If I lived in South Carolina...
So who would I vote for? Honestly, I don't know the answer. If you put a gun to my head, I'd consider either Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson, but that's due in equal part to their strengths vs. their opponents' weaknesses. Much of my support for both men lies in a line from a recent Townhall.com column by Al Cardenas, in which he talked about the broad-based coalition that brought the Reagan victories of the 1980s:
That coalition rested on a three legged stool, a message that the Republican party would support a strong national defense, a strong economy and strong families.I agree with this assessment, and Romney and Thompson come closest to uniting those three legs of the party.
. . .
Yet today . . . some Republicans are considering junking the Reagan model and experimenting with a different approach. That approach comes down to one word – "electability." "Electability," a quality with little ideological meaning, has become a buzz word for surrogates seeking to make the case for a candidate who fails to unite our party and bring together all Republicans, including social conservatives.
For all my previous concerns about Romney, I've also seen things I like. As an evangelical voter, I have read and considered the idea that I should not consider Romney because of his faith, but I find those arguments short-sighted at best. We are not electing the nation's chaplain, we are electing its president, and I see nothing in Mitt Romney that suggests his faith differs from my own in the things it values in public life.
I also find myself sympathetic to Romney because of the, um, attention he's received over his faith -- attention that no other candidate has experienced. No one insisted that Joe Lieberman explain his Judaism when he ran with Al Gore in 2000. No one has demanded that Barack Obama explain his faith traditions, despite the Muslim influences of his childhood. No one has asked Hillary Clinton to shed light on how her faith might guide her in the Oval Office (and when she's broached the subject, the only thing preventing it from being a disaster is the media's willingness to pretend it didn't hear). Only Mitt Romney has received such demands. Mike Huckabee is catching up in that regard, particularly with requests (which he has refused) for his old sermons; but because his faith is a more mainstream flavor, I still think Romney stands alone in that category.
There is one significant exception to this statement, however. I reject the idea that a person's faith (or lack thereof) cannot be considered as one factor as he (or she) pursues the presidency. I believe that helped sink John Kerry in 2004 -- even though he was a self-proclaimed Catholic, voters of that faith identified better with the values of his opponent.
Perhaps the climate will change in the future, but if a Muslim ran for the presidency, his faith would be a key (and likely campaign-ending) factor in the race. And Americans would have every right (and, I would argue, obligation) to explore how his faith would impact his presidency. And if that is true for a Muslim candidate, it should be true of all faiths. I had been thinking this for a while, and then a few weeks ago on National Review Online, Andy McCarthy put into words what I had been thinking:
Others criticize Romney because of his recent conversion from pro-choice to pro-life. I find this difficult to criticize, as I was radically pro-choice less than 15 years ago. This is not to say Romney doesn't have his problems -- the life issue isn't the only thing he's changed his mind about, which causes some to distrust him. His embrace of the current administration causes hesitation in those who are fed up with Bush's missteps. His economic history has some holes (though some of the criticisms are downright silly, such as this drivel from the Wall Street Journal).
If a Muslim were running for high office, even if (however unlikely this seems) he never mentioned his religion or gave public indications of how he understood its doctrines, I would want to know his interpretation of jihad, and his views about such things as whether his first allegiance was to the Muslim umma or the U.S., whether sharia should be the law of the land, the authority of the governed to depart from Islamic doctrine, whether the Qur'an reflects the immutable word of God, whether Mohammed is the ideal role model, whether all people are equal regardless of gender or religion, etc. I think Islam is sufficiently troublesome, and we have enough experience with its being troublesome, that we are entitled to inquire and take these matters into account regardless of what signals the politician himself sends.
This is not just about Islam. If, say, a Christian presidential candidate believes the creation story as set down in Genesis is literally true, I'd like to know that, I'd like to know why he thinks that, and I'd like to probe what that says about how he regards science, history, epistemology, etc. It doesn't make his belief valid or invalid, but I think I'm entitled to evaluate how (if at all) his reasoning is likely to translate into governing.
There are objective reasons why some religions and some religious beliefs are unconventional. When a politician who wants to be president of the United States adheres to them, I don't see why we should hesitate to ask about what those beliefs are and why he thinks they are sensible. And when a politician holds himself out to be a person of deep religious belief, again I don't see why we should not probe. I don't think that's hostility to religion; I think it's common sense.
Fred Thompson is a tougher nut to crack. Nearly everything I read about him is appealing to me, Thompson's policy positions are similar to mine, yet it's like he's campaigning on Mars and the signal is very weak. I can't figure out if that's because the criticisms of Thompson are accurate (lazy, lacking energy, etc.) or if it's because the media aren't giving him attention due to his unwillingness to play their game. I like that he thumbs his nose at the "establishment," whether that be the political machine or the media, and runs his own show. I like his realistic approach -- if it's meant to be, he will be the candidate -- but I also think back to something my mother used to say: "God can't steer a parked car." Thompson may be destined as the candidate, but sometimes destiny happens in conjunction with busting your butt. I'm just waiting for some indication that Thompson's butt is sore.
That leads me to the other candidates, Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Rudy Guiliani.
Mike Huckabee is the biggest problem for me, for a variety of reasons, but one of my biggest concerns -- believe it or not -- is his faith. Or rather, not his faith, but the way people react to it. This may be a surprise coming from a so-con like me, but my problem is spelled out nicely by a man I respect (but disagree with in this case): Randy Alcorn. The head of Eternal Perspective Ministries wrote (on his personal blog) of his support for Huckabee, but it was based almost entirely on how he makes Alcorn feel: Huckabee is winsome . . . witty . . . self-deprecating . . . authentic. It's clear that Huckabee's faith resonates with Alcorn, and that the candidate's position on life issues put him at the head of the class.
All those things are admirable. But if Candidate A is wrong on enough issues, and if other candidates are similarly committed to the issue most dear to you, it seems ludicrous to base your vote for Candidate A on how he comes across in a TV interview.
Don't get me wrong -- character is huge. A candidate who shares my faith is a big plus. Someone like Rudy Guiliani will not receive my primary election vote due to his position on social issues. But those are not the only reasons for a vote, and I feel like Alcorn typifies voters of faith who check the box next to the good Christian without reasoning through any other issues. My impression of Huckabee is that he seems to have made decisions without a guiding principle. His economic and crime decisions are all over the board, and that's bit him in the rear on his tax history and his decisions to pardon certain crimes.
(To contradict that last statement, however, I sometimes struggle with people who think they have to maintain a predetermined set of principles regardless of the circumstances. Life is not so black and white, and sometimes -- such as in the conflicting Republican values of small government and protection for the unborn -- doing the right thing precludes the use of predetermined principles.)
I like Rudy Guiliani's record on defense & crime, and his economic issues seem relatively sound. Like with Romney (and Huckabee), I take his liberal environment into account on the latter issue. But his social history is atrocious. If he wins the Republican nomination, I will support him because he will be better than his opponent on the issues, and that includes the issue of life -- the unborn have a better shot at protection under Guiliani than with any Democrat.
John McCain has a variety of issues that make it difficult for me to support him in the primary -- primarily the Gang of 14 deal and his votes against the Bush tax cuts -- but his national security credentials are unimpeachable, and I can live with his social positions.
Almost any Republican who wins the party nomination -- I make a definite exception for Alan Keyes, and I'll decide about Ron Paul if the unexpected happens -- will have my support in the general election. But only Romney and Thompson are in a position to get anything from me before then.