John Heilemann has an article in New York magazine about the 2012 Republican primary, which is undoubtedly the strangest leadup to any presidential election I’ve seen in my lifetime. He writes:
That Mitt Romney finds himself so imperiled by Rick Santorum—Rick Santorum!—is just the latest in a series of jaw-dropping developments in what has been the most volatile, unpredictable, and just plain wackadoodle Republican-nomination contest ever. Part of the explanation lies in Romney’s lameness as a candidate, in Santorum’s strength, and in the sudden efflorescence of social issues in what was supposed to be an all-economy-all-the-time affair. But even more important have been the seismic changes within the Republican Party. “Compared to 2008, all the candidates are way to the right of John McCain,” says longtime conservative activist Jeff Bell. “The fact that Romney is running with basically the same views as then but is seen as too moderate tells you that the base has moved rightward and doesn’t simply want a conservative candidate—it wants a very conservative one.”
The transfiguration of the GOP isn’t only about ideology, however. It is also about demography and temperament, as the party has grown whiter, less well schooled, more blue-collar, and more hair-curlingly populist. The result has been a party divided along the lines of culture and class: Establishment versus grassroots, secular versus religious, upscale versus downscale, highfalutin versus hoi polloi. And with those divisions have arisen the competing electoral coalitions—shirts versus skins, regulars versus red-hots—represented by Romney and Santorum, which are now increasingly likely to duke it out all spring.
Few Republicans greet that prospect sanguinely, though some argue that it will do little to hamper the party’s capacity to defeat Obama in the fall. “It’s reminiscent of the contest between Obama and Clinton,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently opined. “[That] didn’t seem to have done [Democrats] any harm in the general election, and I don’t think this contest is going to do us any harm, either.”
Yet the Democratic tussle in 2008, which featured two undisputed heavyweights with few ideological discrepancies between them, may be an exception that proves the rule. Certainly Republican history suggests as much: Think of 1964 and the scrap between the forces aligned with Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, or 1976, between backers of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. On both occasions, the result was identical: a party disunited, a nominee debilitated, a general election down the crapper.
With such precedents in mind, many Republicans are already looking past 2012. If either Romney or Santorum gains the nomination and then falls before Obama, flubbing an election that just months ago seemed eminently winnable, it will unleash a GOP apocalypse on November 7—followed by an epic struggle between the regulars and red-hots to refashion the party. And make no mistake: A loss is what the GOP’s political class now expects. “Six months before this thing got going, every Republican I know was saying, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna beat Obama,’ ” says former Reagan strategist Ed Rollins. “Now even those who’ve endorsed Romney say, ‘My God, what a fucking mess.’ ”
But this may go far beyond the usual give and take of primary politics. One thing that has been obvious during this, the strangest of all primary seasons, is that the Republican party is deeply divided, and in more ways than just between the moderates and the hardliners. Forget about Newt Gingrich; though he likes to portray himself as the real conservative ideas man, his campaign is a personal mercenary mission that is entirely disconnected from actual ideas. But the other three remaining candidates show the three strains of Republican thought in stark relief.
To the extent that Mitt Romney represents anything other than his own ambition, he could be said to embody, to some small degree, the old-fashioned pragmatic conservatism of Russell Kirk or Edmund Burke — conservatism as more of a temperament than a set of bold principles (or even catchphrases, the closest thing Republicans have to principles these days). He prefers slow, deliberate change and political compromise over unshakable faith in a set of ideas.
Rick Santorum represents the religious right or, if you prefer, the theocons. And he is absolutely sincere about it. Where Romney comes across as fake and disingenuous when discussing social issues like gay rights and abortion, Santorum comes across as a true believer. Because that’s what he is. He’s a culture warrior through and through and he speaks the Christian right’s preferred language of faux persecution and grievance at their loss of privilege and power to regulate the lives of others.
Ron Paul represents both the libertarian and paleo-conservative wings of conservatism. He’s the one with ideas that clearly don’t fit in the mainstream of either party. The two major parties are full-scale employed in the service of American empire and military projection, while Paul wants us to withdraw our military from the rest of the world and stop intervening in other countries (for the record, I agree with him). And while both parties are also all-in for the vast expansion of executive authority, the bill of rights be damned, Paul stands alone in demanding an end to torture, warrantless wiretaps and the whole artifice of unconstrained power built by President Bush and dutifully maintained — even expanded — by President Obama. The fact that his message is resonating with about 25% of Republican voters reveals a serious pocket of people who want to end this bipartisan consensus in favor of more wars and more government intrusion into our private lives.
Where the Republican party goes from here is a mystery. When I interviewed Fred Karger on my radio show recently, we talked about the demographic realities facing the GOP. The anti-gay stuff just isn’t playing as well as it used to, and as older voters die off and are replaced by younger voters who lack the bigotry of earlier generations, it’s going to start backfiring on them. The same is true on immigration, where the growing Latino population will soon make it politically impossible to maintain the strident anti-immigration positions being taken today.
This is inevitable in party politics, of course. As public opinion shifts, so do the positions of political parties. But are these divisions so deep that the GOP can’t pull off that shift? Possibly, but I doubt it. Parties have come and gone in the past, but never before have the two major parties been so deeply ingrained in the nation’s legal and financial structures. The Republican and Democratic parties have massive advantages in terms of election law and huge constituencies that make them far more likely to evolve than to go extinct.
The wildcard in all of this is the Christian right. While the party professionals may see the need to evolve away from theocon positions to try to appeal to younger voters, the religious right is not going to give up its influence over the party without a fight — and it’s not going to agree to shut up to remain part of the coalition. That’s the thing about true believers — your “purity” isn’t the only thing they demand, they demand it from the political party as well. So while I don’t think the GOP is going anywhere any time soon, I do think there’s a real possibility that religious right voters will increasingly seek out third parties.