The first watchword for this campaign season was change. Then came comeback. At some point, however, the political parties will have to start thinking about the consequences of their choices.
Democrats would seem to have a more formidable consequential challenge. In a contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the party will be nominating either the nation's first African American or first woman candidate for president from a major political party.
Some liberals mired in identity politics fret about the prospects of either one facing a putatively racist and sexist populace. But as the early results suggest, that's really no challenge at all.
Record numbers of voters turned out to caucus and cast ballots for Obama and Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. The states are among the whitest, with 2.5 percent and 1 percent African American populations respectively, according to the 2000 Census, versus 12.9 percent nationally. And women have no less influence in the rest of the nation than they do in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The far more interesting consequential battle will take place on the GOP side. Four of the five leading candidates pose some sort of threat to the Reagan coalition the merging of social, fiscal and national security conservatives that has produced three decades of Republican electoral success.
Those labels are somewhat misleading. Few people are single-issue voters. But everyone has a hierarchy of values. The challenge for Republicans is to find a candidate who can generate support in the general election yet who also doesn't pull up the stakes on big-tent conservatism.
Rudy Giuliani and, to a lesser extent, John McCain give social conservatives the willies because of their positions on abortion, gays and embryonic stem cell research. They get their strongest support from national security conservatives.
Mitt Romney has the big business, tax cutting and budget balancing résumé that fiscal conservatives love. However, he lacks the foreign policy credentials that national security conservatives want. And his chameleon-like ability to assume new positions and his just-off-the-yacht air raise doubts among all three conservative groups.
Fred Thompson is tolerably within the limits of the big tent, but his lackluster campaign hasn't inspired supporters.
And then there's Mike Huckabee. You might think that recent experience would nullify the presidential candidacy of a southern governor, especially one from Hope, Ark. But there's something genuinely authentic and appealing about the plainspoken, guitar-playing preacher.
That ineffable "something" counts for a lot in politics. And social conservatives understandably love a candidate who speaks their language. But the consequence of selecting Huckabee as the GOP nominee is the likely break-up of the Reagan coalition.
The problem is not only that his foreign policy gaffes compelled a senior aide to tell CNN that his candidate has "no foreign policy credentials," not only that his populist rhetoric on economic issues is barely distinguishable from that of John Edwards and not only that fiscal conservatives deplore his big-government and tax-friendly inclinations.
The biggest problem is that Huckabee seems content with seeing the big conservative tent fold. In fact, if you believe Huckabee's campaign manager, the Reagan coalition left town a long time ago.
"It's gone," Ed Rollins, a former Reagan advisor, told the New York Times. "The break-up of what was the Reagan coalition social conservatives, defense conservatives, antitax conservatives it doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore. It is a time for a whole new coalition."
It's telling that Rollins, who's as sharp a political tack as you'll find, hasn't elaborated what that new coalition might be.
And even though 2008 is likely to be a punishing year for Republicans, until Rollins or someone else plausibly does so, conservative voters might want to think twice about abandoning a coalition that has won five of the last seven presidential elections and in 1994 put Republicans in control of Congress for the first time in four decades.