Conservative Republican Candidates Wanted for '08

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In the very likely case you had more important things to do this weekend than following politics — like witnessing my beloved Cleveland Indians crash and burn in the American League Championship — believe it or not, you missed a rare moment of political importance.

Social conservatives awoke from their self-induced slumber.

On October 4, James Dobson published an article in The New York Times reporting that a group of 50 conservative leaders had voted to consider proposing a third-party candidate if a pro-choice contender were to receive the Republican nomination.

The scheme was meant to scare party organizers and opinion makers away from Rudy Giuliani. The effect — at least at first — was just the opposite. For two solid weeks, Republicans bickered about what to do when Giuliani wins. They broke themselves down into two mythical factions: the practical and the principled.

But this weekend, at the Values Voter Summit in Washington D.C., and Florida’s first GOP presidential debate, two Republican hopefuls offered social conservatives and the Republican Party a third way: the possibility of being both practical and principled in their choice.

Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson successfully broke out of the pack at the Values Voter Summit and identified themselves as conservative alternatives to a Giuliani nomination. Huckabee used his training as an ordained Baptist minister to inspire the 3,000 attendees of the Washington conference. “There are many who will seek our support,” said Huckabee. “But it’s important that people sing from their hearts and don’t merely lip synch to our songs.”

Later he got specific, “But some things are not negotiable, the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage.” “Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody’s politics.” The crowd awarded Huckabee for his straight talk with a landslide victory in the straw poll, 5 to 1 in his favor among conference attendees. When Fred Thompson took the stage, the crowd already knew the senator’s voting record jived with Huckabee’s lyrics, but it was eager to see if the reserved senator from Tennessee could also sing from his heart, and with gusto. Conference attendees listened with special attention to the Republican hopeful by far the closest to Giuliani in all national polls. The two standing ovations that interrupted his talk seemed to affirm a newfound friendship with Fred, even if some still walked away wishing he had a bit more of the preacher’s flair.

Sunday’s Florida debate served to second Huckabee’s and Thompson’s newfound images as “principled” alternatives to what would otherwise be a pro-choice nomination. The other two top-tiered Republican candidates remained stymied in their own issues. Mitt Romney wasn’t able to shake his reputation as a flip-flopper on abortion. As the polls show, as much as he would like to be considered among the “principled” alternatives to the New York mayor, he continues to be pegged as Giuliani’s unlikely bedfellow in Northeast liberalism. And McCain? Is he still running? That kind of a fight for relevance you hear on the street makes standing out as an alternative to anything next to impossible.

Huckabee and Thompson now enter into a second stage. Can either of the two convince the Republican base that a “principled” choice can also be “practical” — meaning, the most capable of beating Hillary Clinton in the general election?

I think so, and it has to do with the politics of abortion.

Some Republicans, especially those inside the Beltway, can’t understand why more social conservatives don’t get over their fixation on a single issue — abortion — and join a strategic battle against Hillary, who, most all would agree would be the worst result for the pro-life cause.

But ironically, it may be precisely this kind of fixation that makes the “principled” decision of a pro-life candidate also “practical." Republicans who don’t see Giuliani’s pro-choice stand as a deal-breaker for a vote for him in the primaries, usually opine that given the state of world affairs — especially the rise of radical Islam — it is silly to be a “single-issue” voter. But their rationale represents a complete misread of social conservatives and their motives for being so adamant about electing a pro-life candidate.

Most social conservatives are not single-issue voters, in the strict sense of the word. Instead, they use a candidate’s position on abortion as a threshold by which to judge a candidate’s wisdom in general. Just as many Americans — Jewish and otherwise — would never vote for a politician who is not pro-Israel (on account of what this would mean about the candidate’s understanding of democracy, history, and world affairs), similarly, social conservatives see a pro-choice stand as untenable. “If science says a fetus is a human being, and if all human beings have the same value,” they reason, “Why isn’t this politician willing to defend the unborn?”

If we apply this reasoning to the prospects of a general election, it is fair to ask whether a pro-life party will be able to motivate its pro-life base to get out and vote for a pro-choice candidate. If for many social conservatives, a candidate’s stance on abortion reflects not only where he stands on the most important social justice issue of our time, but also on his basic wisdom, many people — even voters who care about many issues — will stay at home.

That’s why this weekend in politics was of relative significance (nothing could compare to the Indian’s big loss!). We saw the emergence of new candidates whom social conservatives and the Republican Party (of which I am not a member) may consider to represent both a principled and practical choice.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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