Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Splintering of the GOP

Since the end of the Cold War, the GOP coalition of evangelicals, neo-conservative hawks, Wall Street Republicans, old Right paleocons, and libertarians has become increasingly fragile, to the point that I think that coalition is on the verge of a significant break-up/reformation. Two articles on Town Hall this morning by Tony Blankley and Paul Edwards typify the fragility of the coalition. Unfortunately, they both fail to realize that the coalition is probably untenable without an unforeseen shift in American political priorities (though Blankley comes close).

First, Tony Blankley gives a brief history of the GOP coalition, describing how it came to include libertarians, hawks, and evangelicals under Reagan, and seeking to predict what must happen to that coalition in the next decade. Blankley's column is quite excellent, though I have some significant points of disagreement with him. But his bottom line is that the Democratic Party's lack of focus on so-called "moral issues," combined with relative economic prosperity, allowed evangelical New Deal Democrats to switch parties. In other words, economic populism became less important to evangelicals in the post-WWII period, allowing moral issues to predominate amongst that particular group. Since the GOP was better on moral issues than the Dems, the evangelicals switched sides. Now that the Cold War is over, and the Clinton-era economic boom a thing of the past, economic populism on issues ranging from free trade to immigration has become vastly more important to evangelicals. At the same time, evangelicals have become increasingly important to electing GOP candidates. Blankley thus suggests that in order for the right-of-center GOP coalition to remain intact, it will need to give up some of its free-trade ground, or else risk losing the evangelicals. He also points out that, at the same time, the GOP will need to appeal to immigrants in large enough numbers to secure 40% of the Latino vote. Blankley hints- though does not say outright - that this all makes Huckabee an important voice in maintaining and broadening the GOP coalition.

Also today, Paul Edwards takes a look at the Huckabee movement and sees the evangelicals finally standing up for themselves within the GOP and demanding that moral issues no longer take a back seat to so-called fiscal conservatism. Money paragraph:

The Republican establishment has looked down its nose at social conservatives far too long, tolerating us because they need our votes. But now the tables are turned. The grass roots are looking up at the establishment with the will of a Lech Walesa, demanding that fiscal issues take a back seat to moral issues for a change. It’s long past time for the moral and social issues of our times to be given more than just lip service. It’s now time for our fiscal policies to be informed by our social policies rather than sacrificing our morality to our economic standing in the world.

In many ways, it is easy to see Edwards' point on this. Religious conservatives have been taken for granted by the GOP for years. For awhile, I imagine that this was acceptable to them, as the GOP emphasized goals with which religious conservatives had sympathy: fighting the "godless" communist Soviets, allowing private organizations - including religious organizations - greater leeway, and pushing for easier access to private education, including religious education. Every so often, the GOP would even throw them a bone on things like gay marriage. But the establishment's push for Romney and Giuliani this time around was a last straw; there was little in either of their records to suggest a common interest with evangelicals. And so, the evangelicals are revolting, first by floating the possibility of a third party run, and now by their passionate support of Huckabee. What Edwards is essentially saying is: it's our turn to lead the party, and if you don't like it, then we'll just leave the party altogether.

While both of these columns are worthwhile reads from the perspective of an interest group politics wonk like me, I think they both miss an important point. That point is that the GOP coalition has become largely untenable. There are increasingly few areas of agreement amongst the GOP interest groups. Indeed, where the 1994 Contract with America was predicated on issues upon which nearly all Republicans agreed, it is difficult to find any such issues today.

Edwards argues that it is time for social conservatism to take precedence over fiscal conservatism. What he doesn't seem to realize is the reason fiscal conservatism has usually taken center stage: it was the one area where Republican interest groups were usually able to agree. While libertarians were concerned about far more than just fiscal issues, fiscal conservatism is closely aligned with libertarian economic policy; while Wall Street Republicans care almost entirely about support for business, this usually (not always) involved fiscally conservative policies like lower taxes and deregulation; while neo-cons were concerned largely about exporting American ideals, this usually required fiscal conservatism domestically; and while evangelicals were primarily concerned with "morals" issues, this often involved getting rid of federal spending on "immoral" activities while allowing free market capitalism to stand in stark contrast to godless Communism.

Now, however, fiscal conservatism has diminished in importance to each of those interest groups for a variety of reasons. For evangelicals, fiscal liberalism has arguably even become the order of the day as the reasons for supporting fiscal conservatism have largely fallen by the wayside with the end of the Cold War and the remarkable fiscal conservatism of the despised Clinton Administration. Moreover, as McCain often points out, Republicans have lost credibility on the issue with their recent penchant for earmarks and expanding government programs, and a host of other things. No longer is fiscal conservatism a unifying issue for Republican interest groups.

What this means is that the single unifying issue of the GOP coalition has ceased to be a point of real agreement or importance. Without that unifying issue, libertarians and paleo-conservatives now have virtually no areas of agreement with evangelical conservatives...and all this says nothing about the way in which so-called "moderates" have been pushed out of the party. This has forced the rest of the GOP coalition to try to appease several groups who have nothing in common; on every issue, the GOP is going to enfuriate one, two, or in some cases all three.

The way I see it, there are three possible outcomes to this split, which involves at least a quarter, and maybe up to a half, of traditional Republicans:

1. Libertarians, "moderates," and/or evangelicals make a third party push within the coming years. Right now, it is easy to see the moderates jumping on the Bloomberg bandwagon (assuming he runs), and no one would be surprised if Ron Paul makes a high-profile third party run to go after the libertarian(ish) vote. If Huckabee falters, the threat of an evangelical third party run remains out there.

2. At least one, and possibly two of those three groups move over to the Democratic Party next year, creating the worst performance by a major party Presidential candidate in recent memory. For more than one group to switch over to the Dem side, Obama would need to be the nominee, as it is impossible to see libertarians or evangelicals supporting Hillary, and it is impossible to see libertarians or moderates supporting Edwards.

3. The Republican coalition is held together. This scenario is imaginable only if McCain wins the nomination and nominates Huckabee (or another prominent evangelical) as his VP candidate. McCain appeals beautifully to moderates and is at least tolerable to enough (though perhaps not most) libertarians to keep them in the fold, especially if Hillary or Edwards are the alternative; if his full record were properly represented, I also suspect he'd be quite acceptable to evangelicals, especially with Huckabee on his ticket. I might add that Huckabee seems to have a tremendous personal respect for McCain. This might result in Tancredo's head spinning like Linda Blair's and even a third party anti-immigrant run, but on the whole, I think it keeps the GOP coalition together for at least another election cycle, longer if they manage to win.

I think scenario one is most likely, and may even be almost certain, at least with respect to the likelihood of a Bloomberg candidacy removing moderates from the GOP fold in the short run or a Paul candidacy removing libertarians from the GOP fold, perhaps for quite awhile. I also would not be surprised by a combination of scenarios one and two if Obama is the Dem nominee.

Scenario three is obviously a longshot since it requires that: 1. McCain wins the nomination (at best a 3:1 proposition), 2. He nominates Huckabee or a prominent evangelical as VP, and 3. Republican voters overlook the immigration issue because the Dem nominee is equally moderate on that point. It would also help a lot if there is no Paul or Bloomberg third party run, perhaps a 50-50 proposition if McCain gets the nomination (I don't think Bloomberg wants to run against McCain, but Paul is a wild card no matter who gets the nomination).