NPR logo Shared Nightmare Brings GOP Together

Shared Nightmare Brings GOP Together

Sen. Hillary Clinton greets people attending a presidential forum hosted by the AFL-CIO in Chicago, Aug. 7, 2007. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Hillary Clinton greets people attending a presidential forum hosted by the AFL-CIO in Chicago, Aug. 7, 2007.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Republicans have found the unifying issue they need to rally their party and lift their election chances in 2008 — and it is an issue with a human face.

The face belongs to Hillary Clinton, and the issue is the prospect of her becoming president.

Prominent Republicans, almost across the board, have decided that the junior senator from New York will be the Democratic nominee for the White House a year from now. They put this forward not as a mere prediction but as virtual fait accompli — not whispered in private but trumpeted from the roof tops.

Karl Rove made a major point of this forecast before leaving the White House, and his old boss the president has since taken up the refrain. So have the major Republican candidates to succeed him, and the vast majority of conservative opinion makers as well.

More than the war on terror, more than tax cuts and traditional values, stopping Hillary is the most effective means of energizing the GOP right now. Not even the evils of abortion, gay marriage and illegal immigration can whip up the same frenzy as a mention of the woman who was once first lady.

This is an unusual state of affairs for both parties. Democrats are renowned for their fractiousness, reveling in their range of choices and refusing to get in line. Even some of their incumbent presidents (Truman, Johnson, Carter) have had to deal with serious intraparty challenges to renomination that hastened the end of their careers.

When Republicans have held the White House, they have been loath to dignify the field of Democratic wannabes at this stage of the game. They are usually too busy enjoying the contrast between their own orderly hierarchy and the Democrats' disarray.

But in this cycle, it's the Republicans who seem farther away from consensus with every month (and with every decline in early leader Rudy Giuliani's polls).

So it makes sense for the GOP to talk about Hillary rather than dwell on its own dilemma. But that is only one reason her name is so often on Republican lips.

The Hillary presumption also serves to diminish her intraparty rivals, some of whom might pose greater problems to Republicans in the 2008 general election. It serves the GOP game plan to keep the rest of the Democratic field mired in the mud as also-rans until Hillary is too far ahead to catch.

But first and foremost, the shibboleth of another Clinton presidency is a marvelous tool of Republican Party discipline. As soon as disgruntled conservatives start talking of a third-party option, someone emerges to say such a schism would elect the Democrat, and that means Hillary.

This conjures the specter of Hillary in the Oval Office, filling cabinet posts and judgeships with radicals and feminists and secularists. This is what is called a takeout, an argument to which there simply is no rebuttal.

We saw all this play out this week after several leaders of the "religious right" movement met in Utah to talk strategy for 2008. It was soon clear that these men had not found a candidate in the current GOP field, including late-starter Fred Thompson, the actor and former senator some regard as Ronald Reagan redux.

The comparison has yet to become compelling. Thompson does not inspire the same faith Reagan did among the faithful. He is too much his own man, too heterodox and unpredictable. That may endear him to some, but not to those who believe it's their mission to steer the Christian conservative vote.

If Thompson so far has left something to be desired, the other candidates in the GOP field have also fallen short of the glory — and they continue to do so. Putative frontrunner Rudy Giuliani is the most obvious apostate. His past approval of abortion rights, same-sex unions and gun control put him at odds with the party's most committed activists.

But much of the movement right remains just as suspicious of John McCain and remarkably uneasy with Mitt Romney, the latter in part because he is a Mormon.

Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, is surely the closest in theology to the wing of the party led by the various "F groups:" James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Paul Weyrich (Free Congress Foundation) and Tony Perkins (Family Research Council). But Huckabee, for all his country charm and rhetorical skill, has shown neither the fundraising nor field organizing chops required at this level.

So Christian conservatives salute and move on, still searching for a winner. Sooner or later, they will have to pick a horse or agree to sit this one out. The same is true for the party in general.

But for now, it is far easier and more satisfying to shift attention away from the GOP primary chase and onto the Democrats' choice. When all else fails to rally Republican warriors to the battle, Hillary still can.