Thus has Allen emerged as the favored presidential candidate among countless Republican insiders. Mary Matalin sings his praises; so does Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman who recently signed on as treasurer of Allen’s political-action committee. Equally enamored are many conservative activists, from American Conservative Union chairman David Keene to bloviator-in-chief Rush Limbaugh. “Among the candidates so far,” Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist tells me, “Allen fits most comfortably in the center of the conservative coalition.”
Listening to Allen, I didn’t find it hard to see why. Pick any hard-right hot button—from activist judges to partial-birth abortion to the “death tax”—and Allen whaled on it like a 12-year-old on a Game Boy. But more interesting was the framework in which he cast his message. Calling himself a “commonsense, Jeffersonian conservative,” Allen repeatedly, unsurprisingly, invoked the name of the sainted Ronald Reagan. What was surprising, though, was the dearth of references (and their perfunctory tone) to President Bush.
In itself, this might be no big deal; it was just one speech, after all. But on a series of issues, Allen seems to be angling to create some space between him and Bush. On Iraq, Allen has said that he would have favored holding elections sooner and criticized the administration’s initial strategy for training Iraqi troops. On Social Security, he says he differed with Bush’s call for cutting benefits. Whereas Bush has said he wouldn’t support the recently enacted South Dakota abortion ban without exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, Allen’s chief of staff indicated last week that the senator has no such qualms.
Allen is attempting to tap into the conservative disquiet over the kind of president Bush turned out to be.
With such maneuvers, Allen is aiming to tap into the conservative disquiet over the kind of president Bush has turned out to be. The kind under whom the size and scope of the government has swollen dramatically instead of shrunk. The kind whose Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping program inspire libertarians’ ire. The kind who nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Make no mistake, this disquiet is acute and growing. Consider the must-read status on the right of Reaganaut Bruce Bartlett’s new book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. Or consider a recent plaint from the pen of Phyllis Schlafly: “Bush is alienating his political base and creating what one RNC member calls an ‘enthusiasm deficit.’ ”
As the furor over the Dubai ports deal makes clear, Schlafly was putting it mildly. Avant le deluge, Bush might have taken comfort in the notion that his critics on the right were nothing more than pointy-headed purists. Now he’s confronted with poll numbers showing that 58 percent of Republicans disapprove of his policy. It’s those poll numbers that tell you all you need to know about the stances adopted by Allen, Frist, et al. They also demonstrate unequivocally that the era of GOP blind loyalty to Bush is now officially over.
There was, however, one notable holdout whose loyalty remained, if not blind, at least stubbornly persistent: John McCain, who declared that Bush had “earned our trust” and “deserves the presumption” that he “would not sell our security short.”
Now, it’s been apparent for some time that McCain has no intention of “making the same mistakes he made in 2000,” as David Keene puts it. That he’s made his peace with Bush and intends to run as his ally, not his foe. That the days of McCain the vaunted maverick are coming to an end. Yet the ports imbroglio may prove a harbinger of a more surprising dynamic in the 2008 race: a dynamic whereby McCain, out of fear of alienating the Republican base, plays the Bush loyalist, while his rival, Allen, driven by a sense that the base is shifting, plays the Bush apostate.
It’s still a long way until 2008, and any number of scenarios might yet unfold. Before Allen can turn his attention fully to the presidential contest, he must stand for reelection this November, and with the entry of former Navy secretary James Webb into the Democratic field, that may prove tougher than expected. Guided by Karl Rove, Bush may tack sharply back to the right and regain his footing with conservatives. And no one should underestimate the star power of McCain, or the role that primogeniture plays in the GOP. In the end, it may simply be McCain’s turn.
But weirder things have happened than a charming, incurious, pseudo-southern pol filling a Republican vacuum and becoming the consensus candidate. It would be ironic if someone so Bush-like emerged triumphant by fashioning himself as the anti-Bush. Ironic, but not unthinkable.