Monday, January 9, 2012

Who Should I Support? On the 2012 Elections ...

I don't do too many political posts, but given that there's been a lot of discussion over the past few months about the candidates for the Republican nomination for the U.S. 2012 presidential election, I thought I'd put in my two cents.

First, the background:

There are at least four major, somewhat overlapping segments within today's Republican party:

(1) the so-called "social conservatives" (some like to call them the "religious right"),
(2) the "fiscal and foreign-policy conservatives"
(3) the Establishment, country-club Republicans (sometimes derisively called RINOs)
(4) the libertarians. 

The Tea Party tends to overlap the first two groups, but I'd guess that about 70% of the Tea Party movement falls in the fiscal/foreign-policy conservative group.

These groups differ on which issues are most important to them:

The most important issues to the social conservatives at this point tend to be abortion and the defense of marriage.  Generally speaking, however, social conservatives are also very concerned about irresponsible spending and the debilitating effects that it will have on the country in the future. They have had a working alliance with the fiscal and foreign-policy conservatives since Reagan's '80's, but they deeply distrust Establishment Republicans (and they generally perceive Romney as belonging to this latter group).

The most important issues to the fiscal and foreign-policy conservatives tend to be restoring sanity to the budgeting and spending process, protecting our allies (especially Israel), and projecting military strength (particularly toward terrorism, and more generally toward ideological opponents in the Middle East, Russia/Central Asia, and the Far East). 

No-one wants to admit to being an Establishment, country-club (sometimes derisively called RINO) Republican nowadays. Indeed, to be labeled as one can send a candidate into fits of high dudgeon. But this group is somewhat philosophically similar to the neocon fiscal/foreign-policy conservatives in their diagnoses. It's just that they're much less aggressive in their prescriptions.  Indeed, they have proven to be not so very different Democrats in their tolerance for a growing national debt. They are also generally socially liberal.

The libertarians share the commitment to fiscal rectitude of the fiscal/foreign policy conservatives, but generally are not energized by either social issues or playing policeman to the world.

Of the major candidates:

Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and now Rick Santorum have successively been the candidates of the social conservatives. (Social conservatives were always uneasy with Herman Cain). They deeply distrust Romney and don't really like Gingrich. They also would never vote for Ron Paul based on his libertarian views on social issues. Moreover, many of the social conservatives are also strong supporters of Israel and don't trust Ron Paul to support Israel.

The fiscal/foreign policy conservatives don't really have a horse in the race. They liked Pawlenty till he dropped out. Lately they've been waffling between their own Gingrich (who's seen as unreliable) and Establishment candidate Mitt Romney. The favorite candidates of the fiscal/foreign policy conservatives (like Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels) didn't run this time. Santorum is generally acceptable to the fiscal/foreign policy conservatives, although they see him as not having been firm enough on budgetary issues during his time as a Senator.

Establishment Republicans prefer Huntsman and Romney. Romney has always governed as an Establishment Republican but is perceived to be masquerading as a fiscal/foreign policy conservative.

The libertarians, obviously, prefer Ron Paul. Their top issue at the moment is fiscal and budgetary discipline.

In terms of the calculus of winning (which is not necessarily the only or right way of choosing a candidate - see below), the Republicans must choose a candidate who can create sufficient consensus and excitement across all of these groups. In my opinion, the only one of the above factions of the party that can reasonably expect to field such a candidate is the fiscal/foreign policy conservatives. But a successful candidate would have to be seen as a true fiscal conservative in order to be accepted by the libertarians in sufficient numbers to prevent a quixotic 3rd party run by Ron Paul in the general election that would doom us to four more years of Barack Obama. Secondly, a successful candidate needs to be someone who will be accepted by the social conservatives as being a likely defender of their issues while still being perceived as sufficiently "mainstream" to prevail in the general election.

With respect to this profile of a winning candidate, the choice seems to fall (barring a last minute entry or re-entry into the race of someone like Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Chris Christie, or Bobbie Jindal) between Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney. Romney, of course, has the weaknesses that he is not perceived to be a real fiscal conservative and hasn't really been seen as much of a culture warrior either. Gingrich is a good debater but won't draw well from the social conservatives (as shown in the Iowa outcome). Santorum, on the other hand, is probably perceived as being somewhat more trustworthy than Romney and less trustworthy than Gingrich on fiscal issues, but much more so on social ones. The downside to a Santorum general election candidacy is that he's much more likely than Romney or Gingrich to be so tarred as a theocrat that it compromises his ability to draw votes from blue-dog Democrats and libertarians in the general election.

