Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Lots of talk this week about the possibility of General Petraeus as a Republican nominee for president, with this Peter Beinart column getting everyone talking. As Yglesias says, the points about GOP politics are probably more worthwhile than the specific possibility of Petraeus running (for reasons that Massie and McKinnon discuss -- basically, there's no evidence that Petraeus wants it, there's no evidence that he has views that would be acceptable to the GOP, and there's no way of knowing in advance whether he'd have good campaigning and political skills or not).

Yglesias adds that Iraq and Afghanistan are not exactly high-profile issues right now, which is true, but I don't think it's quite the right way of looking at it. After all, conquering Europe wasn't the key issue in the 1952 campaign; Ike wasn't a great candidate because his skill set or issues spoke to the questions people had on their mind in 1952, but because he was a great hero who people were willing to believe in regardless of issues. On that score, I think Petraeus is a lot closer, however, to Wesley Clark than to Ike -- perhaps Petraeus has a somewhat higher profile and somewhat more salient accomplishments than Clark, but he has nothing close to the place in the popular imagination that Ike, or Grant, or Washington had. Back in the 19th century generals could achieve the White House without the central role in a war that engaged the whole nation, but not since then.

What I think is a larger point that Beinart glosses over is that the today's Republican party simply would not nominate Dwight D. Eisenhower, the candidate of the Eastern Establishment. If, as seems likely, Petraeus holds views on social issues that are unacceptable to conservatives -- such as, say, that evolution is factual -- he'd do about as well as Rudy Giuliani did last time around.

Beinart's answer to that is:
John McCain—another soldier-turned-pol—has already shown that the right’s stranglehold on the nominating process can be broken. Like McCain in 2008, Petraeus could largely skip the Iowa caucuses, which evangelicals dominate, and instead focus on New Hampshire, where independents can vote.
McCain, however, was disliked by many GOP interest groups, but his basic positions were almost completely in line with mainstream Republican conservatism, including a long and consistent pro-life record. Moreover, the Republicans wound up with an oddball field in 2008: Giuliani opposed almost all of the Republican social agenda, Romney had until recently opposed it, and Huckabee was a dissenter on economic issues. McCain didn't win as the moderate against the conservatives; he won as the most reliably conservative candidate out of a field that didn't have a safe haven for conservatives. That's very unlikely to be the case in 2012 (or, for that matter, any future contest). Pawlenty and others (Thune? Barbour?) will be plausible nominees with impeccably conservative credentials, and Romney and Huckabee will have had four more years to try to prove that their conversion on social and economic issues, respectively, was genuine.

Beinart also says that "After another presidential election loss or two, powerful forces within the GOP will begin looking for a candidate who doesn't have to kowtow to the party's activist base." That's certainly possible, but there's been no evidence of it so far this year. The powerful forces in a party that should care about winning are the candidate, and the associated interest groups. But right now Republican candidates are mostly rewarded for extremism. And normally GOP-allied interest groups seem perfectly capable of walking away from the party to cut separate deals with Democrats; that's certainly been the case on health care. I do think there's every possibility that in the long run, that will change, but I see no sign of it in the short run. It sure seems safe to me to predict that the 2012 Republican presidential nominee will be more a more orthodox conservative than John McCain was in 2008, Petraeus or no Petraeus in the field.


  1. I think Yglesias is on the right track by pointing out Afghanistan and Iraq, but that argument suffers from being a bit too focused. The main thing that would help a Petraeus candidacy in 2012 would be for foreign policy issues of any nature to supplant domestic issues (esp. the economy) as the biggest issue. And it would take quite a flare up abroad to accomplish that.

    In the absence of that shift, though, what are Petraeus' chops on domestic issues? Do we have any evidence of his feelings one way or the other on a wide range of issues. That's certainly a fixable, but I just don't see it in the cards for the general given the current (and admittedly early) 2012 trajectory.

  2. I don't it true that Ike won because people cared about foreign policy? I don't think so; I think he won because people were ready to vote against the Dems, and Ike was a safe, nonpartisan way to vote for the other party.

    The former condition, of course, could hold. But the latter is a problem -- it's hard to picture anyone surviving the current Republican nomination process while remaining a safe, above-the-fray, nonpartisan figure. That's not to say that Petraeus can't win, but only that he wouldn't win by defying conservatives to get the nomination.

  3. That's a fair point. The question then would be whether Americans have five times less patience for 2009's version of socialism versus 1933(-1952)'s. I'm with you on this one: 2012 likely won't be the year for the GOP to go for a nonpartisan type. Much will depend on the elite level consensus early on regarding whether the GOP opts for purism or focusing on someone who can beat Obama. Ideally, from the Republican perspective, there's a perfect overlap there. In reality, though, I think it is an either/or proposition.


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