Wednesday, January 10, 2007

WHAT ARE THE PRESIDENTIAL CHOICES FOR CONSERVATIVES NOW? A Review of all the Possibles and some Long-Shots for 2008.

By Thomas F. Roeser

[First in a series of articles on presidential candidates for 2008 for The Wanderer, the oldest national Catholic weekly in the nation. This article updated since first publication.]

CHICAGO—Who will conservatives favor for president next year when the Republicans gather for their national convention in my old political stamping ground, the Twin Cities of Minnesota? Given that the Democratic party is overwhelmingly liberal, pro-abort and pro-gay rights, the menu seems to be restricted to the Republican party this time—and for the indefinite future.

Who conservatives support depends on what kind of conservatives you ask. Intellectuals categorize eighteen distinctive types: anarchist, classical-liberal, secular, religious, populist, aristocratic, Straussian, Voegelinian, Reaganite, anti-interventionist, interventionist, modernist, anti-modernist, fusionist, agrarian, industrialist, southern and northern. But political analysts group them in four major types: social-conservative, libertarian, neo-conservative and traditionalist. Often I find myself falling between the cracks or supporting a hybrid: so might you. At any rate, let’s try the big four and see what comes out. In this piece, I’ll be strictly neutral so don’t try to fathom who I support by the descriptions I give since I list pros and cons.

Social conservatives are those who most emphasize reforming the culture. They generally believe there is a transcendent moral order to which their leaders should apply the ways of society. Given that most—not all—Republican candidates give lip-service to this goal—who’s placing the most stress on these issues? Thus far, the candidate who talks most about social conservatism is Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Brownback, 51, an attorney, was born on a farm some 50 miles from Kansas City and grew up in Osawatomie, the center of evangelical abolitionism pre-Civil War where furious fighting against slavery gave the state the title of “Bleeding Kansas.” He has an interesting pedigree: a former Protestant evangelical who was converted to Catholicism by Rev. C. J. McCloskey, the Opus Dei priest who converted such luminaries as Robert Novak, economist Larry Kudlow and more others than you can count. Married and the father of two, Brownback is a former radio broadcaster reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, with the same kind of shy, deferential quality that ingratiated the 40th president to voters.

Of all the candidates, Brownback puts most stress on the social issues: pro-life, retaining the traditional concept of marriage and he’s blunt-spoken about them. But he has other interests. When he ran for the Senate from his House seat to succeed the resigned Bob Dole, in 1996, his slogan was “reduce, reform and return: reduce the size and scope of government; reform the Congress; return to the basic values that built this country—work and family and recognition of a higher moral authority.” That sounded like vintage Reaganism. But he went Reagan one better. When running for the Senate, he endorsed a two-term limit for himself (Reagan did nothing of the kind when he ran for governor of California). He won his two terms carrying almost all Kansas’ counties each time. His second term will end in 2010.

His social issues agenda is very impressive but not always successful. He has worked hard but with little success in banning human cloning and the cloning of embryos for use in research. He worked to restrict broadcasters from resorting to violence and pornography in rock music and films, tried vainly to increase the fine on broadcasters of indecency to $500,000.

On other matters, he favors a flat tax, free trade (all candidates who appeal to rural America are), has supported the Bush administration on Iraq. One major defection from standard conservative orthodoxy where he resembles President Bush: he is very big on what he calls “compassion,” including immigration, where he prefers the doctrine of guest-workers and assimilation. One tough Catholic traditional conservative I know (who supports “fair” not “free trade,” and wants a further crack-down on illegal immigration, says Brownback is sucker-bait for idealistically liberal Catholic bishops “because he’s so new a Catholic, he buys everything they say.”

Maybe so. But being on the side of the bishops has gotten him Catholic billionaire, Legatus founder Domino Pizza philanthropist Tom Monaghan, as his finance chair. Like almost every other self-made tycoon, Monaghan can be a fearsomely loose cannon, is known to steam forward then reverse backward on a dime which can be disastrous for a presidential campaign. Also he is restricted to contribute just a thousand or two bucks to his candidate under John McCain’s flaky finance laws—but he can solicit many donations from big business friends.

