Saturday, December 22, 2007

This post dates to November 5, 2007.

It's another Giuliani/Huckabee diary. If just those five words are enough to turn your stomach, you should probably read something else.

Anyway: We're in the middle of something a lot of folks haven't really seen since 1980, and perhaps haven't seen in their lifetimes: A well-and-truly contested Republican Presidential Primary. Now, because we're unused to it, it's my theory that we don't remember how to react; and because the Party was a very different animal then, the coalition of groups who compose it have little to no institutional memory of how to resolve formational problems before they get out of hand.

Put differently: Depending on which candidate is ascendant at any given time, a lot of otherwise good-faith Republicans are threatening to take their ball and run away, because they don't know precisely what else to do.

I'm not going to sit here and argue that anyone must vote for this guy, or must not vote for that one; I'm not going to get into the middle of the what-happens-when-the-general-comes argument. I have enough headaches without engaging that.

What I'd like to do is offer every camp an insight into why we are where we are, and point to some possible resolutions of the problem. I would suggest that we need to get this done now, rather than, say, September 2008. So, if you have some time, read on.

I used to be a pretty fair hand at game theory, but as with so much else in my intellectual life, what sense I had for it at anything but the intuitive level has largely atrophied from disuse. I hope you'll pardon any obvious gaffes on my part as I try to work through this; but I really think it's the best analytical framework for this election, and I'm going to offer it that way.

I'm going to make two simplifications that I hope don't destroy the model, for explanatory purposes, and that will save a lot of "but ifs" sprinkled through the discussion. First, I'm going to assume that each group described below has more or less homogeneous beliefs, and internally consistent priorities, thereby allowing me to treat groups as an equivalent number of individuals. Second, while essentially, every participant in coalition politics has a slightly-to-highly uneven hand in the nomination process, let's simply assume that each has the same vote. Like I said, these assumptions glaze over a lot, but I'm looking for a basic model more than anything else.

Given that, here's where I think we are:

The "social conservatives" -- shorthand for conservatives whose first (though not only) priority is social issues -- want a nominee who will (1) win and (2) advance policy on abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, and probably some other things we don't need to rehash here. The "fiscal conservatives" -- shorthand for conservatives whose first (though not only) priority is money and market, i.e., spending, taxes, and government regulation of the market -- want a nominee who will (1) win and (2) advance policy on taxes, government expenditures (and size), and government regulation of life in general but the markets in particular. There are of course other factions -- the "immigration conservatives," the "gun conservatives," the "liberty conservatives," etc. -- but I won't deal with those because (1) they complicate what's already a too-long blog post, (2) I think hyphenated conservatism is so much media hooplah, and (3) each of those groups, if they exist, can find something to adamantly dislike in either or both Mike Huckabee and/or Rudy Giuliani.

The problem we're experiencing is that Rudy Giuliani is currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and Mike Huckabee is making a poorly funded darkhorse surge. Both men, on paper, have great credentials; however, each has the potential, based on current pronouncements and past acts, to split off large, vitally-needed chunks of the party come election time, should he make it to the general election. For Rudy, it's the social conservatives; for Mike, it's the fiscal ones. Social conservatives, now warming up the signs for the thirty-fifty anniversary of Roe, are wondering why they give their time, effort, and boots on the ground to a Party that not only can't get Roe reversed, but that actually got it affirmed the last time it made it to the High Court, with Justices appointed by post-Roe Republican Presidents providing the critical votes to uphold that monstrosity. Fiscal conservatives, listening to Reagan's rhetoric about government being the problem and but rarely the solution, wonder why every Republican President since Nixon has presided over vastly increased spending, increased taxes, or both; why the Code of Federal Regulations never shrinks; and why a Republican Congress showed admirable fiscal restraint for about five months in 1995, then went a-porking.

