If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, the two parties aren’t even in the same solar system. The Democrats and Republicans don’t only differ markedly on the issues, they don’t even agree on what the issues are.
Witness this week’s debates. The Democrats think they’ve got it all figured out: focus on the unpopular Iraq War and the election is theirs. But contrary to conventional wisdom, the Republicans are actually better positioned on the subjects likely to continue preoccupying voters through 2008: national security and immigration. All they have to do is nominate the right candidate — though that, in itself, is a tall order.
The Iraq War would be a great rallying cry for the Democrats if they were running against George W. Bush again. But he won’t be on the ballot in 2008, and it’s likely that whomever the GOP nominates also will be committed to ending the war — if it hasn’t begun to wind down already.
In contrast, the two issues currently pressed by the GOP are likely to be far more salient in the fall of 2008. Take homeland security. The feds may have foiled a plot to blow up New York’s JFK airport during the past week, but this was scarcely mentioned during the Democratic debate. The result? Rudy Giuliani owns national security against any Democratic comer, now more than ever.
The other topic preoccupying Republicans — and one which could shape the race profoundly — is immigration. It also scarcely drew comment at the Democratic contest. Yet as Congress considers a complex immigration-reform package, conservative Republican grassroots, led by talk radio, have mobilized against the bill, describing it as “amnesty” for immigrants who came to this country illegally.
Leading the GOP charge against the bill have been Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson; John McCain has cast himself as its defender, joining President Bush and his brother Jeb, the former Florida governor. Giuliani has sidestepped the controversy somewhat — tying his criticism of the legislation to its “hodgepodge” nature (as if congressional bills were never a hodgepodge).
This growing split in the GOP on immigration will likely affect the presidential race in four key ways:
1) The president will lose support among his base, but that won’t help democrats.
Bush is already quite unpopular, but he’s retained the allegiance of the Republican base so far. This will change, making it even more difficult for the president to get anything out of Congress for the rest of his term — whether it’s confirming a future Supreme Court appointment or funding the war. It also will make criticism of the president on all fronts a far more cogent theme of the emerging GOP race. The bottom line? It will be harder for the Democrats to run against Bush when even the Republicans are disavowing him.
2) Within the party, John McCain’s candidacy will lose momentum; Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney’s will gain it.
McCain may be a profile in courage for defending the immigration-reform legislation against a conservative onslaught, but he has made himself into a defender of the status quo after doing much the same in his support of the Iraq War. This will have the effect of further undermining an already faltering candidacy. In contrast, Thompson and Romney will gain support from the grassroots, who will be energized by their “new direction.”
3) Independents may be mobilized to vote in the Republican primaries, and that, ironically, would help Hillary.
In many primaries, Independents have the option of voting in either contest. Until now, experts have assumed that most Independents would flock to the Democratic race — either to vote against Hillary or to influence what had looked like a more compelling race.
The immigration issue could change that. For some voters, immigration is the hot-button issue of the campaign and they will cross party lines to vote for any candidate who promises to take a tougher stand. This could have the effect, again, of bolstering the candidacies of Romney and Thompson, while, ironically, helping Hillary Clinton — who runs better among Democrats than Independents. The more Independents choose to vote in the Republican race, the better her chances. And never forget that she is the Democrats’ least-electable candidate.
4) If a compromise immigration bill doesn’t pass because of conservative opposition, the issue will hurt the gop in the long run.
Here’s where immigration could cause problems for the Republicans. Thompson and Romney may gain short-term advantage in the primaries, thanks to their opposition. But if the measure actually fails, Hispanic voters will remember who helped defeat a bill that they, by and large, supported (or opposed because it wasn’t liberal enough).
Thus, if Romney or Thompson actually wins the nomination, he will face a mass exodus of Hispanic voters. In 2004, Bush received roughly 44 percent of the Hispanic vote; his brother Jeb has run strongly among Hispanic voters in Florida, as well. It’s more than coincidental that the Bush brothers and McCain hail from border states with a large number of Hispanic voters — Texas, Florida, and Arizona.