Talk to a typical Democrat these days, and-in spite of the daily dust-ups between Hillary and Barack-you'll find a good bit of satisfaction. "Why not?" one lifelong Democrat asked me last week. "When we've got two candidates, both attracting record crowds and record primary votes, and we could win with either one of them, why shouldn't we be excited?"
The Republicans I know aren't nearly as chipper. Their candidate is already locked in-but that's a fact that most loyalists are more frustrated by and resigned to than excited about. I just spent a weekend with a few hundred such folks, and although most of them aren't Presbyterians or Calvinists, they still act like them in the sense that they're pessimistically hunkering down for the dark grimness that seems to have been predestined for election year 2008.
That GOP gloom is apparently not so deep that it's going to drive great numbers of conservative Republicans off to vote for some third-party candidate-although that's not unthinkable if John McCain picks the wrong person to run as his vice-presidential candidate, or if he doesn't tune his tin ear a bit toward the conservative wing of his party. What's much more likely is that this substantial bloc of proven and productive activists will become singularly and silently inactive over the next eight months, sullenly watching McCain & Co. go down to defeat.
Yet only part of the GOP conservative ire is directed at their party's new standard-bearer. (After listening politely to Sen. McCain last week, the group I was with seemed to split down the middle between grudging acceptance and suspicious anger; anything approaching enthusiasm was nowhere to be found.) The frustration I sensed was aimed just as much in two other directions.
First, at the leadership of the so-called religious right. Why, I heard people ask again and again, had the leaders not led? Why, if they had as much influence as everyone supposed they did, had they brought us still one more time to the point where everyone had to rehash the rights and the wrongs of voting for "the lesser of two evils"? How could so many prominent evangelical leaders have assured everyone so early in the game that trusting a position-changing Mormon candidate was just fine? Why hadn't backers of Mike Huckabee done a more thorough job of building early support among a network of credible national spokesmen? Why had the leadership splintered so badly, siphoning off critical support for non-starters like Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and even Rudy Giuliani?
I have no doubt the leaders of the religious right will be unified in their opposition to this fall's Democratic candidate. I have grave doubts whether those same leaders will any time soon be able to offer credible credentials for positive endorsements of almost any kind.
But if Christian conservative activists were ticked off at their leaders, I was struck at the very same time how upset those same activists were with themselves. I heard the same question again and again: "Why can't we do any better than this?"
It's a critical question. Why do we keep getting ourselves in this fix again and again? With all our resources, why can't we fill the pipeline with positive possibilities instead of the perpetual lesser of so many evils? The group I was with last week took half an hour to celebrate the life of the late William F. Buckley Jr. Is it an ironic footnote of his great contribution to American culture that the conservative movement he founded has no true candidate to offer in the year of Buckley's death?
If there was a lively, upbeat moment for this recent gathering, it was a rousing address from Bobby Jindal, the brand new Republican governor of Louisiana. Jindal has no trouble fusing the disciplined fiscal policy, the family values, and the tough foreign policy that have constituted what is called Reagan Republicanism. If he can live up to his promise in setting disaster- and scandal-ridden Louisiana on a better course, he could well become a Ronald Reagan of the future.
But if the best the GOP can do right now-or the best Christian leaders within the GOP can do-is to sit wringing their hands and waiting for some future lightning to strike, then maybe conservatives deserve the comeuppance that right now they seem headed for.
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