Dance of the GOP pander bears

The pandering is in full swing as Republican presidential wannabes vie for support from conservatives whom they fear might not find their overall record all that attractive.

The pandering is in full swing as Republican presidential wannabes vie for support from conservatives whom they fear might not find their overall record all that attractive.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani all have different problems with conservatives, and each seems to be trying to get a leg up on the other while looking over his shoulder at the party’s second- and third-tier possibilities.

McCain, of course, began early in an attempt to patch up his differences with the religious conservatives he tried to demonize back in 2000 by visiting fundamentalist leaders and even hinting that he might support the teaching of creationism in the schools. Whether that worked or not remains to be seen, but now he’s telling folks that he’s rethought his previous apostasy on taxes and decided that the Bush tax cuts he opposed ought to be made permanent just as soon as possible. This year it seems he’s willing to let Democrat John Edwards don the mantle of class warfare while he emerges as a born-again supply-sider.

Meanwhile, America’s Mayor, no doubt heeding the warnings of advisers who are suggesting that GOP conservatives may have a tough time accepting a candidate who is pro-abortion, pro-gay and anti-gun, is hinting that on reflection he believes his position on abortion has been misunderstood and may require clarification even as his New York City backers are bombarding conservatives around the country with the news that Rudy is in fact one of them.

Not to be outdone, Massachusetts’s Mitt Romney, whom many believe could retire the 2008 pandering cup before he’s through, assures conservative audiences wherever he finds them that he’s pro-life, essentially pro-gun and horrified by homosexuality, previous statements or actions notwithstanding. Anything he said or did previous to deciding to run for president, he implies, should be taken as a reflection of what he had to do because of the circumstances in which he found himself rather than of his core beliefs.

It’s certainly or at least barely possible that John McCain has morphed into the second coming of Jack Kemp and that the other two are being honest as they reflect on issues about which they may not previously have given much serious thought, but to the casual observer at least it all seems, well, unseemly.

The fact is that while none of these men have anything approaching a Reagan-like claim on conservative support, each of them can make a case that might appeal to conservatives in spite of their records on some issues. Rudy has a better record on taxes than McCain, who has a better (though admittedly spotty) record on right-to-life and even Second Amendment issues than the others — and Romney can argue that he did a pretty good job in Massachusetts under very difficult circumstances.

Conservatives aren’t stupid. They know what’s going on, and while they may take some satisfaction in seeing these guys trying to learn a new language, they would, I suspect, be more impressed if each of them treated them like thinking adults and said, “Look, I’m not sure I agree with you completely on some of these issues, but I’ll work with you and you can trust my word if I commit not to pursue policies you find objectionable.” It is, after all, a politician’s word, not his rhetoric, on which one must ultimately rely.

As I’ve watched their dance, however, it appears to me that the posturing may stem from more than a simple desire to get an edge on each other.

Hovering just below the first tier is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who, while he may be carrying more baggage than a Grand Central red-cap, remains a hero to many conservatives and seems to be waiting for an opening. His strategy and those of several other contenders is that ultimately the first-tier candidates are going to blow it with the party base and give them a shot at the brass ring.

Along with Newt, Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), who might at some point prove a magnet for social conservatives, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who contends, not inaccurately, that he may be the most reliable traditional conservative in the field, are banking on just such an opening. As are Reps. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and conceivably even Ron Paul (Texas).

They may all be dreaming and none of them at this point has the visibility or the fundraising capability to contend, but something’s making those guys in the first tier nervous.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).