While the country bears its way through the final chapter of George W. Bush's presidency, the Republican Party is struggling with a related dilemma: how to find another George W. Bush. It may seem silly that the GOP is looking for a replica of a man with a 30 percent approval rating, but this is exactly what is happening.
Of course, they don't want the 2007 model W -- the post-Hurricane Katrina and civil war in Iraq version. They want vintage 2000 W -- a man adherent to the religious right's social views, yet blessed with enough "regular guy" appeal for the political center. In two successive elections, Bush completely dominated the growing evangelical vote without alienating centrist voters. Bush built a unique political coalition that may never again be duplicated, and he has left his party scrambling for a candidate with similar potential. The problem is, this candidate doesn't exist.
Although there are ten Republicans running to succeed Bush, the latest CBS News/New York Times poll shows a meager 38 percent of Republicans are satisfied with their choices. None of the leading contenders - "Rudy McRomney," - as candidate Jim Gilmore calls them, have much support from religious conservatives, and this is seen as a major roadblock to any of them winning the nomination. Yet Gilmore and the other social conservatives in the race have made little headway and are generally considered unelectable.
Many observers are still expecting that an electable, evangelical-approved candidate will emerge -- someone more conservative than Rudy McRomney but not as far out on the fringe as the other candidates. Those waiting for such a candidate shouldn't hold their breath.
The fruitless search for a successor to W is not a new development. Since Bush took office in 2001, several men have temporarily held the title of next great conservative hope, yet no one has held on to it for very long. Rick Santorum was once touted as the next presidential candidate of the religious right, but Americans found him way too creepy and Pennsylvania voters booted him from the Senate. Then there was Bill Frist, who quickly rose to Senate Majority Leader and just as quickly proved his irrelevance. There was also George Allen, whose presidential prospects unraveled the most dramatically when even voters in red state Virginia didn't want him in Washington anymore. One after another, W's would-be successors have burned out. The void in the Republican primary is so gaping that a large segment of the party has pinned their hopes on TV actor Fred Thompson, over-hyping the former Senator to ridiculous proportions, despite the fact that most Americans don't even know who he is.
Those waiting for an electable, evangelical-approved candidate to materialize fail to realize how unique Bush's political skills are (or were, at one point). Bush's ability to convince religious fundamentalists he was one of them, yet appear acceptable to centrist voters was an unprecedented feat. An unlikely feat too, when you consider the very positions that allowed him to win a whopping 79 percent of the evangelical vote -- complete opposition to abortion rights, intolerance of gay rights, denial of evolution and refusal to support stem cell research -- are not values shared by a majority of Americans.
How Bush was able to do this is subject to plenty of debate. Believers say his background as a born-again Christian and reformed drinker made him uniquely able to play this role. Critics claim he panders to the fundamentalist crowd for political purposes and doesn't truly care about these social issues. As John Heilemann points out in New York magazine, one thing is clear: It is doubtful that any Republican nominee will ever again so fully dominate the evangelical vote. In due time, the religious right may appreciate their influence during the Bush presidency more than they already do, as it becomes clear they can't possibly find another W.
As much as it may pain liberals to admit it, Bush was a politically gifted, one-of-a-kind candidate. The good news is, Bush isn't running again, and his replica is not about to materialize.