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After the Bush Muddle, Republicans Want To Reboot

By Daniel Henninger

When Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were hauling their ambition around the country a month or so ago--the primaries a year off and the general election nearly two years--their march to the horizon looked to me like a parody of serious politics. I was wrong. It's too short.

It would take a lifetime to figure out who these guys really are, and longer than that to decode Hillary Clinton. Yet come January 2009, one will run the nation. Time's running out.

Fred Thompson's boom-voiced boomlet is said to reflect Republican dissatisfaction with the announced candidates. What that dissatisfaction consists of is hard to say. Given there were 10 men onstage in last week's debate in the haunted house of the Reagan Library--nearly all experienced and serious Republican politicians--that's a pretty high level of dissatisfaction. What do GOP voters want?

What they want, I suspect, is not so much Mr. Right as a clearer understanding than they've got now of what it means to be a Republican.

The GOP muddle is George Bush's fault. After more than six years of the Bush presidency, the Republican template is broken. Largely this is the result of presiding over a war presidency for nearly two terms. The war has dropped virtually all else in the nation's political life into the footnotes. One has to wonder what the political legacy of the Bush presidency would have consisted of without September 11 or the Iraq war.

His commitment to incentivizing, Reaganite tax cuts is solid. George Bush is a social conservative. His Supreme Court nominees, notwithstanding the Miers hiccup, articulated recognizably conservative legal philosophies. But he lacked enough political capital in his second term to privatize Social Security or secure personal Health Savings Accounts, so there's little to mitigate the ideological confusion of lavish spending on education and prescription drug insurance. If he hadn't needed Congress's support for a war, would he have issued an astonishing zero vetoes of their spending bills? The Bush presidency leaves behind a puddle of confusion.

After the Bush presidency--the good, the bad and the endless--what Republicans most want to do is simply reboot themselves and their party.

What do I stand for now? What do I want to achieve in the next election? Do I just want my party to win, philosophy be damned, or do I mainly want my ideas elevated and argued? Or, ne plus ultra (translation: after this I can die), do I simply want "her" candidacy defeated?

This isn't the kind of campaign that appeals to the pundit class, accustomed to dividing all life into A versus B or pollsters' percentages. There's no clear front-runner setting the daily agenda in either party. That exposes to view the fact that the parties themselves have become shifting inkblots with no meaning until one candidate wins the nomination and redefines the party, for awhile. The only people giddy about our current blank slates are the political scientists. Dial one up and he'll tell you that the muddle is the normal condition of the American political mind.

Most of the time, poli-sci profs sit unnoticed up in the trees watching the political parade go by and writing articles for professional journals, such as "Electoral choices and core value change: The 1992 presidential campaign" or the provocative, "Another lesson about public opinion during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal," the short version of which is: Most people most of the time didn't pay close attention to the Clinton scandal.

And that's the rub: Political scientists have known for over 40 years, when detailed election data began to appear, that most of the millions of people who vote have no settled political ideology. You and your friends may watch all the political talk shows on Sunday morning. But most people don't.

The originator of the notion of politics as eternally wet cement was Philip Converse of the University of Michigan. His study, "The American Voter," with Angus Campbell and other Michigan colleagues, remains the basic starting point for all arguments over why people vote. It is why a John McCain or Hillary Clinton pay political professionals huge fees to lie awake nights trying to match the content of their candidate's next speech with what's tripping through the minds of 50%-plus listeners. In short, divining the collective mind of 121 million U.S. presidential election voters remains, gloriously, a deep and unsolvable mystery.

In this spirit, last week's GOP debate, ridiculed as a jumbled fiasco, struck me as useful because it was a jumble. Despite the expectation of rote, base-pandering replies on abortion and such, the 10 candidates often struggled to fine-tune their thoughts, reflecting the complexity and fluidity of what GOP voters actually think.

Example: The moment when the candidates revolted against Chris Matthews's effort to reduce support for embryonic stem cell research to a yes-or-no answer.

Sen. Sam Brownback gave strong disapproval: "I will not--with all due respect to Mrs. Reagan and her desires here." Sen. McCain approved: "I believe that we need to fund this. . . . I would remind you that these stem cells are either going to be discarded or perpetually frozen." Others attempted to describe work being done with adult stem cells or the dilemma of extinguishing life on behalf of others lives. This is roughly the arguments one would hear among most groups of Republicans.

On Iraq, while there was little support for a Democratic date-certain pullout, there was a range of views around a theme of support--from Mr. Giuliani's hard line to the increased diplomatic engagement of Sam Brownback and Gov. Jim Gilmore, to Rep. Duncan Hunter's gradual rotation of Iraqi troops into the fight and ours out of it. Include Rep. Ron Paul's never-should-have-done-it, and you probably have the current spectrum of Republican voter thinking on Iraq.

So what if it's a jumble in May 2007? The idea that some monolith called "the Republicans" wants one perfectly programmed candidate is preposterous. More "data" will emerge this year as voters rotate these candidates into focus. And notwithstanding the distance most Americans put between themselves and the daily political fish market, numerous studies of political opinion formation have shown that most people trudge through these campaigns with "core" personal beliefs, which they eventually deploy to fix their opinion of John, Rudy, Mitt, Fred, Newt, Hillary, Barack and the others. Out of this cloud descends a president. Too bad the campaign is so short.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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