As I said above, though, winning isn't everything. That is, it's good to win if winning doesn't cause you to make unacceptable compromises. So which compromises are unacceptable?

Well, it's probably best to begin with an explicitly stated priority list of what I think's most important and then support a candidate in terms of their likely impact relative to others when assessed against the priority list.

At the top of the list I'd have to put issues bearing on the freedom to worship God and bear witness to Him publicly.  In the second place I'd put the responsibility of civil government to recognize and uphold (i.e., reward/punish) a non-relativistic code of moral behavior in its citizens - i.e., to ensure that persons (meaning person as the Bible defines it) are protected in their lives, persons, property, and contracts, as generally defined in the second tablet of the Ten Commandments). In the third place I'd put caring for the weak among us and creating opportunity for people to provide for themselves and others.

Contrary to some theonomists, I don't believe it is the charter of the church to impose theocracies over non-believers or believers of different stripes. The church has tried to play that game at too many points in its long history and it always results in corruption and tyranny. That will have to wait until Jesus Christ returns.

With regard to these principles, the best leader would be one who recognizes their own responsibility before God to uphold justice, and who recognizes that justice is a transcendent standard that they don't get to define but instead are responsible to uphold. More specifically, the list of things I seek in such a leader who seeks to uphold justice:

First, I would prefer a leader who shares my belief that the most urgent moral issue facing our nation today is the issue of abortion. Second, I think that it is a very pressing matter to find a leader who will seek to defend the foundational institutions of marriage and family, personally embodying a high regard for those institutions and using every reasonable means to encourage the citizenry to honor them as well. Third, we need to come up with long term solutions to the profligate spending and growth of the federal government. This growth in government spending compromises long-term stability and productivity of the nation and will ensure a poorer future for everyone.  We must shrink government, though, by recognizing the need to care for the most vulnerable among us while still creating incentive and opportunity for people to work. Fourth, we must find leaders who are likely to be wise in defending our nation against threats from enemies to our values and way of life (the most critical issues in this area are international terrorism and rogue states such as Iran and North Korea).

All this is to say that I fall in the category of a social conservative who believes that fiscal rectitude is also a moral issue. This is not to say that I don't believe that our government has a role in caring for the poor among us. I believe it does. But income/wealth equality is not the outcome that we ought to seek - rather we should seek to make the United States continue to be the land of opportunity, while ensuring that those of our citizens who are unable to care for themselves have adequate food, shelter, and clothing.

So, generally speaking, I want the candidate who is most likely to uphold these views. Where does this leave me personally?  Santorum's views are closest to mine, but I think he's less likely to prevail in the national election than are Romney or Gingrich.  Given Obama's abysmal approval ratings, I give Mitt Romney a 60-70% chance of beating Obama in the general election, Gingrich about the same, and Santorum only about a 40-50% chance to beat him.

If Romney or Gingrich win, their impact will be marginal on social issues, somewhat better on fiscal ones, but much better than the disaster that would ensue under a second term of Obama if Republicans voted for Santorum and that caused Obama to win. Moreover, even if Santorum won, it's quite unclear whether he'd actually have much more impact on the issue of abortion (via Supreme Court appointments) than Newt or Mitt would. All would probably be roughly the same in terms of their likely actions with respect to other marriage/family issues. So the risk of supporting Santorum (as against the other two candidates) seems to be high while the likely relative gain (again, relative to them) quite low.

So do I do what we tend to do in California and vote for a candidate in the primaries that's too conservative to win in the general election and then end up worse off than I would have been if I'd held my nose and voted in the primaries for a candidate who is likely to win but who isn't too obnoxious to what's important to me?

Tough questions.

I guess net-net, based on the admittedly somewhat defensive and defeatist calculus above, and despite the fact that Santorum is actually closer to my views, I come down on the side of supporting Romney, but I'd feel better if a bruising primary fight did its bit to ensure that he feels constrained to govern as a conservative and not as a RINO.

As always, I'm interested in your comments ...