To follow up on Phil’s post earlier, I think there are several important reasons that conservative “elites” haven’t had much influence on the Republican primaries so far.
First, John McCain’s political near-death experience this summer ironically ended up helping him. Because he seemed to have no hope of winning the nomination, conservatives wrote him off. Even after he started gaining in New Hampshire, he was still behind in most other states and had little money. Conservatives were slow to react to McCain’s recovery. If, say, Rush Limbaugh had been pounding on McCain for months rather than just the last few weeks, it would have probably had more impact.
Second, many of the conservative elites attacking McCain and Mike Huckabee had been promoting either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. Romney became a real social conservative just two to three years before running for the nomination, making his views on these questions somewhat suspect. And even now his economic message remains a bit muddled, embracing individual mandates on health care, endorsing the spending increases of No Child Left Behind, and hitting McCain from the left on the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Giuliani had a stronger conservative record on the issues that mattered to him, but he was perhaps the most socially liberal candidate ever to make a credible run for the GOP nomination. He favored legal partial-birth abortion and taxpayer funding of abortion until early 2007; he remains avowedly pro-choice. It was tough to argue that Romney was the most consistent conservative in the race purely on the basis of his 2007-08 platform; it was equally difficult to beat down Huckabee while telling evangelicals to ignore their doubts about Giuliani.
Third, and most importantly, when conservatives wanted to stop McCain or Huckabee, who did we have to turn to? The conservative bench is weak, partly because movement conservatives too often have supported establishment Republicans over people within their own ranks (see Bush, George H.W.) and partly because conservative standouts have often suffered from the Tommy Thompson syndrome.
In the 2008 field, who were the broadly consistent conservatives? There were two former governors from the 1990s. There was a boring senator from Kansas who never seemed able to elevate his own issues at debates. There was a former senator from Tennessee who had sensible opinions and a commanding presence but didn’t really have a standout record of accomplishment in government. And there were three members of the House, a body that hasn’t sent someone directly to the presidency since James Garfield.
Well, Jim Gilmore, Tommy Thompson, and Sam Brownback ran horrible campaigns and had to drop out before the first votes were cast. Fred Thompson blew it. Neither Duncan Hunter nor Tom Tancredo ran particularly serious campaigns. And Ron Paul’s foreign-policy views diverge radically from those of the Republican base. So conservatives could complain about the tax-hiker from Arkansas, the pro-choice supporter of gay rights and gun control, and the senator behind McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, and McCain-Lieberman, but they had no alternative of their own.
That is the longer-term political problem for conservatives beyond this election. Where is the conservative bench? You can’t beat somebody with nobody, no matter how many bloggers and talk show hosts you have on your side.