The Republicans Debate

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I share the widespread view that Rudy Giuliani and John McCain helped themselves in the Fox News debate last night. For links to many comments, see Real Clear Politics.

Both Giuliani and McCain, in different ways, defended themselves ably on stands where they differ from the Republican base. Increasingly, those stands don't look like disqualifiers. Republican voters in this cycle, like Democratic voters in the 2004 cycle, seem worried that their nominee will lose and are willing to accept a candidate they disagree with on some important issues if he seems to have electability.

Antiwar Democrats in 2004 were willing to accept a nominee who voted for the war and, as he said two weeks after clinching the nomination, voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it. Republican voters, at least at this stage of the process, seem willing to support a less than perfect candidate who seems more electable than one who meets all their litmus tests.

But such a nomination will most likely have consequences beyond the election. Tom Edsall makes an intriguing argument in the New Republic that Giuliani can not only win the Republican nomination but also reshape the profile of the Republican Party. Early on, I was of the view that Giuliani could win, despite the scoffing of veteran election watchers Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook; here is my column written in August 2006 (the cover date says September 3), analyzing why candidates at odds with their parties' base--Giuliani, McCain, Hillary Clinton--had offsetting assets that could enable them to win their parties' nominations. Key sentences:

This tension with the party base is surely a liability for Giuliani, McCain, and Clinton. But they each, to varying degrees, have an asset that few presidential candidates have ever had: We know how they handle crises or adversity.

Do I agree with Edsall that a Giuliani nomination would reshape the Republican Party? Yes. I think any party's nominee tends to reshape the party's image. Especially one who is elected president, since he (or she) sets the national agenda for the next several years. Think Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. But even a nominee who loses does this. Think Barry Goldwater or George McGovern, each of whom got 38 percent of the vote in the general election but set the mold for their parties for many years to come.

Or consider 1928--which I referenced in my August column--the last year when it was clear that neither the incumbent president nor incumbent vice president would run. The two nominees then reshaped their parties' images. Herbert Hoover was less of a laissez-faire economist and more of a statist than his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge (who privately called Hoover "Wonder Boy"). Al Smith was much more urban and ethnic than any recent Democratic nominee--the transplanted southerners John Davis and Woodrow Wilson, the border-state governor James Cox. Both pointed their parties in different directions. The Great Depression destroyed Hoover politically and kept the Republican Party from developing on the trajectory suggested in the 1928 election returns, when he ran strongly in the progressive "Northwest" of the time (the Upper Midwest and the West). But as Samuel Lubell pointed out in his brilliant The Future of American Politics, Smith's great gains in the big northern cities with their factory workers and immigrants were consolidated by Franklin Roosevelt and became the Democratic Party's base for a long generation--something no one would have predicted from the 1912-24 election returns.

Rethinking Guns

Here's a story of someone who, like me, changed his mind about concealed weapons laws. In this case, it's an Ohio state legislator who voted against such a law in 2004 and, after robbers attempted to storm his home, changed his mind.