Back on February 16, when the political class was still having a conniption over Dick Cheney’s itchy trigger finger, Republican senator George Allen was already briskly moving on to the next controversy in the queue. In a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow, Allen registered his “concern” with the Bush administration’s just-revealed approval of the Dubai Ports World deal. “As you know,” Allen wrote, “Dubai has been a transfer point in the proliferation of nuclear components. In addition, the September 11th terrorists spent time in [the United Arab Emirates] and utilized its banking system in carrying out their attacks … I respectfully request that you carefully and thoroughly review how [the deal] could affect the national security of the United States.”
Though Allen was among the first Republicans to articulate his unease, he was hardly the most the prominent, the loudest, or the most hysterical. There were Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, sprinting to catch up with the bandwagon a week later, threatening to put the deal on ice. There were Mike Bloomberg and George Pataki (the latter from his hospital bed), joining hands with Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton to present a united front of Big Apple opposition. And there was conservative radio nightmare Michael Savage, doing what he does best—foaming profusely at the mouth and fomenting xenophobia.
Yet even amid this braying chorus, Allen’s muted voice stood out. Not because of what he said, but because of his putative position in the 2008 presidential race. A first-term senator from Virginia and former governor of that state, Allen is viewed by many Republican professionals as the likeliest GOP nominee. And even those who see John McCain as the party’s front-runner will tell you that Allen is his strongest challenger from the right—a man who, as the National Review’s Richard Lowry wrote recently, “combines the people skills of Bill Clinton, with the convictions of Ronald Reagan, with the non-threatening persona of George W. Bush circa 2000, prior to his becoming a hate-figure for the Left.”
All of which suggests that Allen’s position on the Dubai ports deal may prove to be a leading indicator of one of the most important emerging dynamics in politics right now. A year ago, the 2008 Republican race looked set to be a competition to be seen as Bush’s rightful heir and logical successor, to get as close as possible to the president without literally jumping into bed with him. But now that calculus is being rendered inoperative, for not only is Bush’s popularity with the broad electorate at an all-time low (34 percent, according to the latest CBS poll), but his support within the GOP, especially among conservatives, is slipping measurably as well. For Allen and the other Republican wannabes, therefore, the question increasingly is no longer “How close can I get to Bush?” The question is “How much distance can I, should I, safely put between us?”
Not long ago, I had my first chance to catch Allen in action before a sizable crowd, as the headline speaker in a hotel ballroom brimming with conservative activists. Allen is the son of the late George Herbert Allen, the legendary coach of the L.A. Rams and Washington Redskins in the sixties and seventies. And so this line of the senator’s was probably inevitable: “There were four F’s that were important in the Allen family—faith, family, freedom, and football, not necessarily in that order.” But that was just the start. In the space of 30 minutes, Allen referred to his audience as his “teammates,” declared the need for a “game plan,” eschewed “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” and concluded with this pearl: “Representative democracy, team, is not a spectator sport!”
If this sort of thing isn’t your brand of vodka, Allen won’t be, either. At 53, he has the face of Goober Pyle and the vocal intonations to match. (This despite being raised near Chicago and in Palos Verdes, California.) He wears cowboy boots, dips Copenhagen (his spit cup is forever at the ready), and worships both Dale Earnhardts (Sr. and Jr.). In sum, he’s the NASCAR candidate.
Yet his political skills are estimable. In his race for governor, in 1993, he came from 27 points behind to defeat the Democratic attorney general. Employing a lethal combination of backslapping bonhomie and bare-knuckle ruthlessness—to Virginia Republicans he said of Democrats, “Let’s enjoy knocking their soft teeth down their whining throats”—he largely succeeded in enacting his agenda: a more-permissive concealed-weapons law, the abolition of parole, parental notification for abortion, strict welfare reform. When Allen left office, his approval rating was 68 percent. And while his Senate tenure has been fairly slight on substance, he can boast that, as chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee in 2004, he helped add four seats to the GOP majority—and slay “the chief obstructionist,” as he refers to Tom Daschle.
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.