In the grand tradition of the Boston Tea Party, Tax Day is as good a time as any to begin a struggle for independence. Perhaps that’s why perennial candidate Alan Keyes picked April 15 to announce his departure from the Republican Party, though a cheeky blogger for the Los Angeles Times had a slightly different take: “Alan Keyes officially leaves GOP and hardly anyone notices.”
Keyes certainly didn’t have a noticeable impact on the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, where his highly unorthodox campaign made both his 43-point loss to Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race and his 42-point defeat by Barbara Mikulski during a 1992 Maryland Senate run seem like successes by comparison. Keyes spent much of his time campaigning in Texas, where he won just 0.62 percent of the vote. His best showing was in the Kansas caucus, where he received 1.5 percent. Keyes’s bizarre performance at the Des Moines Register debate before the Iowa caucuses was the first — and last — time he made news during his GOP run.
This week, Keyes is expected to make a bid for the Constitution Party’s presidential nomination, which will be determined at the party’s national convention in Kansas City, Missouri, on Friday and Saturday. “If Dr. Keyes’s positions on the issues square up with the CP platform we’d be thrilled to have him represent us and offer Americans a choice that the other ‘Big Box’ parties don’t,” says Constitution Party communications director Mary Starrett. But there is no guarantee that Keyes will be finding electoral success in his new party either.
At first glance, Keyes ought to be a good fit for the Constitution Party. Both are unapologetically pro-life and animated by Christian conservative issues. Both favor the abolition of the income tax. Keyes has in the past addressed the party’s gatherings, hobnobbed with its leaders, and championed many of their political causes. But the Constitution Party is predominantly paleoconservative and Keyes isn’t exactly.
Many Constitution Party members are former Pat Buchanan Republicans. Veteran leader and three-time presidential candidate Howard Phillips thrice sought to have Buchanan run on the party’s national ticket. The bad blood between the Buchanan brigades and the Keyesters dates back to the 1996 Republican primaries, when many of the former saw Keyes as a stalking horse out to siphon pro-life, socially conservative votes away from Buchanan. Keyes took 7 percent in the Iowa caucuses, for example, where Bob Dole only beat Buchanan by three points.
Other party members point to philosophical differences with Keyes. Trent Hill of the Louisiana Constitution Party told me in an e-mail that Keyes “is a good man” who will be “respected and welcomed by all within the party.” But he expressed concerns about Keyes’s “interventionist leanings” when it comes to foreign policy. “Also at issue, especially with some of the more philosophically astute delegates, is that Keyes is a friend of William Kristol’s, a student of [Harvey] Mansfield’s, and a follower of [Leo] Strauss,'” Hill wrote. “As I’m sure you’re aware, this is a neoconservative crowd, and the neoconservatives are the diametric opposites of the paleoconservatives (at least within the conservative spectrum).”
THE BIGGEST issue separating Keyes from the Constitution Party is the Iraq war. Keyes has said that he would not have picked Iraq as the next target in the war on terror, but supported the president’s policy in debates with Obama four years ago and would not withdraw U.S. troops today. His new party, however favors a noninterventionist foreign policy and opposes the war. This is not an insignificant difference of opinion.
Ricardo Davis, the state party chairman for Georgia, says any attempt to abandon the antiwar stance will go over about as well as the New Coke. “What if I was the new CEO of a midsized company and decided embark on a strategy to sell a ‘me too’ product that negates the company’s unique sales proposition?” he asks. “What if that sales proposition is held dear by most of the sales and marketing management in the company? What do you think will happen to that company as I try to change the company’s direction? A train wreck would look prettier!”
Some of the people Keyes might bring with him into the Constitution Party aren’t budging in their support for the war, either. A poster on Keyes’s web forum argues that “the CP expresses the same naive view as my long time congressional hero Ron Paul did” and questions why a Christian political party wouldn’t “understand the nature of the enemy.”
Is Keyes cooked? “What you run into are a lot of single-issue pro-lifers who view Alan Keyes as a positive name,” says Red Phillips, a paleoconservative who opposes Keyes’s nomination. Phillips also worries that other party members will want a well known presidential candidate. “There’s talk about us crossing the million vote threshold if we nominate Keyes,” he says. “I don’t think that’s very realistic, since not even Pat Buchanan got a million votes [as the Reform Party nominee] in 2000.”
Chuck Baldwin, a pastor and columnist who was the Constitution Party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee, has said he will accept the nomination if offered. Baldwin is unlikely to carry his party across the 200,000 vote threshold, much less one million. If neither Ron Paul nor “Ten Commandments” Judge Roy Moore are open to being drafted, Keyes would be the biggest name in the race — the best political position he’s been in since winning a 14-candidate Maryland GOP primary in 1992 — and yet he’s still no shoo-in.
Last Thursday, Keyes took part in a conference call with state Constitution Party leaders. Instead of smoothing over their differences on the Iraq war and other issues, at least one participant remembers Keyes being more interested in talking than listening. “I appreciate that Alan speaks his mind,” says Davis. “But he is seeking our nomination, not the other way around.”
During Keyes’s first presidential campaign, Rich Lowry observed, “His unmatched skill in impassioned oratory is accompanied by a deficit in more mundane political abilities, such as listening, glad-handing, and gauging his effect on those around him.” That was the talented Dr. Keyes’s downfall in the Republican Party. The problem may have followed him into the Constitution Party as well.