In Texas, they still admire George W. Bush, leastwise the Republicans do. But when I was in Dallas the other day, they had moved on from worrying about him to a new question: Could Rudy Giuliani get the GOP nomination? They were wary of Sen. John McCain, remembering past feuds, and of “mavericks” generally. They were fascinated by Rudy, however. They loved his can-do-ness, and thought that perhaps he was the only Republican who could save the party in ’08.
Which made me realize — though I know this sounds strange — that Rudy is the Republican Barack Obama. Which, in turn, leads me to suggest a way of looking at the presidential race at this early point. The six candidates who top the polls right now fall into three bipartisan pairings. I’ll call them the Charismatics, the Practicals and the Base-Wooers.
Here is how they line up:
Although they come at things from vastly different directions, Rudy and Obama share a personality-based appeal and a global perspective. In essence, they are saying: Who I am is what will bring safety to American and peace to the planet. Both candidacies are driven chiefly by concerns about our powerful, but precarious, role in the world. Neither says this in so many words; neither really has to.
Obama’s pitch is: Because of my background and my skills, I can bringing disparate peoples together. If the problem is that America is a pariah, I am, by my nature, the antidote.
It is a message that resonates especially deeply among young people, I think.
Mark Penn, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s poll taker and chief strategist, reminds me that she is running ahead of Obama among young people. That may well be true, but Obama is still a new figure on the stage. College kids, especially, are responding to him. (Which reminds me: Last week I took the Obama campaign to task for its rather inert official Web site, which was true as far as it went. Then I got on Facebook and saw the Obama action there. It was fast and furious — and utterly spontaneous, which is the point. One group, started by a student at Bowdoin, had 55,000 members the last time I checked. Extraordinary.)
Rudy’s pitch is: The way to bring peace is to be steadfast and tough, the way George Bush has been, but also to be shrewd and detail-oriented, which Bush has not. He is saying that because of his background and skills as “America’s mayor” he can deal forcefully with terrorism: he can handle the Squeegee Men of the world and clean up the planet as he did New York after 9/11.
The appeal isn’t to kids, of course, but to boardroom and business Republicans, who are embarrassed and even outraged by the president’s bad management of Iraq and the post-Katrina recovery of the Gulf Coast. They want a manager; they think maybe Rudy is it.
The other co-front-runners, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain, share the benefits and drawbacks of having been on the national stage, and the Washington stage, for years now. They are tough and tested, though their hides aren’t always as tough as they look. Their appeal is basically: Been there, done that, know how to fix things up because we have the experience. They are both stuck, as Hillary said the other week, with “the responsibility gene.”
Having gone through the health care siege of 1994, Hillary remains world-wise and wary about advocating an immediate move to universal national health care. She knows the political risks and lectures Democrats on them. In Iraq, she stops short of advocating an immediate withdrawal, citing her fears that the resulting chaos would make the situation far worse. She cites her experience as first lady for the proposition that she knows the pressures of the Oval Office.
McCain’s version of the “responsibility gene” is his steadfast support of the president’s troop “surge,” which McCain had long advocated. On economics, he’s trying to woo supply-siders by calling for tax cuts, but he won’t entirely abandon his old concerns about the deficit. And if we are looking for a better commander-in-chief, who better than someone who knows the military and Pentagon from the inside? Few leaders in Washington know those institutions better than McCain does.
Two “formers” — former Sen. John Edwards and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — are taking the same strategic approach. Both are moving as fast as they can to ingratiate themselves with the ideological bases of their respective parties. Each is moving to the “wing” position, using all of their considerable charm to do so.
No one is wooing organized labor harder than Edwards. Reared in a North Carolina mill-worker’s family, he was never a flat-out free trader, but he is more skeptical of that position now - which is where most union voters would want him to be. He wants national health care NOW, even if that means raising taxes (also a labor position). He is going to compete - hard - for the black vote, and showed his commitment to doing so by launching his campaign in the 9th Ward of New Orleans.
Romney is doing the same thing in the opposite ideological direction. A supporter of abortion rights as recently as 2002, he has a different view now, for example, as he tries to open a dialogue with the evangelical Christians who are to the GOP what the unions are to the Democrats.
And by the way, on the question of whether Rudy could win the nomination? My answer is “yep.”