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Dec 12, 2007 6:51 pm

The “Margarine” Republicans of 2008

So far, the 2008 election campaign has produced contrasting dynamics on the Republican and Democratic sides. Many of the leading Republicans are “margarine” Republicans. The term comes from Josef Stalin’s contemptuous characterization of Mao as a “margarine Communist,” because to Stalin and others with agrarian sensibilities, “margarine” was fake, butter was real. Much of the debate has centered on “just who is the most authentic Republican?” By contrast, even many Democratic candidates who have barely registered in the polls are bona fide “red-meat” partisans. Few question the loyalty of Senator Chris Dodd or Senator Joe Biden or Governor Bill Richardson. All are party stalwarts despite their failure to gain traction in the race so far.

The Margarine Republicans include: Rudy Giuliani, whose positions on abortion and gay rights are far to the party’s left; Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism, unfortunately, makes him suspect in the eyes of too many evangelicals, and who also took unconventional stands as governor of what is sometimes called “The People’s Republic of Massachusetts”; and John McCain, who built a national reputation on his iconoclasm. Fred Thompson’s pre-September surge and Mike Huckabee’s recent popularity reflect Republicans’ search for a candidate they perceive as more authentic.

This question of party suitability and loyalty is an old one. Before the Civil War, a “doughface” was someone who twisted his words on the slavery issue depending on whether he was facing north or south. In 1896, the New York Democratic Party boss David Hill expressed his discomfort with the nominee William Jennings Bryan by saying “I am a Democrat still, very still.”

The contrasting stances of the candidates vis a vis their parties reflect the parties’ relative strengths going into the campaign. The Democrats are feeling confident while Republicans are reeling from the 2006 midterm election losses and from George W. Bush’s continuing unpopularity. Even as the candidates insist on their support of Bush and the broader Reagan Revolution agenda, most try to avoid cozying up too close to Bush. Many fear that the Republicans are out of synch with the nation on many social questions.

Predictions at this stage are poppycock. But while Republicans have to worry about the weaknesses all this iconoclasm reveals, it could redound to their benefit. Despite what Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd preached in 2004, elections are won in the center. Given the backlash against George W. Bush’s partisanship, a Margarine Republican may be the best chance Republicans have to continue dining in the White House Mess with the presidential seal carved into the very real and very rich butter balls.

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