If you’re not sold on the three top-tier candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the folks at an outfit called Political Media have come up with a campaign button for you: just say no to “Rudy McRomney.”
The big red slash crossing out a non-fusionist fusion of Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney was spotted on quite a few lapels during last weekend’s CPAC confab. (Apparently, a Rudy McRomney website is set to follow.) It’s this lingering conservative discontent with the 2008 GOP field that has led onetime campaign guru Dick Morris to predict that one of the “pygmies” in the race has a real shot at the nomination.
Pygmies they certainly are, according to the early polls. Only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a so far undeclared candidate benefiting from 1994 nostalgia, has broken into the double digits in any reputable national survey. Even Romney, the man at the bottom of the Big Three — and the one who, at least in his current form, comes closest to fulfilling the conservative checklist — lags well behind the less orthodox Giuliani and McCain. So what hope is there for the conservative aspirants who lack his copious campaign funds and polished organization?
To paraphrase Tom Petty, even the pygmies get lucky sometimes. Millions of evangelicals presently lack a logical candidate. Grassroots Republicans are confronted with candidates who have supported legal abortion, opposed the Bush tax cuts, or been on both sides of these issues at one time or another. If ever a purist was going to break out from the pack simply by agreeing with the base on core principles, now would be the time.
At least that’s part of the rationale for Sen. Sam Brownback’s candidacy. An evangelical turned Catholic, Brownback is a pro-life stalwart and favorite of religious conservatives. After Rick Santorum’s defeat last November, it is hard to identify another senator who has spent as much political capital on social issues. The Kansan even appeared at this year’s March for Life in person rather than phoning it in, thus doing both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush one better.
But Brownback is no single-issue socon. The Club for Growth gives him generally high marks for his fiscal policy record. He has consistently favored tax cuts and, despite the large number of farmers in Kansas, voted for the Freedom to Farm Act’s reductions in agriculture subsidies. Unfortunately, Brownback was less independent when it came to Medicare Part D and ethanol subsidies.
Worse, there are other reasons Brownback has had trouble spreading his appeal from the religious right to conservatives who care about limited government. There is something about his crusading rhetoric that makes him sound like a member of the big government right. Many CPAC attendees seemed nonplussed by his oft-stated goal to cure cancer in ten years, which seems vaguely reminiscent of liberal calls to end poverty — or John Edwards’s 2004 promise that the lame would walk again if Democrats won the White House and rescinded the Bush administration’s restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.
Factor in Brownback’s advocacy of last year’s Senate immigration bill plus his stronger support for intervention in Darfur than the surge in Iraq, and his “yellow brick road to the White House” may actually be fraught with lions, and tigers, and bears.
If you are looking for redder meat than Brownback is able to serve, Congressman Tom Tancredo — the Colorado Republican who is most famous for being an immigration restrictionist and a cigar aficionado — might be your man. In addition to the border-hawk credibility he built up through his years chairing the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, Tancredo has led a free-market think tank and compiled a pro-life voting record. He warned the CPAC crowd that “conversions happen on the road to Damascus, not the road to Des Moines.”
On many of the issues where the Bush administration has angered conservatives, Tancredo has bucked the president. In addition to his crusade against the Bush immigration plan, the congressman voted against both the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. That places him among a small minority of diehard fiscal conservatives in Congress.
The only Republican candidate who has broken with Bush more often is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. The libertarian maverick voted against the war in Iraq, opposed the Patriot Act, and balked at additional federal dollars for faith-based charities. Paul doesn’t just want to repeal No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug benefit; he would eliminate the Department of Education and abolish Medicare entirely. A devotee of the Austrian school of economics, Paul is even in favor of ending the Federal Reserve.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is less interested in showing independence from Bush than distancing himself from our friend Rudy McRomney. He has released a video challenging the frontrunners’ conservative credentials.
“The three leading challengers for our party’s nomination may be good men,” Gilmore tells his virtual audience. “But they simply do not share our conservative values. John McCain has fought conservatives time after time, even invoking the rhetoric of class warfare to oppose the Bush tax cuts. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney both repeatedly opposed core conservative values to win elections in New York and Massachusetts.”
Yet there isn’t a single upstart candidate in the race who currently has the resources or the staff talent to launch a successful revolt against the party establishment. Brownback has a dedicated group of followers; Tancredo and Paul appeal to a smaller but equally enthusiastic set of true believers. None of them, however, have anything like the grassroots backing of Barry Goldwater in 1964 or Ronald Reagan in 1976.
And the pygmies are having their own problems bringing conservatives together. The New York Times reported (in a story now buried behind Times Select) that several lesser known candidates made presentations to the Council for National Policy. The story claimed that Brownback was unacceptable to activists concerned about illegal immigration, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was found wanting on taxes, and there were concerns that Congressman Duncan Hunter wouldn’t be able to raise money because of his views on trade.
Disenchanted conservatives can’t beat somebody with nobody, or at least nobody of the frontrunners’ stature. Unless that problem is resolved, the Rudy McRomney buttons will be nice collector items — like Harold Stassen ’84 placards.