It is a race with no incumbents, no heirs apparent, and (to the Clinton campaign's surprise) no "inevitable" candidates. Walking political almanac Michael Barone captures the flavor of it when he observes "I wrote a few days ago that there were 60 scenarios for the Republican nomination"—but after the New Hampshire result, "I think we’re down to about 52."
There are a number of reasons for this bewildering flux. Eight years ago, George Bush's decision to choose as his running mate Dick Cheney—a man with no future ambitions for the nation's highest office—deprived the Republican Party of any prospect for a clear political succession. Meanwhile, the steady compression of the primary schedule, as more and more states have moved to earlier dates—requires voters across the nation to choose among a crowded field all at once on Super-Duper Tuesday, with little chance for candidates to build momentum or knock rivals out of the race prior to these votes.
(That, incidentally, is why poorly performing candidates such as Fred Thompson and John Edwards are stubbornly staying in the race. They're all willing to bet on the wild card of Super-Duper Tuesday.)
But the main reason for the unexpectedly protracted primary struggle we are likely to witness is the indecision of parties themselves. Each of the major political parties is deeply divided in a battle over its soul.
Let us start with the Democrats.
Iowa shattered the idea of Hillary Clinton's "inevitability," but New Hampshire (where Clinton did much better than expected, managing to win by a few percentage points) ended the prospect of a swift collapse of the Clinton campaign. Barack Obama, who did about as well in New Hampshire as the polls predicted—which is much better than he had been doing before his Iowa win—is certainly not out of the race, and he has just secured a crucial union endorsement for the next Democratic primary, in Nevada.
Horse-race types are now speculating that Clinton and Obama could trade victories in upcoming primaries, emerging from Super-Duper Tuesday still evenly matched, with no clear decision until later primaries tip the balance.
This is not what was supposed to happen. The primaries were supposed to be a Bambi versus Godzilla conflict.
Obama was considered inexperienced and naïve—he's been dubbed "Obambi" by his detractors—and with some justification. He is a "hothouse liberal," nurtured in the protective environment of local Chicago politics, which is dominated by the left, so that he has never faced a serious ideological challenger. (He practically walked into his Senate seat when the Illinois Republican Party sabotaged its candidate, then replaced him at the last minute with the marginally sane Alan Keyes.)
In this scenario, the Godzilla expected to crush him was the allegedly fearsome Clinton political machine, run by two seasoned political operatives with a large staff of political professionals schooled in the use of dirty tricks and backed up by a vast network of Democratic Party insiders and cronies.
But something odd is happening. Obambi is arguably beating Clintzilla.
The reason is not hard to discern: it is Obama's fresh, earnest idealism. The root of his appeal is that the damned fool actually means it: he puts forth every liberal bromide as if it were still 1960. He has inspired many comparison to JFK, with some dubbing his campaign "Obamalot," after the conventional view of the first years of the Kennedy administration as an idealized "Camelot." As I put it earlier this year, when Obama first emerged as a major candidate: "The left has always longed for a young, charismatic leader who will present the illusion of the left as a realm of bright-eyed, progressive idealists—an illusion that hides the tired, corrupt old ideas at the movement's core. They want JFK as they remember him—not the portrait of Dorian Gray represented by his brother Teddy. Obama restores that illusion for them."
But the problem of Obama's naiveté isn't just a smear thrown out by the Clinton machine; it is real and substantial. He demonstrated that when, in the early Democratic debates, he promised to solve the world's problems by inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez for tea at the White House—and then, in a hasty bid to make himself look like he could still be a tough guy—clumsily followed up with a proposal to unilaterally invade the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan. It was a policy that was incoherent at best.
Last fall, he proposed to solve the sub-prime mortgage crisis with a massive bail-out of over-extended mortgage holders, paid for by massive fines on the lenders—a proposal perfectly calculated to reward foolish behavior by the "little guy," while increasing the panic in the financial markets, discouraging lenders from ever extending another mortgage loan.
