The GOP’s 20% Problem

Fred Thompson gives “a very incoherent and not very concise stump speech,” peaked months ago, and is the campaign’s “biggest dud.” Mitt Romney has “an authenticity problem”; he is “almost too mechanical about the issues.” John McCain faces “enormous hurdles,” and the “irony” of his quest is that he may just be repeating 2000. Mike Huckabee has “the obvious problems—being from Hope, Ark., and quite frankly having the last name Huckabee.” The craven Republicans are “terrified about losing the presidency after losing Congress.” All this comes from Terry McAuliffe, longtime Democratic Party mover, maven and moneyman, who’s obviously hoping for a Democratic win.

Only kidding. It comes from Mr. McAuliffe’s new podium partner on the Washington speech circuit, longtime Bush operative Dan Bartlett, recently departed after years as White House communications director. Mr. Bartlett has taken the old place of Ed Gillespie, the lobbyist, who used to appear with Mr. McAuliffe and is now back at the White House in Mr. Bartlett’s old job. This is why the late Drew Pearson called his column “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

They serve and rarely leave. So often people work in government and make it more of a swamp; then they leave and become mosquitoes living off the pond scum, buzzing off the surface, eating well, issuing their little stings.

I am harsh. But it’s something I often wonder: Why don’t people in Washington go home anymore? I’m reading Michael Korda’s serene and gracious tribute to Dwight Eisenhower, “Ike: An American Hero,” and stopped dead at this part. The day his White House successor, JFK, was inaugurated, “in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, [Ike] and Mamie left quietly and unobtrusively . . . grateful that they were no longer the focus of attention, and drove the eighty miles to Gettysburg.” Oh for those days. And that sort.

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Now, you wouldn’t think an adviser who helped steer a president to a sundered base, a flattened party and some of the lowest approval ratings since such polling began, would feel free to be so critical of others in politics. Profound modesty as to the depth of one’s own savvy might be in order.

Dan Bartlett on the Washington-go-roundBut maybe Mr. Bartlett’s attitude illustrates a larger reality. The Bush people don’t seem to spend much time on loyalty to the party per se, only to their guy. Who after all is looking out for the Republican nominees, for the group of them? They are the future of the party. The Washington GOP apparatus is focused on the president, on asserting the brilliance of his legacy and, at this point, I’m sure, as in the Clinton days, on making sure he has a nice and well-funded presidential library. But who is looking out for his presumptive heirs? Why, for example, are they forced into debates that seem almost designed to diminish them? Having as moderator a preening cable jockey does nothing to enhance their stature. It is a recipe for sadness. Why don’t the Republican campaigns—the Republican establishment—try to get moderators of calm stature? Ted Koppel, for one, is an old-school broadcaster; he makes you look classy because he’s classy; he lends it to you as he asks you questions. What does Chris Matthews lend? Why not Keith Olbermann? Or Al Franken?

I am wondering if the Washington GOP establishment fails to look after these things because they don’t really think there’s life after Bush, or even care all that much. They think the next president is a Democrat. A lot of them will do lobbying for a living. Better learn to get along! And so the candidates swim with an anvil around their necks.

One of the few candidates Mr. Bartlett had nothing bad to say about was Rudy Giuliani, which suggests to me what I hear from those who visit the White House may be true: The president has decided it’s Rudy. He also told a friend that when the primary is over, he’ll campaign hard for the nominee. Here I imagine the candidates for once speaking in unison: Oh, please don’t!

Something I’d call the Twenty Percent Rule seems to exist in presidential polling. No matter what a president does, he gets to keep 20% approval. You could break into the Watergate hotel while having sex with an intern and keep them. The 20% is made up of the immovable, intractable base—those who fell for you early and hard and won’t quit, who hate the media so much that if they hate you they’ll love you, who are certain the incumbent is abused by history and its recent minor players, who stick because of this issue or that. And that 20%, by definition highly engaged in politics, always votes in the primaries.

Every candidate needs them. At the very least, no one wants to inspire their enmity. I asked a veteran conservative political professional what the candidates can do. He said, “No need to trash Bush by name. Run as Sarkozy focusing on the future. Those tired of Bush will see the distancing. Those enamored will assume the candidates love Bush. Say something nice about the Bush tax cuts or Supreme Court appointments. Bushies just need to hear something nice.”

The GOP challengers, no matter how they feel about Mr. Bush, can’t knock him, because that would infuriate the president’s 20% in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere.

The exception is Ron Paul, who seems to have no fear of criticizing anybody, and, this week, John McCain, who in the debate had some sharp words for the current reality: “The American people no longer have trust or confidence in our government. Our failure at Katrina, our failures in Iraq, our failures to get spending under control. And we’ve got to restore that trust and confidence.” That sounded like the beginning of a little rebellion.

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I suspect the Republican establishment knows all this, but I am not sure it concerns them overmuch. Why should it? If you are an absolute Bush partisan, you probably don’t really want a Republican to follow him and potentially, in decisions if not in words, rebuke him. That would be the worst thing, not being followed by Hillary or Obama. If the latter happens, the outgoing administration can—and will—blame the loss on lax candidates, on a party that wasn’t sufficiently inclusive, on congressional scandals, on immigration. “If only they’d followed our lead!”

They’ll be fine. The party may be defeated, the conservative coalition that raised them high sundered, but they’ll be all right. Which is important, because more than the president’s legacy is involved. Their very personal legacy is involved. No one wants to have worked for the biggest embarrassment in modern American political history. You won’t be burning up the public speaking trail with Terry McAuliffe that way.