January 25, 2008

Republicans Struggle to Find a Candidate

Here in Boston, where I had my hair cut this morning, Mitt Romney does not seem popular. He once was governor of the state, and he also ran the Olympics, and normally such things make one respected. But my barber assured me that Romney was "a two-faced liar" who told every audience whatever they wanted to hear, and who did not stand for anything. This was the most direct expression of what many others also have said to me. Furthermore, rumors float about that some Democrats dislike Romney so much that they have changed their voter registration to "Independent." This will give them the right to vote in the Republican primary in Massachusetts - voting against Romney in his home state. In other words, they want to embarrass him. It may be that few people are actually going to do this, but the rumor itself suggests an unusually active dislike.

Nevertheless, on the national scene, Romney has begun to look like McCain's most serious Republican rival. Fred Thompson has dropped out of the campaign, and Huckabee is so short of money that he cannot afford to give journalists free transportation. He has decided to cut back his appearances in Florida and concentrate on more evangelical places, notably Georgia, where polls put him in first place. Still, cutting back on travel for the press is one of the last things any contender will do, because the press are vital to keeping your name and opinions before the public. In Florida's primary, coming up on Saturday, that leaves McCain and Romney as the main contenders, which Giuliani a potential spoiler. At the moment Romney is leading in the Rasmussen polls, with 27%. McCain is close behind at 23%, and the former Mayor of New York at 20%. [Update Friday 25th: since writing this I have seen several other polls that put McCain slightly ahead, but the margin of error is 5%, which means they are in a tie. But these polls also show Giuliani falling back to about 15%, in a tie with Huckabee.] Since Giuliani has spent far more time and money in Florida than the other two men combined, he seems to be fading out of the race. But note that slightly more than one third of the Republicans say they have not entirely made up their minds yet. In other words, "undecided" is winning just at the moment.

And what the Republicans cannot decide upon is not just which candidate to support, but what policies they stand for. Each of these men stands for something quite different. McCain comes from a military family, in which four generations have now gone to the Naval Academy. He is a maverick on social issues, and does not appeal to the Huckabee backers. The religious Right only likes Huckabee, in fact, as Giuliani has been married too many times and does not get angry about abortion or praise Jesus. Worse yet is Romney, whom the largely Southern Evangelicals do not like because he is a Mormon and in any case a Northerner. So this numerically important, if intellectually stunted fundamentalist rump of the Republican Party is in a crisis. There is even talk of running a third party candidate if an unacceptable candidate wins the nomination. For more sensible Republicans, Romney represents the business wing of the party, the employer class. Before serving as governor he was a successful capitalist.

For those readers who know their Protestant theology, the differences between these candidates can be explained in the theological terms. Ever since European Protestants came to the New World, they have struggled with two incompatible ideas about how one achieves salvation: the doctrine of grace vs. the doctrine of works. Huckabee is all about grace, the word of God, and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. There are millions of people in the United States who believe in the reality of Angels, who refuse to accept the theory of evolution, and who see nothing wrong with "speaking in tongues" in a church service. Huckabee is their man, and he represents the idea that the only way to salvation is through grace raining down on the unworhty sinner. Romney may be a Mormon, but his career is all about hard work and achievement, or the doctrine of works. A man earns his way into heaven. By prospering in this world he shows that he will be one of "the elect" in the next world. Ever since the seventeenth century, Protestants have disagreed about whether grace or works is the correct doctrine. Churches have broken into warring sects over these matters.

For those immersed in the doctrine of grace, Giuliani, with his Italian background, is the worst thing imaginable. For he is a very secular man. He is not just a Catholic, which for several hundred years was thought a terrible thing. He appears to be something even worse, he is a lapsed Catholic, with three divorces and liberal positions on abortion and other family value issues. A man like that, to the religious right is Godless, liberal, and clearly untrustworthy.

McCain is another matter, representing the warrior class. A potential slayer of infidels and defender of the American faith, he is more acceptable to the religious right in the sense that he stands for some moral absolutes. They respect that. But McCain has also been a maverick on social issues. He too seems secular, certainly neither a Creationist nor Bible-thumper. So the religious right is uncomfortable with all the candidates except Huckabee. However, the non-evangelical Republicans, the ones who went to real universities, gag when they hear Huckabee pontificate.

To sum it up, not only is the Republican Party struggling to find a candidate, it is struggling with its own identity. Bush could win over Evangelicals with a bit of coded rhetoric now and again - which was also the old Reagan tactic. Both gave fundamentalists the sense that their values were honored in the White House. Reagan and Bush II were mostly rhetoric, however, and they did not use too much political capital actually trying to stop the spread of gay marriage, prevent the teaching of evolution, or get prayer back into the classroom. It seems that neither Romney nor McCain nor Giuliani will play that game. The Reagan coalition seems to be dead.

Yet politics makes strange bedfellows. What if Huckabee became the vice-presidential nominee? Surely not Giuliani and Huckabee. But Romney and Huckabee? McCain and Huckabee? Then the Evangelicals would rejoice in their temples, gird up their loins, and march out on the campaign trail to do the Lord's work. It is a frightening prospect.