Brownback’s idiosyncratic political compassion side came out not long ago when he voluntarily spent a night in jail to get a “feel” for prison reform. I thought it was a little much—a bit too showy. And if he thinks this will get a better reception for his genuinely heartfelt social conservatism, he’s worse than wrong but seriously na├»ve: ask George W. Bush whose gushing pro- immigration policies hasn’t softened up the mainstream media. But all the same, nobody—not Reagan or Bush or anyone else—had a better feel for deeply-felt Catholic social issues than Brownback.

He has the disadvantage of being a U.S. Senator which the electorate rarely chooses in preference to a governor—the last Senator elected president being John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the one before that Warren Harding in 1920. A great many others fell by the wayside in the intervening years.

I met with Brownback when he was in Chicago recently to scout for supporters. Behind his Reagan-imitation “aw-shucks” attitude is cunning political savvy. He’s barely a blip on the national radar but realizes all can change if he does well in the Iowa caucuses where he’ll drag his boots into the dirt with that state’s farm folk. As a resident of Topeka he’s only a few hours car ride from Iowa where the big game begins with the caucuses. Iowa will come first in 2008 with more middle-of-the-road New Hampshire a week later and heavily conservative South Carolina shortly after that.

If Brownback wins the hayseeds of Iowa, he figures he could be an instant celebrity with enough momentum to at least place second in New Hampshire to McCain. His social conservative speech should help him do very well (he thinks) in South Carolina. After that comes Super Tuesday when GOP voters gang up in a ten states vote. Brownback feels all depends first on Iowa. It was there where peanut farmer Jimmy Carter wrote history in the Democratic caucuses. If elected, street-talk is the Brownback will be the first Catholic president. Because, unlike cradle Catholic John Kennedy, its my surmise that Brownback, as an enthusiastic convert who left the evangelicals because he loves the sacraments, really believes this Catholic stuff.

A claimant to the neo-conservative label—and social conservative as well, except for very recent coinage--is the brilliantly charismatic, dark-haired, luxuriously dark browed governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, 59. He’s a Morman, was a missionary for 30 months in France and has hotly responded to criticism that his religion is cultish and non-Christian. “The name of my religion is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints!” he expostulates. He’s right: the idea that the church is non-Christian or anti-Christian cannot be defended. The vision of its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., came, Mormans claim, to restore and renew Christianity and it accepts the general thesis of Christianity in most particulars.

But supposedly belonging to a cult, unproven as it is, isn’t his worst problem. When he ran for governor he gave off a squishy social policy veneer: “personally opposed” to abortion but who wouldn’t change the law; supportive of civil unions but not same-sex marriage. The Massachusetts “Log Cabin Republicans,” a group of gay rights advocates who generally shrink away from conservative social issues, endorsed Romney because of his civil unions approach.

Social conservatives are giving Romney fits right now because of his abrupt changes but political history is replete with such instances where back-and-forth converts once rooted held firm: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush from pro-abort to pro-life; Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Rev. Jesse Jackson from pro-life to pro-abort; Eugene McCarthy who voted for the Vietnam war and spoke in its behalf and who doubled back and a whole phalanx of anti-civil rights Democrats who joined the equality fold. But if you’re looking for the nation’s most outstandingly successful governor, look no farther: he’s it as almost everybody acknowledges. Wobbly he may have been on social issues in the past, he has been on gubernatorial accomplishment, by general agreement, one of the most successful public managers and U. S. governors in modern times.

His real first name is Willard which he’d like to lose. Willard: after J. Willard Marriott, the Morman hotel magnate who was a big benefactor of old man Romney, the governor of Michigan. The name Mitt comes from a slang version of Milton applied to an uncle who played football for the Chicago Bears. The political blood in Romney’s veins comes from both Mom and Pop. George, the former president of American Motors, became governor of Michigan and ran briefly for the Republican nomination in 1968. His mother, Lenore, ran later for the U. S. Senate from Michigan. Having watched both run, I always thought Lenore was by far the better campaigner, even though she didn’t win. Mitt seems to take after Lenore more than George.

Which is good. George Romney, though a good man, was not the sharpest pencil in the school-box. He withdrew after he blurted out on radio that Pentagon generals gave him a “brain-washing” on Vietnam. Voters decided they didn’t want somebody who could be conned by generals. And the word “brain-washing” led Gene McCarthy to say that in Romney’s case a light rinse would have done the job.

