After a difficult presidency the next election is often about the voters’ reaction, even their repudiation, of that unsatisfying national experience. This will be true of 2008 for the Republicans (not to mention the Democrats) because, barring a remarkable turnaround in the next 18 months, the Bush administration will at least in the near term leave many disappointed. The trick may be in determining which attribute of the current presidency most concerns GOP voters.
If voters are concerned about President Bush’s communication skills and are looking for someone who can articulate the country’s problems, his own policies and navigate through a press conference without cringe inducing moments, the voters will be looking for someone with verbal acuity. It may be time again for a great communicator. On the Republican side, Romney has been criticized for being too polished in his delivery, a problem many politicians would dream of having. However, it is McCain who recently has been praised for making the case for the President’s Iraq policies better than he does. He seems well equipped not only to speak passionately but with command of detail about the issue which matters most in this election, national security. Republicans may however turn to another actor who not only reads his speeches well but thinks and writes clearly enough to have his own blog.
Perhaps voters will be most concerned about the next president’s management skills. Competency seems in short supply after the Katrina, Walter Reed, and U.S. Attorney scandals and Bush’s predilection for appointing and sticking with his mediocre pals. Rudy Giuliani and Romney offer successful executive experience. Giuliani can point to his inspiring and creative leadership as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and his remarkable tenure as N.Y. Mayor. Romney’s flip flop problem has distracted voters from his solid resume as a business executive, rescuer of the Olympics and Governor. If “not suffering fools” is part of the equation no one will best McCain who has called for Alberto Gonzales’ resignation and promises to clean house in the Defense Department.
If voters are most concerned about the crippling effects of acrimonious relations with Congress and long for the days when Ronald Reagan could woo Tip O’Neil, they may look for a better “uniter.” Senator McCain was well known (and often criticized by his own party’s base) for reaching across the aisle as seen in his championing of the Gang of 14 and comprehensive immigration reform. Yet his new feisty, fire breathing image does not seem well attuned to getting along with others. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney both offer successful executive experiences dealing with Democratic lawmakers, but neither seems the model of conciliation and compromise. Perhaps the Fred Thompson hoopla is in part a result of voters’ desire to find someone calm, soothing and wise who (at least on TV) can just talk sense to everyone.
Finally, Republican in cities and suburbs may be looking for someone who talks and lives more like they do. This concern is particularly acute this election cycle as savvy voters and pundits observe the GOP lose its grip on states like New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado which are experiencing a leftward drift and a large influx of urban voters from other states. It is perhaps no accident that until the expected appearance of Fred Thompson all the leading Republicans offer an un-accented, urban, or suburban based profile. Aside from the phoniness of his “varmint” hunting lingo, Romney may have erred in trying to align himself with rural southerners just at the time the party is ready for an Italian from New York or a fast talking Arizonan. It is no accident that in their recent blogger call the Giuliani camp spent some time listing all the Blue and Purple states which Giuliani, perhaps the most urban and ethnic Republican in a generation, could pick up in 2008.
So if GOP voters are looking for a change of pace they will have plenty of choices. The hard part will be deciding which is their greatest concern about the current administration and which candidate is the best antidote.