These proposals demonstrate an utter ignorance of both economics and foreign affairs. Voters could justifiably conclude that a President Obama would get taken for a ride by America's enemies abroad, while he carelessly mucked about with the economy at home.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is more sophisticated and hence more cautious and prudent. In responding to Obama's promise to meet with Ahmadinejad, for example, she was entirely correct to warn about the danger of granting free propaganda to anti-America rabble-rousers. Or consider her statements at a recent Democratic debate about an American withdrawal from Iraq.
I think we're in vigorous agreement about getting our troops home as quickly and responsibly as we possibly can, serving notice on the Maliki government that the blank check they've had from George Bush is no longer valid. We're going to have to have intensive diplomatic efforts in the region. I don't think anyone can predict what the consequences will be. And I think we have to be ready for whatever they might be.
We have to figure out what we're going to do with the 100,000- plus American civilians who are there working at the embassy, working for not-for-profits or American businesses. We have to figure out what we're going to do about all the Iraqis who sided with us, you know, like the translators who helped the Marines in Fallujah whom I met, who said they wouldn't have survived without them. Are we going to leave them?
You know, this is a complicated enterprise, so it has to be done right.
Translation: "We'll withdraw from Iraq, except that our responsibility to protect Western civilians and friendly Iraqis will require us to keep all of our troops there."
This, alas, is the style of Senator Clinton's superior sophistication: the art of embracing two opposite policies at once. She is, of course, either lying to the far left when she tells them that she intends to withdraw from Iraq—or she's lying to the center when she assures them that she will be responsible about protecting America's assets and allies there. Or she's lying to both.
It is no surprise that many Democrats—particularly younger ones—have chosen the plain-spoken idealist over the calculating, triangulating pragmatist. But Obama's naivete and his idealism are inseparably intertwined—as is Clinton's experience and cynicism. They are flip sides of the basic dilemma of the contemporary Democratic Party.
Jack Wakeland hit the essential issue in 2004 when he commented on the eve of Barack Obama's speech Democratic convention, the moment that launched Obama as a nation figure:
Yet it has been tested, and more than four decades of experience have discredited the left's ideals. Collectivist central planning was discredited by the failure and collapse of the Soviet Union. The welfare state was discredited by the nightmare of the public housing projects, as the names of progressive idealists like Mother Cabrini and Robert Taylor became indelibly associated with the squalid, crime-ridden government-run ghettoes named after them. Even voluntary forms of egalitarian socialism have largely been discarded, as witnessed by the decline of the Israeli kibbutz, whose dead-end lifestyle has attracted fewer and fewer young recruits despite enjoying the dutiful admiration of a whole nation.
A foreign policy of negotiations and détente was discredited by Jimmy Carter, who presided over the final great expansion of the Soviets' tyrannical empire—and by Ronald Reagan, whose dose of hawkishness precipitated that empire's collapse. And the idea of the criminal as a hapless "victim of society" who deserves our sympathy was put to rest with finality by—well, by Rudy Giuliani.
In the face of this history—all of which he has lived through—Barack Obama's idealism has to be maintained through a naiveté that is carefully cultivated and zealously guarded.
Bill and Hillary Clinton, by contrast, have learned from experience—in their own way. Bill Clinton first came to prominence as a champion of the "New Democrats," who promised to moderate traditional liberalism (embracing welfare reform, for example) in light of the disastrous experiences of the previous decades.
But what the Clintons learned was not to reject liberal ideals, but to dissemble about them. They learned to promise the right that "the era of big government is over," while ceaselessly plotting to enlarge government—and to promise the left that America will withdraw from Iraq, while acknowledging that it would be irresponsible to do so. The Clintons call it "triangulation"; most of us would just call it "hypocrisy."
Hence the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. It is a choice between the only options available to a movement based on discredited ideals: naïve, stubbornly blinkered "idealism," and cynical, calculating, hypocritical "realism."
Take your pick as to which is worse.
But notice that the battle among the Democrats is less over the substance of the party's soul than over its style. Some critics have faulted Barack Obama for clinging to woozy generalities in his speeches rather than taking clear stands on the issues. But what would be the point of that? Obama has little to say on the substance of his policies that would actually differentiate him from Senator Clinton. What they differ on is not so much the content of what they say, but the freshness and sincerity with which they believe it.
