Seal of the President of the United States

By: Brian Sikma

Rarely, if ever, has a presidential campaign season started so soon. The first candidates began announcing right after the 2006 mid-term election and a few months later candidates began dropping out of the race. With nearly twenty people from the 2 major parties seeking the same job, we’re sure to see some more dropouts in the days to come.

Even with all of these choices however, there seems to be a measure of dissatisfaction prevailing in both parties. This sentiment is stronger on the Republican side though. Although technically there is probably a candidate for everyone, media, money and name recognition has at this point reduced the voters choice to either one of the 3 or 4 “big names” on the first tier or a lesser known, though not necessarily lesser quality, candidate in the second tier of candidates.

While “tiers” will occur naturally without the help of the media, there is no doubt that media coverage has hurt the process some. By developing a mere two tiers, the media and front running candidates have eliminated a very important third tier. In reality this third tier is not below the second tier, but instead is made up of the one or two second tier candidates that are within striking range of the first tier. These are candidates that with a surprising victory could catapult themselves into serious heavy weight contenders.

Tiers are not a bad thing, they help voters choose between those likely to win and those who will be unable to win in a general election. However, tiers can be misperceived whenever candidates are not seriously evaluated before being consigned to either the top tier or the bottom tier.

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 The first tier on the Democratic side consists of three individuals, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, and John Edwards. Interestingly, all three of these first tier candidates have less experience at governing than several of the second tier Republican candidates. The second tier Democrats are rather numerous and consist of Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richards, Joe Biden and Mike Gravel.

For Democrats the pickle for this presidential election cycle is to choose a candidate that is center enough to win the general election. For Democratic candidates the pickle comes down to being able to win the nutter ultra left-wing finance people over and at the same time come across as moderate enough to pick up the crucial swing vote of moderate independents.

Right now all of the Democrats’ top tier candidates, Hillary, Obama, and Edwards are flaming liberals. Hillary however may be able to hide some of that, but her record on the Iraq war has already caused her some problems with the ultra left-wing of the party. The DailyKos crowd booed her twice at their annual convention. Obama is all over the road right now, left on the war, left on social values, but swinging in a wild manner to the extreme right in declaring that we need to start a war with Pakistan. For all intents and purposes he is not a conservative, his views are too extreme for that, he is a pendulum swinging back and forth and the more he swings the less like he is to win the nomination. John Edwards is of course a hypocrite with regard to his talk about poor people, and he is perhaps blind too to the reality of the strong economy. His stand on health-care and his stand on the war may combine to make him a the nominee. However, he is an strong liberal and will have to gravitate hard to the right to make his image a little more moderate. Watch this guy.

Some of the more moderate and more experienced Democratic candidates, the ones who could put in a strong challenge in the general election, are in the second tier. Candidate Bill Richards is no doubt left, but he does not have the image of hard left that some of his fellow candidates have. His experience as a governor and his multi-ethnic background could very well be every thing the party needs in a general election candidate. He does suffer from a lack of fire from time to time and though his views are staunchly left-liberal, but he is not nearly as divisive a figure as Hillary Clinton. Where other candidates appear over the top, Richards appears normal, where other candidates lack experience, Richards’ history puts him squarely at an advantage.

So why don’t Democrats unite behind Richards? As stated a sentence or two ago, he at times appears to lack fire and he doesn’t have the money or personality that some in the party want. Hillary has a huge amount of name ID, a fundraising machine already in place from her husband, and she’s a woman, and therefore generates more excitement and interest (though not necessarily support). Obama, for all of his shortcomings, has shown that his youthful idealism can connect with young Democratic voters who are the ones who go out and slog it out for you going door to door, making phone calls, and they myriad other little chores that add up to victory. Edwards could very quickly become a liberal favorite. He tends to have the image of a Washington outsider and he has been very adamant about his liberal positions in the several debates.

At this time in the race Richards is just not generating enough excitement to gain the nomination. Though if he did gain the nomination he would be a very tough candidate for Republicans to beat. This would be especially true if the Republican nominee were to be someone like Romney or Giuliani, a candidate that trends a little left of the past Republican nominees.

