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Will GOP Pander Its Way to Defeat?

By Pierre Atlas

Pandering to the interests of specific voting blocs is a common tactic for candidates seeking the presidential nomination of either party. During the 1992 Democratic primaries, Sen. Paul Tsongas famously pulled out a stuffed animal and accused Gov. Bill Clinton of being a "pander bear."

But in the race for the 2008 nominations, pandering has sunk to new lows--especially on the Republican side.

Mitt Romney has unabashedly reinvented himself in his bid for the GOP nomination. In Massachusetts, he ran as a Northeastern liberal Republican. In his failed bid to unseat Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney declared that the gay and lesbian community "needs more support from the Republican Party," and said that the question of same-sex marriage should be left to the states to decide.

In his successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney supported domestic partnership status for gay as well as straight couples in Massachusetts, supported the federal assault weapons ban, and said that "the choice to have an abortion is a deeply personal one. Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not the government's."

Romney did what was necessary to win in liberal Massachusetts, and in so doing he sounded like a Democrat. Now, claiming to have experienced an "epiphany," Romney has flipped 180 degrees. He's recast himself for 2008 as staunchly pro-life, as a varmint hunter, and as an opponent of gay rights who now supports a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Romney isn't just running against his GOP rivals, he's running against himself, circa 2002.

Rudy Giuliani's positions as Mayor of New York were not dissimilar from Romney's as Governor of Massachusetts. Both were "Rockefeller Republicans." Indeed, the only way a GOP candidate could win in Massachusetts or New York City was to be pro-choice, pro-gay rights and anti-gun. The problem is that, at the national level, these are not "politically correct" Republican positions.

But the thrice-married ex-mayor has so far taken a different tack than Romney. Rather than renouncing or conveniently forgetting his previous positions, he states them up front and seems willing to let the chips fall where they may.

At least, up to a point. Rudy tempers his pro-choice record by bizarrely promising to appoint judges who disagree with his own position on abortion. And last week he went before the National Rifle Association and declared his newfound belief in the Second Amendment's individual right to bear arms.

Giuliani was attempting to ingratiate himself with people he previously denounced as extremist. In justifying his federal lawsuit against firearms manufacturers in 2000, Mayor Giuliani wrote that the gun industry "profits from the suffering of innocent people." The Republican mayor publicly supported Bill Clinton's assault weapons ban, and called the NRA "extremist" in a 1995 TV interview.

Rudy does deserve credit for looking NRA members in the eye and acknowledging that he still has some differences with the organization. And after enumerating his law and order credentials, he reminded the group of Ronald Reagan's famous dictum, "If you're my 80 percent friend, you're not my 20 percent enemy."

If Giuliani sticks with this (relatively) gutsy approach, he may win the grudging respect of some conservatives. Only time will tell if, once the going gets tough, he too reaches an "epiphany" and abandons outright his previously held positions.

John McCain has the opposite problem--he can't seem to get credit for his conservatism. The four-term Arizona senator has a staunchly pro-life and pro-gun voting record, and he is the hawk of hawks on Iraq. But his "maverick" image and some of his more iconoclastic political positions have always made social conservatives queasy. In 2000, it was McCain-Feingold; for 2008, it's his approach to immigration reform. And while McCain opposes same-sex marriage, he takes a "federalist" position on how to address it--let each state decide on its own, rather than pass a federal law or amend the Constitution. That doesn't garner him many points, either.

But even McCain hasn't been immune to the pander bug. After getting trounced in the 2000 South Carolina primary, where Bush supporters used a variety of underhanded smear tactics, McCain took on Christian conservative leaders with a strong dose of his "straight talk."

"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance," McCain said in a seminal speech in February 2000, "whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."

Fast forward to the 2008 campaign, and McCain seems to have eaten his words as he seeks the Christian conservative vote. He telegraphed this new approach in May 2006, when he gave the commencement address at Liberty University--the institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell, one of McCain's "agents of intolerance."

Meanwhile, the more genuinely "authentic" social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback are getting little traction with the Republican base. As for Fred Thompson, despite his solid conservative voting record in the Senate and national recognition as an actor, his much-hyped candidacy has yet to take off in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Of course the Democratic candidates pander to their own special interest groups on the left. But not even Hillary Clinton, with her changing positions on the war, has needed to perform the ideological contortions of some of her Republican counterparts.

Republican primary voters may be thinking more about "electability" than whether a candidate is sincerely and authentically "conservative." But regardless of one's views on gay rights, abortion, or gun control, blatant and perhaps cynical repositioning by major candidates should make voters pause.

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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