This is not the case for the Republicans. The battle for the Republican soul is on much more substantive, profound, and irreconcilable issues. The Republicans are not battling over style, but over the party's basic beliefs and priorities.
The essence of the dilemma on the Republican side is that "fusionism" is coming un-fused.
Historically, the modern conservative movement was created by forging an alliance between religious traditionalists, pro-free-marketers, and foreign policy hawks. The idea that held this coalition together was the theory of "fusionism," championed by National Review. Fusionism was the idea that these three wings of conservatism could not only find common cause but could cobble themselves together into a semi-integrated ideology. The theory was that the religionists would defend traditional American culture, which would provide the cultural support for the ideals of limited government and American patriotism.
But the current election has prompted a lot of concern, particularly at National Review, that this arrangement isn't working. Jonah Goldberg, for example, worries that "Huckabeeism"—the combination of religious politics with populist anti-capitalist rhetoric—"threatens to unfuse fusionism." David Freddoso frets that "A two-way knock-down-drag-out fight between Huckabee and Giuliani could completely destroy the coalition that Ronald Reagan built by combining social and economic conservatives with anti-Communists."
They are right to be worried. The current primary campaign is a threat to fusionism. But it is not the candidates' fault, nor is it the voters'. The problem is the inherent instability of fusionism itself.
For a while, Rudy Giuliani was considered the main threat to the conservative coalition. As a pro-choice hawk campaigning on a pro-free-market platform, he was seen as trying to run on two wings of the coalition while driving away the third. But the more powerful threat to the conservative coalition has come, not from a secular politician like Giuliani, but from the leading candidate of the religious wing.
Mike Huckabee is splitting apart fusionism by pushing for the whole agenda of the religious conservatives while standing for pro-welfare-state, anti-free-trade economic populism. He is citing his religion, not only as the basis for banning "gay marriage," but also as the basis for what Jonah Goldberg has called "compassionate conservatism on steroids."
Huckabee is the main driver of the dissolution of the "fusionist" coalition. But each of the other major candidates is undermining fusionism in his own way.
There is no doubt about John McCain's credentials as a foreign policy hawk. He advocated the "surge" in Iraq before President Bush did, and at a campaign event last year he famously invoked what I call the Beach Boys Doctrine, replacing the lyrics of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" with "Bomb, bomb, bomb—bomb, bomb Iran." But McCain has a history of antagonism toward the religious right dating back to the 2000 primaries. And McCain cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as pro-free-market—not when he opposed President Bush's tax cuts and has been a tireless promoter of the global warming hysteria with its demand for massive new energy rationing. (Conservative writers are just beginning to draw attention to this fact.) You can't campaign as a pro-free-marketer when you propose to ban the incandescent light bulb, force everyone into hybrid cars, and put a legislative cap on the nation's energy production.
Ron Paul is not a major candidate and arguably is not even a genuine Republican. (He is a political opportunist who last ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket.) But he chips away at fusionism in his own small way, adding a distinctive twist: in economic policy, he campaigns for the gold standard and the abolition of taxes, while in foreign policy he adopts the blame-America-first pacifism of the far left.
In answer to all of this, Rudy Guiliani has just come out with a proposal for "the biggest tax cut in American history," accompanied by "a 5 to 10 percent reduction in spending at federal agencies." It is an attempt to establish himself as the staunchest pro-free-marketer in the race—but one who is unacceptable to many on the religious right.
(Interestingly, while Huckabee has captured the heart of many in the Republican base, Giuliani has captured the party's brain. He long ago won the "pundit primary," the contest for the endorsements of the right's professional intellectuals. This is partly because many of the pundits live in New York and are personally grateful to Giuliani for making their city livable again—but it is also because these intellectuals are accustomed to thinking in terms of secular arguments rather than Biblical citations and are thus more open to a secular candidate.)
There are only two candidates who could be considered examples of "fusionism." Fred Thompson can make a plausible claim to be acceptable to all elements of the conservative coalition—but he has run such a low-energy campaign that he has not earned the enthusiasm of any of them.
