense as compared to yet another retread who’s talking about running in 2008: former Virginia governor and RNC chief Jim Gilmore. In case you’ve forgotten him, Gilmore’s the man who got himself elected as governor in 1997 on a completely irresponsible tax-cut proposal, and then created such a fiscal mess in Richmond that Republicans split and Democrats won two straight gubernatorial elections. The first Democratic win, by Mark Warner in 2001, occured when Gilmore was running the national Republican Party. Gilmore was unceremoniously dumped as party chair after GOPers lost both of the 2001 gubernatorial races.So why is this guy maybe running for President? Here’s Adam Nagourney’s report in today’s New York Times: “‘A void exists,’ Mr. Gilmore said in an interview. ‘There is just no conservative right now who can mount a national campaign.'”That’s what I’ve been telling you.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.