Mitt Romney is married and father of five sons; his wife, Ann, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. After an MBA and law degree from Harvard, he started his own Boston-based management firm, then rescued floundering Bain Capital by restructuring its employee stock-ownership plan, real-estate business and bank loans and adding fiscal transparency. Within one year he turned Bain around and returned to his original business where he became a mega-multi-millionaire.

In 2002 he took another floundering enterprise—this time a public-private one, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. He cut budgets, boosted fundraising, heightened safety and led the Games to a $100 million profit, unheard of in modern times. He contributed $1 million to the Olympics and donated his $825,000 salary to charity. Next stop: politics. He took on a hopeless case, running against Ted Kennedy for the U. S. Senate. For the first and only time in Teddy’s windy, lugubrious career he became panicked that he’d lose since Romney actually led Kennedy in the polls. It was pleasurable watching the Hyannisport clan try to get their tubby Camelot cameo to reform by restricting his Happy Hours. In the end, Kennedy won through the slavish adulation of the media but he wound up with the smallest winning margin of his career.

Savoring the political experience, Romney next ran for governor in that heavily Democratic state, giving his campaign $6 million of his own money (unheard of in state history) and won in 2002 with 50% over Democrat Shannon O’Brien. She got the entire Massachusetts Democratic establishment behind her—all the Kennedys, John Kerry and the remainder of the renegade Catholic pro-aborts with Irish names (Congressmen Dick Neal, Jim McGovern, Marty Meehan, John Tierney, Ed Markey, Stephen Lynch and Bill Dalahunt) plus the lace-hanky followers of Barney Frank-- but she got only 45%. But if Massachusetts Dems thought Romney was a overnight bloomer with no staying power, they were wrong.

Rapidly, Romney reformed health care, working with such conservative organizations as the Heritage Foundation and developed a plan stressing personal responsibility in paying for coverage, the plan giving coverage to all state residents. He retooled state education in 2004, setting up a scholarship program to reward the top 25% of the state’s high school students with a four-year, tuition-free scholarship to the state’s public universities or colleges. Not only that, he came to office facing a $3 billion deficit, cut spending, eschewed a tax hike, reorganized state government and enabled Massachusetts to finish 2004 with a $700 million surplus and 2005 with a $500 million surplus. He favors educational vouchers, home schooling and abolishing the U. S. Department of Education.

Romney’s foray into social conservatism began after the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s rulings in 2003 and 2004 mandating same-sex marriage. Since then he decided not to run for a second term but for president, changing his social emphasis quite a bit. His old pledge that he would not disturb the abortion laws when he ran in 2002 was kept but is being used against him now, with some conservatives wondering if he can be believed. Still, Romney gained national attention by opposing embryonic stem cell research from a pro-life standpoint.

Is there cynicism here with this quick turnaround? Of course. In 2005, his top strategist, Michael Murphy, said that Romney “had been a pro-life Morman faking it as pro-choice friendly.” Murphy tried to correct his words but they are burningly accurate. But George H. W. Bush campaigned for president in 1980 as a pro-abort and changed overnight to support pro-life when he ran as Reagan’s pro-life vice president (doing somewhat better in the judge-appointment category than Reagan, naming the hands-down best pro-life Justice, Clarence Thomas, a far better choice than Reagan’s Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy and even more un-malleable than Reagan’s Antonin Scalia).

Romney is supportive of the Iraq war, capital punishment and free trade. He vetoed a bill allowing illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition rates. Romney, usually running number three in the GOP presidential polls, is clearly the establishment candidate and the George W. Bush preference for president. That’s not all to the good—but he has a skill with an argument that can defang the opposition.

Example: His Morman church once sponsored polygamy in the early 19th century which caused a national ruckus. The multiple marriage policy was discontinued by the church in 1890 but it was difficult to stamp out. It was condemned again in 1904 and a Supreme Court ruling eventually disallowed it. Recently, at an Iowa town meeting, he was asked by a heckler how many wives his great-grandfather had. Romney said four. The guy asked how many his great-great grandfather had. Romney said seven. He added: “Now ask me how many wives I had. I’ve had only one. Ever wonder how many my Republican opponents have had? Gingrich has had three; McCain two; George Allen two; Giuliani three. Which is more important: what my church believed more than a hundred years ago or how many wives my opponents have had collectively? Does that answer your question?”