In Rudolph Giuliani, the social conservatives see an avatar of all the things they believe wrong with the Republican Party: A greater emphasis on electability and belligerence than on protecting the unborn, a liberal (sorry, guys, it's true) on social issues that don't directly affect crime rates whose personal life suggests that we don't want to spend too much time poking at the Clintons this time around. In Michael Huckabee, the fiscal conservatives see all the morass that is "compassionate conservatism" without even the little motes of sunlight offered with, say, No Child Left Behind and Medicare D -- a bigspending Southern Populist who'll say, "I'm with the people, not with the powerful," and mean it, forgetting that in the Republican Party, we believe that the "powerful" are not merely composed of the "people," but that they, through extraordinary selfishness run amok, actually help the people.

Now, what makes this problematic is that all of this has been simmering for decades now, and the various members of the Republican coalition are rather wondering why they bother with all the effort if nothing comes of it. This is further exacerbated by having a President of whom both sides can say bad and good things (again), and of having on the other side of the upcoming v a woman whom both sides detest enough to actually cause blood-vomiting; in other words, the stakes are highest just when everyone's patience is worn thinnest.

And that leads to the game-playing. There's a complex series of calculations at work here, for each faction, relative to each candidate. Each decision made in this particular game could yield disaster for the moving faction; for the non-moving faction; and for the Party as a whole.

Let's take the example that's received the most ink (and pixels): The social conservatives who have threatened to vote third-party rather than vote for Giuliani. Say they don't follow through, and vote for Giuliani:

  • (1) The Party/Giuliani might decide it doesn't need to even pay lip service to social conservatives if they'll simply shut up and vote when called to do so, regardless of the candidate's record (ample historical precedent exists for this in the Democrat Party);
  • (2) The Party/Giuliani may view social conservatives as the deciding vote in a close election;
  • (3) The Party/Giuliani may view social conservatives as irrelevant in a landslide election, and elect to stay with a socially moderate message to keep the landslide voters on-board;
  • (4) The Party/Giuliani may view social conservatives, to whom it/he believes there was a need to pander, as the reason for a loss in a close election/landslide, and so decides to dump those social conservatives, as they were never well-loved to start.
  • Implicit in this, of course, is how the other player -- let's say "the Party as a whole" -- reacts both to the action by the social conservatives, and how the election turns out -- and that all of this is taking place behind a double-blind. But let's continue, on the "sit out" option, to show what the social conservatives have in store:

  • (1) After a narrow win, the Party/Giuliani decides that they can't take any part of the coalition for granted again, and sets about wooing the disaffected.
  • (2) After a landslide win, the Party/Giuliani decides that they don't need the social conservatives any more, and the social conservatives spend the next twenty years in the political wilderness.
  • (3) After a loss of any kind, the Party/Giuliani decides that they can't take any part of the coalition for granted again, and sets about wooing the disaffected.
  • (4) After a loss of any kind, the Party/Giuliani decides that the Party's coalition structure needs to be totally revamped, and tosses the social conservatives out the door, forty years in the wilderness, etc.
  • The moving party -- the social conservatives -- not only doesn't know how their participation or non-participation will affect the election, nor how the rest of the Party will react, but the rest of the Party is clueless too.

    The same thing might come to pass with the fiscal conservatives and Huckabee; just plug and chug and you can see the same kind of analysis. As an added bonus, both sets of players are playing for the highest set of stakes possible in a coalition: Perceived electoral significance. Take the Huckabee example: I'd submit that a true populist ticket could make a serious run at the Presidency. If successful, why would the fiscal conservatives matter? (As a son of Louisiana, let me go on the record and say if a true populist wins the Presidency, I'm moving to Poland.) On the other hand, maybe those fiscal conservatives, even if overrepresented on the internet, are a vital component of the coalition, and their absence means doom for the Party. The only way to know if you're gonna win at Russian roulette is to put the revolver to your forehead and pull the trigger.

    All of this was to make a simple point: The fellow you're accusing of bad faith is not acting in bad faith; instead, he's playing a game maybe more complex than even he realizes, for stakes he considers worth it. More importantly, you are too. As we're going to need these people in downticket races, I'd respectfully submit we keep the "Hit the road" rhetoric to a bare minimum. We have a Wicked Witch to melt in a year, after all.

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