The glaring difficulty with this line of reasoning looms down the road, beyond the primary season. By catering to the pro-Bush and pro-war sentiments of GOP voters, any one of the Big Three might well succeed in securing the Republican nomination—only to find himself saddled with a position on Iraq that dooms him in the general election, where the votes of independents will be crucial. The professionals behind the Giuliani, McCain, and Romney campaigns are all perfectly aware of this danger. But they argue that fretting about it now would be putting the cart before the horse. “My experience,” says one such strategist, “is that primary campaigns that spend too much time looking toward the general election tend not to work out too well.”
All of which makes perfect sense—except for one thing. What if the Republican-primary electorate turns out next year to be more pragmatic than the received wisdom holds? I know, I know, the idea sounds nutty, but there are signs that it might actually be true.
Consider the rise of Giuliani, whose positions on social issues, as everyone knows, should be anathema to the GOP’s hard core; and yet, so far, they have not impeded him from becoming the de facto front-runner. Then consider the precipitous decline in the fortunes of McCain, whose status as the poster boy for the surge seems not only to have hammered his poll ratings but rendered him a lifeless and dyspeptic figure. Now, heaven knows there are other explanations for both these phenomena. But it doesn’t strike me as entirely implausible that the evolving and contrasting reactions of Republicans to both men are rooted, to some degree, in a desire to back a horse with a fighting chance to win next November.
In fact, if you look at the numbers close enough, you can discern the possibility that Republicans might be open to a candidate who deviated from the Bush line on Iraq. To take but one striking example: In that same New York Times/CBS survey, fully 58 percent of Republicans aver that flexibility about when the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq is more important than a commitment to stay until the endeavor succeeds, with just 39 percent saying the reverse.
Data like this (and similar numbers turning up in internal campaign polls) have by no means gone unnoticed by the GOP Big Three’s high commands. Together with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, they explain why Giuliani recently went on CNN and declared that he wasn’t fully confident that the surge would work. They explain why McCain, a few days later, launched his now-famous broadside against Donald Rumsfeld, calling him “one of the worst secretaries of Defense in history.” And why Romney has lately taken to talking an awful lot about the “competence” he’d exhibit in matters of war and peace—as opposed to whose incompetence, pray tell?
Indeed, among many campaign insiders, the question is no longer whether but when one of the Big Three will break decisively with Bush on Iraq—and which of them it will be. As one anonymous strategist told the Washington Post the other day, “If you’re a Republican [candidate], you’ve got to figure it out. The point is running out where you can say, ‘I support the president.’ Even if you end up with Richard Nixon’s secret plan for getting out of Vietnam, you’ve got to have something.”
Which brings us back, in a roundabout way, to Chuck Hagel. There are countless reasons to believe that Hagel, should he decide to abandon his Hamlet pose and jump into the race at some point in the future, wouldn’t have a hope in hell of being a serious contender. Though his record, as judged by such organizations as the Christian Coalition and the American Conservative Union, puts him to the right of McCain (and even, by some measures, of Sam Brownback), his liberalish positions on such issues as global warming and immigration would make him a hard sell in the GOP heartland. And that’s not even mentioning his loud apostasy on Iraq and his hostility toward Dubya.
But a Hagel entry would, I think, be salutary—and not merely in the sense that it would delight non-Republicans like me. By putting the question of Iraq front and center in the GOP primaries, Hagel’s presence would open up a necessary debate within the party. It would force those candidates who choose to stand by Bush to hone and sharpen their arguments. And it would create a context in which deviation from the unthinking and self-destructive current consensus on the war would seem less shocking and disloyal, and maybe even desirable. It’s easy enough to see why Giuliani, McCain, and Romney wouldn’t welcome Hagel to the race with open arms. For each of them, Hagel would be a royal pain in the ass. But in the end, he might also serve the function of saving them from themselves.