The other remaining fusionist is Romney—but nobody believes him. He is not credible to the religionists because he was pro-choice when he ran for governor of Massachusetts; he's not credible to free-marketers because he sponsored that state's scheme for government-mandated, government-controlled, government-subsidized health insurance; and he's not especially credible to hawks because he has no record or history on foreign policy.
So consider the line-up: if you're a pro-free-marketer, you've got Rudy—but you can't trust Romney, you know McCain is dangerous, and Huckabee denounces you as a member of the "Club for Greed." If you're a hawk, you've got Rudy and McCain and maybe Romney—but Huckabee sounds too much like Jimmy Carter. And if you're a religious conservative, you're thrilled with Huckabee, but you're suspicious of McCain, you don't trust Romney, and Rudy is at best barely tolerable.
There's no fusion here. There is certainly an intersection between the hawks and the pro-free-marketers—but there is no intersection that joins them to the religionists.
This is not an accident. There is no such intersection in this election because the secular and religious concerns of the right are, in fact, incompatible.
Fusionism is failing because its basic premise—that the moral foundations of free markets and Americanism can be left to the religious traditionalists—is false. For five decades, conservatives have ceded to the religious right the job of providing the moral fire to sustain their movement. But they are discovering that the religious right does not have a strong moral commitment to free markets. In fact, with Huckabee as its new spokesman, the religious right seems to be working on its own version of "fusion"—with the religious left.
The reason is that religion cannot support the real basis for capitalism and a strong American national defense: a morality of rational self-interest. Christianity is too deeply committed to a philosophy of self-abnegation, a destructive morality that urges men to renounce any interest in worldly goods and to turn the other check in the face of aggression. The early Christian saints, for example, abandoned all material comforts and lived in caves—which is to say that their closest contemporary disciples are the radical environmentalists. As for foreign policy, St. Augustine spent a fair bit of his massive apologia for Christianity, The City of God, explaining to the Romans that being sacked by barbarians was good for them because it taught them the virtue of humility and cured them of their attachment to material wealth.
I'm not sure what answer you would get if you asked "what would Jesus do" if he were alive today. But I'm pretty certain the answers would not include: "seek venture capital for a high-tech start-up," "negotiate an import deal for Chinese-made flat-screen TVs," or "manage a hedge fund." Which is too bad, because these are the activities that achieve, in reality, what the loaves and the fishes never could.
We live at the end of two centuries of evidence for the triumph of capitalism. From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England, to the rise of the "Asian Tigers," to the impact of global capitalism in India and China—everywhere capitalism has spread, human life has been radically transformed for the better. And we live at the end of a century that amply demonstrated the failures of socialism. As I pointed out yesterday, the left has never learned the moral lessons of this history—but neither has the right. Tricked by the fusionists into outsourcing moral questions to the guardians of religious tradition, the right has never been able to properly develop the moral case for rational self-interest—which means they never developed the moral case for the profit motive, property rights, and the free market. Many on the right are implicitly sympathetic to capitalism, sensing its virtues—but, thanks to "fusionism," unable to articulate them. And this means that they have never been able to turn the defense of free markets into a moral crusade.
Even worse, the "fusionists" turned away the one intellectual who could have helped them do so. National Review made a special effort to expel Ayn Rand and her followers from the right because her atheism threatened their fusionist agenda—even though she was the most powerful advocate for the morality of free markets.
The result of this failure is that we're entering a presidential election that is likely to revolve around three main issues: the War on Terrorism, socialized medicine, and massive new global warming regulations. Yet rather than rallying around a candidate who will effectively oppose the left on all of these issues, the Republicans are fragmented in a battle between their religious wing and the pro-free-marketers. And that battle may yet produce a candidate who can out-quote the Bible to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a prayer breakfast, but who will "me-too" the Democrats on environmentalism and the welfare state.
To escape this dilemma in the short term, the Republican Party's best bet is to nominate Rudy Giuliani rather than Mike Huckabee. To escape it in the long term, the intellectuals of the right need to devote much more time and attention to the secular moral case for liberty and capitalism—which would finally allow them to stand on their own two feet ideologically, without feeling the need to be "fused" to a religious movement that has shown itself incapable of offering a foundation for these ideals.