Pushing the Envelope

Howard Fineman notes that all the energy and excitement in the GOP field is being generated by the more heterodox candidates – Paul, Huckabee and arguably Giulani – rather than by “Mr. Conservative” candidates like Romney, Thompson and (arguably) McCain, and argues that this is bad news for the GOP, because it makes the race seem "formless and chaotic." He writes: "The nomination is very much worth having. But to grab it, someone is going to have to step forward on the stage to play Ronald Reagan with a script by Karl Rove."

Well, maybe: I suppose it would make Fineman's job easier, at least, if every GOP race followed the same precise and predictable script. But when a party has just endured a crushing rejection at the polls, when its de facto leader has approval ratings in the thirties, and when its brand has never been more unpopular with voters, maybe a little formlessness is preferable to perfect "Ronald Reagan with a script by Karl Rove" order. This is basically why I’ve enjoyed the rise of Huckabee and Paul: Not because I agree with them on an issue-by-issue basis, but because they’re willing to push the envelope a bit, and expand the definition of what a conservative can stand for in ways that I think are ultimately healthy for the party. Paul, for instance, is far too non-interventionist for my taste, but he’s serving a valuable purpose even so, by highlighting – in a field where the front-runners seem to be competing to see who can yell “Islamofascism” the loudest – how cramped the intra-party foreign policy debate has become. Huckabee, similarly, is pushing a variety of bad ideas, but he’s willing to at least address a set of issues – jobs and health care, the environment and inequality – that would otherwise be entirely absent from the debate. Without the two of them, you’d have a field whose ideological spectrum runs from Steven Moore to Grover Norquist on domestic policy, and from Michael Ledeen to Norman Podhoretz on foreign affairs. There would be greater party unity, sure, but sometimes unity’s just another word for self-marginalization. I don’t think Huckabee and Paul are the ideal candidates to jolt the GOP out of its ideological rut, but they’re better than nothing.

Admittedly, all of this assumes that Huckabee doesn’t end up delivering the nomination to Rudy Giuliani (a possibility that seems to be keeping Ramesh up at night), whose own unique blend of envelope-pushing and orthodoxy would create a Republican Party that I would have great difficulty supporting. Which is, of course, the great danger with rooting for a GOP shake-up – you never know whether you’ll like how things actually end up shaking out.