One year ago, when voters roundly repudiated Republican representatives and put Nancy Pelosi in the Speakers chair, it was hard to have much optimism about the future of the Grand Old Party. Not only had the G.O.P. been bested on the hustings, but many loyal Republicans thought that this defeat was deserved. The party of Lincoln that had once stood for able integrity didnt seem all that able or all that honest.
Twelve months later, Republicans have more right to be optimistic. The Democrat primaries have become a nasty brawl focused on the politics of identity. The party of Jimmy Carter will nominate a candidate for the worlds most important executive position without significant executive experience. By contrast, the Republican field is led by three extraordinary men who have all had important achievements. Just as importantly, these three candidates are moving the G.O.P forward, creating the hope that the Republican Party will again be associated with freedom, competence, and honor.
Mayor Giuliani, Governor Romney, and Senator McCain differ mainly in their areas of expertise not their policies. Being mayor of New York is surely the second toughest job in American politics. Mr. Giuliani was not merely a good mayor, but a transformational mayor. He deserves credit for the fact that New York was a better and safer place after his eight years in office. He has flaws, like his divisive style and penchant for cronyism, but of all the remaining candidates, only Mr. Giuliani has the proven ability to run a huge, difficult government.
Mr. Romneys private sector achievements was, if not quite as remarkable as Mr. Giulianis mayoralty, a major achievement. He built Bain Capital on the firm ground of his own considerable intellect and his even more important talent for getting the best out of smart people. Mr. Romney was less successful as a Massachusetts governor, but perhaps this tells us more about Bay State politics than the candidate himself.
Mr. Romneys mixed record working with the Massachusetts legislature reminds us that, unlike a chief executive officer, the next president will only succeed by working with Congress. For more than 20 years, John McCain has been a successful senator, leading legislation on aviation security, the line item veto, and campaign finance reform through congress. Like Messrs. Romney and Giuliani, Mr. McCains record is not perfect. Conservatives can reasonably argue that McCain-Feingold excessively regulated political debate. Overall, though, Mr. McCain was more loyal to conservative principles than to party leadership, and he still managed to be a very effective legislator. His executive experience is less recent, but it is hard not to stand in awe of his military record.
These three candidates all offer the American public the prospect of experience and ability, and they offer the prospect of a new course for the Republican Party, which risks falling hostage to a bitter minority held together by an unpopular, angry ideology. Messrs. Giuliani, Romney, and McCain are, instead, not particularly ideological, except if ideology means an attachment to limited government and national honor. At their best, they have each espoused an optimistic, appealing worldview that embraces the rich diversity of American talent.
The change implied by these three candidates explains why they are not always palatable to those who like the G.O.P. as it is. Tom Delay and Grover Norquist dislike Mr. McCain because his party will not be their party, but that is good news for a G.O.P. that badly needs to change. I think Republicans know that. After all, Senator Thompson offered Republicans the comfort food of political continuity, and they bit the spoon.
Ideally, a new Republican party would keep the best parts of the Reagan revolution - a torch for freedom that limits government at home and presses for freedom abroad - but would also embrace new constituencies left cold by Tom DeLay. The environment has become too important to leave up to the environmentalists. It is time for the Republicans to return to Theodore Roosevelt and lead in this area. The party must once again make the case that its economic policies offer the brightest future for middle income Americans. The most important tasks of the next president lie in foreign affairs, but any of the three leading Republicans has a stronger foreign policy than the Democrats. I think that Mr. McCain would do the most to transform the G.O.P. into a party that would appeal to a broader spectrum of Americans. A recent Wall Street Journal poll suggests that while Mr. McCain would beat Senator Clinton, either Mr. Giuliani or Mr. Romney would lose by more than 15 percentage points. Mr. McCain offers the most radical break with the recent Republican past, which explains both why he is disliked by those who look backwards and why he is most likely to create a more robust G.O.P.