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Is the GOP Well Dry for 2008?

No heir to Bush is in sight for the next go-round.

June 06, 2004|Bruce Bartlett | Bruce Bartlett is a Washington-based columnist and senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. He was a policy analyst in the Reagan White House.

In the midst of the 2004 presidential race, it may seem premature to be thinking about 2008. Yet what happens in this year's election will have a profound effect on the next one.

Starting on the Republican side, if George W. Bush wins in November, he immediately becomes a lame duck. So whether Bush wins or loses, the race for the Republican nomination will start the day after election day. Normally, when a president wins a second term, the vice president becomes the automatic front-runner for the nomination. Not this time.

Although Dick Cheney is liked and respected by rank-and-file Republicans, his well-known health problems preclude his being a viable presidential candidate in 2008. Moreover, fairly or unfairly, he has become a lightning rod for critics of the administration's Iraq policy. Unless this occupation turns out unexpectedly well, Republicans are probably going to want a candidate who does not have to carry that baggage.

President Bush has to be aware of all this. So why didn't he make a change this year? He could easily have moved Cheney out of the VP's office and made him a White House counselor. He would still have been nearby for advice but would no longer have been burdened by the responsibilities of being vice president.

More important, opening up the vice presidency would have given Bush the ability to, in effect, name his own successor. Vice presidents of two-term presidents almost always get the presidential nomination when they seek it (think Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore). Bush could have chosen the person he trusted most to carry on his work or who would have had the best chance of winning in 2008.

By retaining Cheney, Bush is passing up a terrific opportunity to pick a successor who might not otherwise have a chance of getting the presidential nomination -- someone, for example, who is not a professional politician. He could have passed the mantle to someone in his Cabinet: Colin Powell, say, or Condoleezza Rice. Instead, the ticket will remain as it was, which means the Republican nomination will be wide open in 2008, with no apparent front-runner.

Truth is, the Republican candidate well is rather dry. There are no Ronald Reagans waiting in the wings for 2008, and the current crop of usual suspects -- governors and senators -- does not inspire much interest.

There is, of course, the governor of Florida: Jeb Bush, the president's brother and the one the Bush family used to consider the most likely of the brood to become president. Under normal circumstances, Jeb might be a viable candidate. He's been a competent governor and is well respected among the Republican base. But the American people have an intrinsic distrust of dynasties, and they just aren't going to elect someone who is both the brother of the current president and the son of another recent president.

A conspiracy theorist might suggest that George W. Bush has deliberately left the 2008 nomination open, failing to designate a successor precisely in order to make his brother a viable candidate. That's possible but improbable. It's more likely that he simply hasn't thought about a successor. Few presidents do. It's a little like contemplating one's own death: No one likes to do it, and so people tend not to -- often with disastrous consequences.

And that's not the end of the GOP's problems in 2008. Another factor is that voters are almost certain to have tired of having the Republican Party in the White House by then. There is a well-known fatigue factor that usually gives the out-of-power party a leg up after one party has been in control of the White House for eight or more years. This helped Bill Clinton a lot in 1992 and would probably help the Democratic nominee in 2008 as well -- even if the Iraq situation is successfully concluded and the economy is booming.

Which brings us to the Democrats. If Bush is reelected this year, the nation's presumed weariness of the Republicans will make the Democratic nomination in 2008 unusually attractive. Moreover, by that time, the party will have been out of the White House long enough that it will be easier to control its extremists and nominate someone who can win.

In Republican circles, it is universally believed that Hillary Clinton wants the Democratic nomination in 2008 and would have a very good chance of winning it. In contrast to her image as a fire-breathing liberal, she has established a moderate record as New York's junior senator. This puts her in a perfect position to run a centrist campaign similar to Bill Clinton's without having to worry too much about flak from her left. Those in that wing of the party won't make life difficult for her: They know she is one of them -- as do the Republicans.

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