Webster’s defines a “dilemma” as
“a situation involving an undesirable or unpleasant choice.”
Given that definition, the GOP may want to reconsider changing its name to the “Grand Dilemma Party.” The reasons can be found in what can only be described as the tepid response the party’s rank-and-file have demonstrated towards the party’s Presidential aspirants.
Much column space has been devoted to the vagaries of the Republican Presidential Primary season. The topsy-turvy nature of polls; the fact no candidate can seem to muster more than 40% of the electorate for longer than a week; the inability of any candidate to sustain momentum. The commentariat is busy trying to fit round pegs into square holes, though. They’ve completely missed the boat on what’s actually happening this year, having spent the majority of their professional lives ensconced in the daily trivialities of DC politics.
The narrative thus far runs something like this: there is a natural back-lash against establishment candidates, as represented most wholly by Mitt Romney. Each time a new “anti-Romney” rises (currently, that’s back to Rick Santorum) the electorate looks more closely at said candidate and decides he’s a bit too establishment for their tastes. The anti-Romney of the moment fades back, allowing Romney to capture a few states. The cycle then renews, but in the end the establishment candidate (Romney) wins because he will have the backing of the party machinery. The general GOP membership is resigned to this outcome, even if they aren’t happy about it, and so they’re largely staying home this cycle.
I think something more fundamental is at work within the party. To understand it, you have to return to 1980 and Ronald Reagan’s shock win over Jimmy Carter. (Yes, despite Carter’s bungling of the job, nobody really gave Reagan a legitimate chance of winning that November). Reagan’s magic was in forging a new Republican coalition. He began with the limited government Goldwater wing, mixed in the once strongly Democratic constituency of social conservatives from the Bible Belt, added in the anti-communist/strong defense types (who had fled the Republicans after Nixon’s pursuit of détente) and completed the soup with the Rockefeller Republicans. Most seem to forget now, but Reagan spoke often about his pursuit of a Republican Party “Big Tent” approach – the idea of bringing disparate groups together to work towards a common goal. In 1980, that goal was reinvigorating the American economy through (then radical) changes to monetary and fiscal policy, reducing the size of government while increasing America’s defense capabilities, reasserting American dominance in foreign affairs and direct confrontation with Communism and bringing back the traditional American themes of faith, family and hard work. The new groups in his coalition were referred to as “Reagan Democrats.” These were the people, generally blue-collar types from the South and Midwest, who President Obama derided during the 2008 election as “clinging to their guns and Bibles.”
The dilemma facing the Republican Party is that coalition is fracturing. The former Reagan Democrats and Goldwater Republicans that formed the backbone of that coalition are looking at their choices and felling less than satisfied. Moreover, they sense the Party has moved past them. There are either Rockefeller types (Romney and Gingrich) or aspirants to Jerry Falwell’s throne (Santorum), while the one candidate who hews closest Goldwater’s federalist view is also the one who is the antithesis of a strong US on the world stage (Paul). This leaves those two groups, who desperately want a return to the type of leadership exhibited by President Reagan, without a horse in the race. The result is each candidate has partially captured one constituency, but their individual flaws prevent them from fully claiming it. Romney has the Rockefeller wing for the most part, but it is a small part of the party base (in terms of numbers, not money). Santorum has the inside edge among Reagan Democrats (note his success in the Midwest); although his extreme views on using government to coerce, or even force, his moral code leaves many cold. Paul has captured perhaps half of the Goldwater wing, but his personal character issues and documented degradation of minorities limits his success there.
Can they recapture the coalition? They managed to pull things together enough to get George W. Bush elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004. They lost a fair number of the small –government types, as was represented by the suppressed turn-out numbers in both years: neither party was putting forward a candidate that met that constituency’s desired goal, although both have been paying lip-service to that goal for 15 years now. The fact that constituency voted en masse for Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 undoubtedly cost the Republican Party the Presidency in both of those elections. But unlike 1992 or 1996, there isn’t a strong 3rd Party candidate who is advocating both a federalist view of government and strong foreign policy, and unlike 1980, there isn’t a defining vision of the future allocuted by any of the candidates to rally the disparate groups within the tent. That would seem to kick in the Republican electoral formula from 2000 – run a social conservative/Rockefeller hybrid and allow suppressed turn-out to allow him to win. The problem is this year, that ploy may not work. For starters, the Goldwater wing is particularly resurgent this cycle. Consider how the TEA Party, which is largely comprised of Goldwater types, pushed the Party into power in the 112th Congress and that Paul is polling at better than twice his career norms (this is his third try for the Republican nomination).
While the Rockefeller and social conservatives will likely unite behind either Romney or Santorum come the convention, they currently run the risk of alienating as much as 40% of the party’s base with such a decision. If they do, President Obama will win a tough election in November – and the Republican Party as we’ve known it for 32 years will cease to exist. What will be interesting to watch is what takes it place. Will there be three major political parties, the Democrats (absorbing what’s left of the Rockefeller wing), the Social Conservatives and the Fiscal Conservatives? Or will the big-spending social conservative and Rockefeller wing end up absorbed in the current Democratic Party, while the Republicans re-align around federalists principles? And can the current Democratic constituency accept the social conservatives again? After all, the reason Reagan was able to capture them in the first place was that the Democratic Party began purging them during Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. Regardless, the outcome of this year’s Presidential election promises more change than perhaps anyone bargained for.