Fool’s Errand: Antsy Conservatives Look Past McCain

mccain 32 Fools Errand: Antsy Conservatives Look Past McCainThe vast majority of voters have yet to cast their ballots. The presidential candidates are still campaigning. Ads are still running. But many Republican insiders and some members of the conservative punditocracy are already moving on. This election is, to many of them, passé.

David Frum boldly wrote off John McCain in a Washington Post column, instructing Republicans to abandon the McCain-Palin ticket to save floundering Senate and House candidates. Half of the McCain team is savaging Sarah Palin publicly. The other half is rushing to her defense. And many onlookers are touting her for 2012. Meanwhile, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is already booked for a visit to Iowa latter in November.

The vast majority of voters have yet to cast their ballots. The presidential candidates are still campaigning. Ads are still running. But many Republican insiders and some members of the conservative punditocracy are already moving on. This election is, to many of them, passé.

David Frum boldly wrote off John McCain in a Washington Post column, instructing Republicans to abandon the McCain-Palin ticket to save floundering Senate and House candidates. Half of the McCain team is savaging Sarah Palin publicly. The other half is rushing to her defense. And many onlookers are touting her for 2012. Meanwhile, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is already booked for a visit to Iowa latter in November. And those are conservatives. Isn’t there still an election to be held?

Well, it certainly looks like it is an uphill climb for McCain. But it is more than a little odd that Republicans are already fighting for the inside pole position in the next election before the votes are even counted in this one.

As many of them now fear, this election may mark not just a loss, but a sea change in party affiliation and ideology. So what we’re beginning to see is a collective rush to find a shining knight — or lady — who promises better days and the chance for political redemption.

But it is, of course, a fundamentally misguided exercise to plunge into the next election cycle before this one has even ended. Putting aside the adage that the race is never over until all the votes are counted, this rush for the next standard bearer misses the cardinal lesson of 2008: you need to figure out what the election will be about before you find your candidate and set your course.

In this quintessential “change” election, Republicans failed to avoid the same error which Hillary Clinton made. They believed that inexperience would doom their opponent and they convinced themselves an impressive biography would prevail.

It is not evident what the election of 2012 will be about, or what type of candidate will fit the bill for the Republicans four years from now (if they indeed find themselves running against an incumbent Democrat). The issue may be competence, trustworthiness, international peril, “malaise” or, as Donald Rumsfeld so elegantly put it, some “unknown unknown.”

Moreover, if conservatives agree on anything these days, it is that they lack a cohesive vision of conservative governance. Former Reagan adviser Peter Wehner cautions that it won’t be sufficient simply to recycle a Reagan policy agenda, and suggests that a promising “governing vision” would be one that sets its sites on “reforming our public institutions to meet the demands of the 21st century.” Other prominent conservatives believe any talk of reform is “code” for capitulating to a scheme of Democratic-lite policies.

Without knowledge of the terrain or a self-identity, it’s just silly to begin choosing up sides, assembling PACs and exploratory committees and gauging the 2012 field. It suggests that conservatives have not really learned that a presidential candidacy must be about something real, providing answers on what issues are occupying the electorate at the time. And the winning theme is arrived at by assessing the scene and finding, or developing, a candidacy to suit the circumstances.

Republicans need to see this election through and then think about who they are and where the country is headed before searching for the next nominee. Otherwise they are going to wind up with an “inevitable” candidate who fits neither the party nor the country.