He got rousing applause.

Romney might be the guy you’d hire for president; whether he can win the support of the socially conservative Republican base is something else again. Social conservatives are notoriously finicky over ideological purism but have also been known to make exceptions, as with Reagan.

The big kuhuna neo-conservative in the Republican party who places either first or second in the polls is the Episcopalian Sen. John McCain, 70. A feisty little white-haired guy with a knot on his cheek from an arrested skin cancer, he has the advantage of being the only war-hero candidate but the object of scathing attacks for opportunism and a flagrant past as a special interest hustler. President Bush prefers Romney because he and McCain have a history of personal bitterness stemming from the 2000 primaries. Still, it is McCain who more nearly supports the Bush strategy in Iraq and has proposed exerting all possible leverage to win the war in Iraq including sending 50,000 more troops and eschews a mere exit strategy prior to victory: a proposal that has dimmed his luster with the media.

If elected next year, he will be the oldest president to take the oath--72 (Reagan was 70). McCain’s story is unalloyed bona-fide heroism, exceeding by far the legend of Teddy Roosevelt (which was mostly a Hearst-inspired yarn): in fact the true story is unrivaled by any other presidential candidate in U.S. history. The son and grandson of medal-bedecked Navy admirals, himself a decorated Navy pilot, shot down over Vietnam and who spent five years of pain and torture in POW camps. The stunning part: He refused to be freed ahead of those who were in prison longer when the offer came to let him go because of his father’s high rank.

I’ve seen John McCain often--at a distance and up close. He is a show-boat-opportunist who loves the limelight, not unlike a Teddy Roosevelt, his idol. McCain has used the hero status to ward off all kinds of disadvantages including his being linked as one of the notorious “Keating Five,” five Senators who were investigated for meeting with regulators on behalf of Charles Keating’s Arizona savings and loan. McCain survived that potentially lethal dose of lemon cyanide which he converted brilliantly into lemonade by sponsoring the McCain-Feingold bill, a wide-ranging, spectacularly radical so-called “campaign finance reform bill” which made him Destiny’s Tot with The New York Times s but won boos from many 1st amendment fans. Grassroots movements like pro-life are barred from expressing their views in the last hours of a presidential campaign because of this cynical rape of advocacy freedom which allows mainstream media to dominate the public forum. Besides which, McCain is an inveterate liberal-wanna be—going as far as the conservative leash will allow. Now he’s co-authored a bill with Ted Kennedy to fight “global warming”—just in time to get some ripe headlines. Ugh: if the idea has any merit at all, it’s 442nd down the list from real problems.

For all this, McCain has a good pro-life voting record but is far from a pro-life crusader. Coolness from 1st amendment purists and traditional Republicans who follow the credo laid down much earlier by Robert Taft and later by Patrick Buchanan can hardly be expected to warm up to him unless they feel a President Hillary or Barack Obama requires drastic measures, like supporting McCain. One other problem lies in the weeds and is likely to surface if McCain moves up closer to the nomination. Known for his candor, McCain made an admission some years ago that adultery caused the end of his first marriage. But that’s not the whole story.

Ken Bode, writing in the Indianapolis Star last week, surfaced a story that McCainiacs thought had long been put out to pasture by adroit p. r. In 2000, when asked what he would do if his daughter had a unwanted pregnancy, he said he would leave the decision to have the baby or get an abortion to her. Which sounds very like espousal of a woman’s right to choose. Another is a rumor that unless corrected is bound to lose him female votes exceeding even the adultery tale. While McCain was held prisoner, his wife back home was involved in a hideous automobile accident which altered her stature and ruined her good looks. After she remained faithful to him and worked for his release, when he got home the rumor says…somewhat referred to in The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, that he looked at her and decided he didn’t love her any more. If there’s anything…anything …that can kill a candidate with women voters—even in addition to adultery—it’s that. But it hasn’t received much of a play yet. But wait. It’s time will come.