Over on the Republican side the pickle is a little bit harder. Currently there are really three tiers of candidates (minus the “almost first tier” tier suggested by this author). In the first tier ranks are Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney with the potential candidacy of Fred Thompson. John McCain was considered first tier until fundraising and polling effectively downgraded him to the second tier. In the second tier you have Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson, Ducan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, and the very strange Ron Paul. Third tier is an unknown named John Cox, an Illinois businessman who was the first Republican to announce and has had zero experience as a state or federal officeholder.

For Republicans to win elections they have to run candidates that unite the two conservative bases of the party, the fiscal conservatives and the social conservatives. Those two camps are broad generalizations that almost all Republicans can be grouped into. There is also a lot of overlap between the two sides, since they are by no means mutually exclusive. Ronald Reagan was the first successful Republican presidential nominee who brought together both wings of the party. (The first Republican presidential nominee to espouse both points of view as a conservative was Barry Goldwater).

Since the era of Reagan, Republican presidential candidates have trended towards the fusionist conservatism that was Reagan’s hallmark. This year quite a few, if not all, of the Republican candidates are laying claim to the distinction of being the “only true Ronald Reagan Republican”.

What is unique about the current Republican lineup is the absence of a true blue conservative from the first tier of candidates. Mitt Romney has held very liberal social values until he experienced a sort of road to DeMoines conversion to conservatism a little before his campaign’s start. In addition to be a Blue State Republican on social issues, he is also responsible for Massachussetts’ statewide mandatory health-care system, something that strikes at the very heart of conservative economic principles.

John McCain, although a staunch conservative on the War in Iraq, has all too often thrown conservatives under the bus during his tenure in the Senate and his 2000 presidential campaign. Conservatives are the grassroots of the party. They are the ones who go out and get the candidates elected, without them a campaign fails. It comes as no surprise then that John McCain’s candidacy is now utterly futile as he has completely alienated the base and the media. If McCain had managed to stay in favor with the media, he might have been able to pull off at least a stronger showing. Unfortunately, his courageous stand on the Iraq War-one of the few things the base likes him for-has cost him his relationship with the media.

Rudy Giuliani is something of a phenomenon. Although serving as mayor of New York city and a successful federal prosecutor are not accomplishments to be sneezed at, they are hardly strong qualifications for the presidency. Before September 11th of 2001, the vast majority of Americans would not have known who Rudy Giuliani was. If you told them of his record of support for gay rights and anti-life policies, his two marriage fiascos (he’s on his third marriage) and his shady ties to the corrupt police commissioner of New York, they’d think he was a Democrat. Except for his record on fiscal issues, Mr. Giuliani is a Democrat in all but name.

At this point in the race Fred Thompson is a wild card. A conservative with an overall solid voting record, he carries the blemishes of campaign finance reform. His policy positions resonate well with the base but his charm seems to be waning a little. The Fred Factor drama has played out very interestingly as the Senator and his supporters have attempted to portray him as the candidate that can fill the conservative void in the first tier lineup. However, the drama may be about to end as some are speculating that Fred will enter the race only in time to drop out as conservatives feel that he may not be the guy they hoped for.

Speaking of hope brings us to another wild card. Gov. Mike Huckabee hails from Hope Arkansas, the same home town of another president. Gov. Huckabee has until now failed to get the same amount of attention that Romney, Rudy, and McCain have gotten. However, after his strong second place showing at the Iowa Straw Poll, and after McCain’s campaign woes, Huckabee now bears the distinction of being one of the top three Republican presidential candidates.

A strong social conservative, Huckabee’s weakness is on fiscal issues and, naturally, foreign policy. Unlike Sen. Barak Obama though, Huckabee has not said anything utterly off the wall in relation to foreign policy. To his credit, Huckabee is not totally unfamiliar to international dealings because during his term as governor, he led Arkansas into a better economic relationship with South Korea. Taxes are something that the man from Hope is familiar with, unfortunately he has a mixed record on the issue. He led the state into across the board tax cuts only to raise specific taxes later on. Some of the raises came as a result of being forced to raise the taxes or lose needed federal dollars, other raises were flat out bad moves. Overall Huckabee could prove to be a very strong contender, if he can only raise the money. A conservative who is slightly to the right of President Bush, he has the potential to become the next president of the United States.

