Yesterday Salon reported about a meeting that occurred concurrently with the quarterly meeting of the Council on National Policy, a conservative organization that tries to coordinate the actions of various components of the conservative movement. The top-level story that people are taking from this is that the conservative movement organizations will walk away and try to sabotage a Rudy Giuliani campaign.
I had argued in July that the Christian Right and the conservative movement had dated Mitt Romney (really flirted) but married Fred Thompson. At least it seemed like an engagement. Between Schiavo, Thompson’s personal life, his apparent personal secularism, his positions on abortion and gay marriage, etc., the engagement is falling through. I also argued that this relationship felt strange but it had a purpose, to maintain a grip on the party apparatus:
The conclusion that I come to from this is that a Thompson candidacy is getting its support from conservative groups partly to maintain some level of control over the party apparatus. Thompson is not perfect. (who would think that the social conservative groups would rally behind a pro-campaign finance reform, anti-marriage amendment, anti-life amendment candidate?) But he does not flood the party with new activists. And, if you were to believe that the party will not keep the White House in 2008 — a safe bet –, then … he’s a safe bet to keep people in their positions of power.
That fight over the role of conservatives in the party is what we are seeing now. Jonathan Martin has an excellent story on the underlying issues. Consider this statement by Richard Vigurie:
"There is a great deal of anxiety that some in the Christian community have put security and the fight against Islamo-fascism ahead of the pro-life movement."
Note that this is a statement about priorities. Jonah Goldberg at NRO had earlier tried to rationalize exactly this position. The Giuliani campaign responded by wheeling out conservative Rep. Pete Sessions. Sessions talks about elections:
"Conservatives are rallying around the one candidate with the executive experience and proven leadership our country needs. Mayor Giuliani will be successful in the primary and the general elections because Republicans want a candidate who is strong on the Terrorists’ War on Us, gets fiscal discipline and can beat the Democratic nominee."
The politician wants his power short-term. The movement activist wants his power long term. One of the great questions will be who voters side with. The politicians purport to offer victory in the war on terror, a 5th judge to overturn Roe, and a couple more things. To a normal person, these could override a greater concern about the candidate’s total vision.
The movement activist offers a strategy for moving the country to the right over the long-term. And over the medium-term, the movement activist actually probably grows his organization and his power with a target like Hillary Clinton to attack. And this is the point. Many, many conservative consultants will say in private that they know that they will make a lot of money attacking Hillary Clinton if she is President. And many suspect that she can’t be beat. The one way for them to lose is to lose influence in the party over the short term. And that’s what Giuliani brings, especially if we manages to win.
Many conservative activists will point to the Goldwater experience of 1964 as an analogy. Then, the party had the luxury of no real chance in the election. The party and the burgeoning conservative movement could reshape itself along conservative principles without any real consequences. Many Republicans today, however, believe that we can beat Hillary Clinton. At least at the level of public perception, there is a fundamental difference between 1964 and 2008.
I would make one further point. As the Elephant in the Mirror poll pointed out, there are now about an equal number of "War on Terror" conservatives as there are social conservatives. This kind of situation is how parties change. There is an underlying reality to a Giuliani candidacy that a lot of pundits have not understood yet. The post-George W. Bush, post-9/11 party is different than it used to be. More socially conservative, but also more conservative on the war on terror. And Rudy is their ticket to a seat at the table.