And there’s another disadvantage about McCain that hasn’t as yet seen the full light of day but is making the rounds of media circles. That is that in the minds of some he’s nuts. He has a short-term, volcanic blow-torch temper—not unlike that of other presidents, notably Dwight Eisenhower (whose sycophants kept his tantrums quiet) but the screamers are something that developed after his long solitary imprisonment. One ex-POW whom I interviewed a few years ago, a general who, like McCain was tortured with five years of solitary confinement and regular beatings at the Hanoi Hilton told me this:

“All of us who were locked up and abused are a bit nuts: no—I really mean it! We’re subject to sudden impulses that aren’t good. I know I am.”

If he were the only one, I’d not record it. But a fellow journalist friend of mine from Illinois who started off a McCain supporter and covered the Senator during his “Straight Talk” day-in, day-out bus trip through the primary states during the presidential campaign of 2000 came back to Chicago with a sharply revised attitude of the charismatic hero candidate.

“He’s nuts. Really is. Eccentric when you watch him close up,” he said. “Lightening-fast decisions, just as fast revisions, hot expletives makes for a lot of colorful coverage but—I don’t know.”

But, hey, it isn’t like we haven’t had odd-balls in the White House before. Jimmy Carter once said he personally saw a flying saucer and then shut up about it (giving some the idea he may have ridden in it for all they know). He also maintained that one Saturday during his presidency, while in a canoe on a lake near Plains, Georgia, he was accosted by a maddened rabbit who swam out in an attempt to maim the 39th president, leading him to Carter to strike off the ferocious animal with his paddle. Yep, an enraged rabbit maybe like the one that followed Elwood P. Dowd in the play “Harvey.” No Secret Service man saw the episode but who are they to question a president?

Then there was the president I worked for—Richard Nixon—who had to resign and who spent his last few hours saying farewell to portraits on the wall: “Bye-bye Jimmy Polk! Nice to have known you, Grover Cleveland!” Earlier than that, the best educated president—who had a Ph.D—refused to resign after he had a major stroke, refused to compromise even a little bit on the Versailles Treaty, causing it to go down the chute, staying in his bed humming slightly naughty music-hall songs to himself while his wife, with a sixth grade education, dealt with the affairs of state, telling Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. who came to her saying the prayers of the Senate were with her husband: “They’re praying, are they? Which way?”

One thing is sure: the election of 2008 will not be an easy one for Republicans. Two candidates see-saw for the lead in popularity polls and often top Hillary Clinton are McCain with the next in line an unrepentant former pro-lifer turned pro-abort and pro-gay rights advocate who also wore a dress, lipstick and high-heels at a New York press slapstick party, Rudy Giuliani. But cheer up there are others.

More about other presidential challengers—including a newly-

announced conservative traditionalist of the Pat Buchanan-stripe next week.


  1. You may have overlooked the most credible conservative alternative out there. Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, whose term recently expired is embarking upon a national tour to promote his book From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 STOPS to Restoring America's greatness. Many see him, when he decides to run, as someone who could go all the way. There is an excellent blog out there about him called which, if you read, you will find that Gov. Huckabee is man with rock-solid Christian values very much like Sam Brownback but with the executive experience of serving as Governor of Arkansas for ten and a half years which Americans look for when they elect their President. When attending a reception for him, somebody asked him what his top three legislative priorities would be. Huckabee answered:

    1. A balanced budget.

    2. To defend the sanctity of marriage.

    3. A comprehensive policy to protect the family.

    I sincerely hope that as many people as possible get to read his book as it is an excellent analysis of America's troubles and provides a clear God-centered way on how to overcome them.

  2. Tom-
    Thanks for an excellent summary of the candidates mentioned! I look forward to the next issue.

    Notwithstanding Mitt Romney's many excellent qualifications and acheivements, I believe you glossed over the Mormon-Christian matter. Mormons have some little-known beliefs that fly in the face of traditional Christianity. For example they believe that any Mormon priest (member in good standing) can/will become a "god," and in the afterlife inhabit his own planet along with his spouse(s), and extended family. I recommend the book "Secret Ceremonies," by Deborah Laake. She is fallen-away LDS. Her book is very brief, but very revealing!