One of the memes that’s taken hold during this year’s Republican primary contest is the punditry’s inability to grasp the reason that, despite a seemingly overwhelming desire among the rank-and-file voters NOT to elect Mitt Romney, they haven’t been able to agree on who their standard bearer should be. The answer isn’t so difficult to understand, once one understands that the term “conservative” has been used in an overarching manner to describe competing entities within the Republican Party.
The Republican coalition actually consists of four disparate “movements.” The first is the establishment or business conservative. This movement is primarily concerned with the ways government and business interact; in particular, ensuring that business is unencumbered and assisted. They prefer low taxes and few regulations, yet also want to government to maintain the social contract (thereby absolving them of the need to provide medical care, education or pensions for their employees). There are the fiscal conservatives, whose principle concern is the financial health of the nation. This group places great emphasis on balanced budgets, reducing public debt and ending wasteful government spending. There are social conservatives, who are primarily concerned with maintaining a “traditional” society based on Judeo-Christian principles. For these people, government should not shun its power, but rather use it to enforce a social contract that preserves traditional values. Finally, there are the libertarians, who espouse a reduction of government responsibility in all arenas of public life.
There are moments of overlap between each group, of course. For instance, fiscal and establishment conservatives, along with libertarians agree on the principle of a government that lives within its means. Social conservatives and libertarians share disapproval of foreign trade agreements. Establishment and social conservatives both espouse a “big” government view of government’s role in personal decisions. But each group maintains positions that are not easily reconciled: the social and establishment consensus about the role of government is diametrically opposed to the libertarian view, while the costs associated are anathema to fiscal conservatives. Libertarian foreign policy is poison to the world view of the other three movements. The establishment view of immigration is 180 degrees removed from that of social conservatives.
These competing forces have been on full display during this campaign. Each group has its champion, though the candidates have done an admirable job to blur the lines whenever possible. On the establishment front are Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry. Each candidate is undeniably pro-business in their outlook, although each has also made attempts at representing themselves as the fiscally conservative candidate (the reality is, none exactly has a record of fiscal certitude). Social conservative candidates are led by Rick Santorum and (until a few days ago) Michelle Bachmann. Perry has also made a bid for these voters, though his record has left many suspicious. All of the candidates are attempting to make a case of fiscal conservatism – some are sublimely ridiculous (Santorum) in that assertion. Herman Cain, while he was in the race, had the strongest position among fiscal conservatives. Ron Paul, of course, is the standard bearer for the libertarian caucus.
So, the fact that Republicans haven’t been able to rally behind a single candidate shouldn’t be a surprise. The party is trying to sort itself out as to what particular flavor of conservatism will dominate the convention. Until Republicans have settled that debate, unifying behind one candidate will be impossible. The big question for Republicans is whether they will be to unify such disparate movements. The last Presidential candidate who succeeded in doing so was Ronald Reagan – and that really didn’t happen until his re-election bid in 1984. (Party members tend to forget that in 1976 and 1980, establishment conservatives wanted anyone but Reagan). Can any in the current field do so again? Let me know your thoughts below.