Huckabee’s strongest base is found in the values voters. The social conservatives who have led the GOP into some of its biggest victories. But Huckabee is not alone in vying for their vote. Sen. Sam Brownback is a stalwart conservative who has a steller record of conservative stands on capitol hill and the social conservatives are his natural territory. Brownback’s greatest setback is that he is a senator, and not a governor or similar executive.

The other Republican candidates are all trying to draw attention to the issues they care about. They are in the 2nd and 3rd tiers for a good reason and there is no chance that they will leave those categories. As the campaign moves into more difficult terrain, they will leave the race and move on to other endeavors.

The dilemma facing Republicans is that of the three announced top tier candidates, only one of them a true conservatives. One is a fiscal conservative and social liberal, the other was a social liberal with still-liberal leaning fiscal issues. The advantage to the second candidate (Romney) is his conversion to socially conservative views. Fred Thompson has not announced, but there even if he were to announce there would probably still be an air of discontent. The only other candidate that has leaped into the first tier is Mike Huckabee, and he needs to raise an awful lot of cash if he is going to continue to be a player. Sam Brownback has promised to stay in the race, but his chances at victory are very slim and he is effectively a second tier candidate. Unfortunately for the base, he happens to agree with them on all the major issues.

Right now the choice for conservatives comes down to Romney, Thompson, and Huckabee. They may choose to support another candidate, but at this time there is no one else that is viable alternative for conservatives to flock too.

Romney is very viable, but if conservatives choose to support him they will forever be wary of his very liberal past. The relationship between the two sides will be one that is plauged by memories of former policy positions. If Romney were to become the next president and then do something overwhelmingly “moderate” or liberal, conservatives who refused to support him will look at the conservatives who ended up supporting him and saying “I told you so!” A key test of conservatism for any president is the type of judges he nominates, and especially the type of supreme court justices they propose. Perhaps the biggest argument for Romney is that he could maybe beat the Democratic candidate. But voting against the other side is not as powerful a motivation as voting for your side.

Fred Thompson has to get in the race if he is going to win the nomination. That may sound a little redundent but he needs to jump in soon if he is going to take advantage of a wave of support that is already beginning to recede. A conservative on many issues, Thompson’s performance has been underwhelming at times. One of the oldest of the candidates, he will have to work hard to make his reality as a candidate match up to his myth as a non-candidate. Conservatives will like him, but they have to ask themselves whether or not this man can generate enough excitement to propel the party to victory in November of 2008. Right now that question is very much unanswered.

Mike Huckabee is the only top tier candidate at this time who could generate enough enthusiasm to propel the party to victory. He’s a conservative and doesn’t seem to be too angry about it either. Although he’s no Mike Pence or Ronald Reagan, he is lively and could connect with both the base and the large number of independents who are fed up with Washington politics. For conservatives, the question of whether or not to support Huckabee is easy except for one factor: money. Money generates viability, and viability generates coverage, coverage generates money. The problem for every candidate is getting started on this treadmill and then staying on without falling off.

Is there a candidate that holds to the values of conservatives? Yes, the question is whether that candidate can win. Huckabee, Thompson, and Romney all have varying degrees of conservatism. For social conservatives the question is “At what point do my values require me to be pragmatic in achieving the ends that I seek?” Let me illustrate what I mean.

When it comes to pro-life issues, all three of the above mentioned individuals have pro-life characteristics. Romney is a recent convert to the pro-life position, and we can expect him to be more pro-life than Rudy or any Democrat. Fred Thompson is also pro-life, and is more pro-life than Romney when you consider his 100% pro-life voting record in the Senate. However, Thompson does have handicaps, among them his sometimes underwhelming communication skills (this is not to say that his can’t communicate but that he sometimes stumbles around when he speaks). Mike Huckabee is an excellent communicator, a staunch pro-lifer, and also out of money. Does my pro-life position require me to vote for Huckabee, the best option, or Romney, a more financially sound option? Or is there an area in between that would require me to vote for Fred Thompson?

It’s better to have Romney than Hillary, it’s better prevent one abortion than encourage more abortions. But it’s also better to prevent hundreds of abortions than it is to prevent one abortion. This is the pickle facing conservatives; and it’s a problem that will continue to play out until a major break occurs in this sort of electoral logjam.