Republican Role Reversal
By Jim Hoagland
Republicans are acting like Democrats this year in three important ways: They have (1) humbled their once front-running presidential candidate and left him for dead in a scrambled field of eager strivers who regularly (2) violate Ronald Reagan's commandment not to speak evil of other Republicans.
And the would-be nominees (3) bend to ideological litmus tests imposed by activist minorities in state primaries that will alienate the national electorate next year.
This is what happens to a party that lacks a core consensus on priorities and navigates between sheer opportunism and survival.
The lead in national GOP polls garnered by Rudy Giuliani's fear-mongering campaign demonstrates that the GOP is deeply factionalized today.
I confess that Giuliani has succeeded in scaring me with his New York-tough-guy, okay-with-waterboarding, hooray-for-Guantanamo routine.
There is much to fear in having another president with so little perspective on global strategy and so little regard for the views not just of other nations but also of America's uniformed military command when it comes to torture and harsh interrogation techniques.
Giuliani strums the same psychological chords that you hear resonating through the speeches of President Bush and Vice President Cheney these days: The nation and the world may have moved on from Sept. 11, but I haven't and I won't.
I will do whatever it takes in the war on terrorism and Iraq and everywhere else, while lesser politicians won't. Giuliani is the candidate of continuity on foreign and national security policy ― the willful inheritor of Bush and Cheney.
But the Bush administration has squandered the Republicans' natural electoral advantage on national security and on fiscal responsibility for this campaign and perhaps beyond. Being identified with these incumbents is at best a dubious blessing.
The recent media flirtation with Ron Paul and the surge of Mike Huckabee in Iowa polls show that Republican confusion is mounting and that Giuliani's place as GOP frontrunner is as unsteady as was that of John McCain, who has been pushed down to 9 percent in national approval ratings by several disastrous television appearances, a top-heavy and shambolic campaign organization, and a front-running defensiveness that did not suit the Arizona senator. He has now shed those attributes and seems the better for it.
Humility becomes McCain, or at least it did during a 90-minute conversation with Post editors and reporters last week. As an unwilling back-runner, he has adopted an introspective approach that provides a sharp contrast with the psychological basis of the Giuliani campaign. It also suggests a possible way out for Republicans looking for a winning general election strategy.
Several times McCain described the biggest problem facing the United States as ``the feeling of the public that this generation of leadership has failed" the country.
America no longer ``holds the moral high ground in world affairs," he continued, in part because of the needless opprobrium attracted by debates over torture and legal procedures at Guantanamo.
The United States has to regain that ground to prevail in ``global struggles that are ideological."
At one point, McCain promised if elected to hold weekly televised briefings to the nation on Iraq as long as there are U.S. combat troops there, ``even if only C-SPAN carries it."
That may not rank with Dwight D. Eisenhower's pledge to go to Korea to end that war. But it does underline McCain's determination to break with what he repeatedly described as ``four years of failed strategy" in Iraq by the Bush administration.
He believes that the 2007 ``surge" tactics long resisted by Bush have put Iraq in position to achieve a modest goal of no longer being ``a killing ground for young Americans."
As a decorated war hero, McCain has the credibility to settle for modest goals that a New York mayor, or a Texas governor, might not have.
In listening to McCain separate himself from the Bush record on Iraq, Social Security and other subjects, I heard echoes of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign in France last May when Sarkozy overcame the stigma of belonging to an unpopular incumbent party to win.
Like Sarkozy, who defeated a female candidate, McCain is determined to criticize Hillary Clinton's positions without showing disrespect.
If the Democrats nominate the deeply polarizing Clinton, other GOP strategists would prefer to try to make her and her gender the campaign's central issue rather than defend Bush's terrible record or run on the strident positions and deep divisions that this year belong to leading Republican candidates.