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Ever since reading Theodore H. White‘s America in search of itself: The making of the President, 1956-1980, I have considered it the definitive study of the election of 1980. Not only does that celebrated political journalist study the seminal results of that year’s presidential election, but he also looks at its historical context, reviewing the presidential elections for the preceding 24 years, noting particularly the transformation of American politics from 1960-1979.
After my party has decided its presidential nominee for next year’s election, a similarly gifted political journalist may well write a study of the transformation of the Republican Party, The GOP in Search of Itself: The Making of the Republican Presidential Nominee 1988-2008. For it seems that after the incumbent president’s failure to promote (or even articulate) a consistent conservative domestic policy, our party is struggling to find the unifying message it had in the 1980s, occasionally in the 1990s and briefly in the current decade (but then primarily on foreign policy).
While my man Rudy Giuliani has consistently led in the polls for nearly a year, he has never topped 40% and, for the better part of the year, averaged just under 30% of the vote (in the RealClearPolitics average of polls). With former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s recent surge and Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s financial prowess, this race appears quite fluid, with at least six serious candidates (those mentioned and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and Arizona Senator John McCain).
Huckabee can clearly attribute his surge to the “power social conservatives continue to wield in Republican politics.” (Hat tip to John (AverageGayJoe) for alerting me to that article.) While others may see evangelicals as dominating the party, the fact that Huckabee has yet to break 25% in any national poll suggests that they represent no more than a quarter of the party.
The enthusiasm for Ron Paul stems in part from his strong anti-war stand, but I believe his commitment to fiscal discipline has been the primary impetus for his success. People are fed up with the ballooning size of the federal government. And of the candidates, Paul best articulates the vision Ronald Reagan had of a smaller government. That is, despite the domestic policies of the current administration, there still exists a strong voice in the GOP for “less taxation, less regulation, a better economic system.”
From everything I’ve read (e.g., this) about Huckabee, he seems to favor quite the opposite, more taxation, more regulation and more convoluted economic system. The only thing he seems to have in common with Ronald Reagan is the (R) after his name — and the enthusiasm his candidacy generates among evangelicals.
Each of these two (Huckabee and Paul) represents significant constituencies in the GOP. But, neither could unite the party, Paul because his foreign policy is not in tune with that of a supermajority of Republicans while Huckabee’s social conservatism (combined with fiscal liberalism) puts off many suburban voters.
Back in the 1980s, evangelicals were far more libertarian than they are today. They might have rallied to someone like Paul if he had more conservative views on national defense and international relations. (The social conservative shift began with Pat Robertson’s run for the White House in 1988. He may have lost the contest for the Republican nomination, but he did gain an understanding of the political process and an appreciation of how social conservatives could influence the GOP.)
With six serious contenders for the nomination, four of whom have a chance at winning, it seems evident that my party is struggling to find a standard bearer. The continued strength of all six suggests that each has a significant appeal within certain segments of the party, as if they represent that segment’s pitch to be its dominant wing.
No candidate has yet emerged who has united the party’s various constituencies as did Reagan in the 1980s and as George H.W. Bush would do in 1988 when he ran as the Gipper’s heir. And as that latter’s son would do in 2000 with a mixed message (that amorphous term “compassionate conservative”) and in 2004 with a record of leadership in the War on Terror.
The volatility of this race suggests that our party is still looking for a leader and a platform to bring us together after the lack of focus of Bush’s second term. Let us hope that the candidate who leads the pack after “Super Duper Tuesday” can unite the party of Lincoln and Goldwater as Ronald Reagan did now nearly twenty-years ago..
There does seem to be one such man, a successful governor of a large state with strong conservative credentials, but probably because of his last name, he elected not to run in next year’s contest.
While it may appear now that none of the leading GOP candidates can unite the party, we should note that at the outset of the 1980 campaign, many Republicans were wary of the former California Governor. Then-President Carter was supposedly delighted at his nomination, believing him to be easy to beat.
Should our nominee next year succeed as did the Gipper, then not only will the tale of the GOP nomination battle be a story of our party’s search for itself, but also of the nation’s search for itself. And the book written about the various debates currently going on in the GOP will serve as a kind of a sequel to White’s masterpiece.
Should that happen, the debates currently going on in the GOP may well define the political landscape for the next two or three decades. A thought which does offer some comfort as that debate is far more serious than that undertaken by the opposing party.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)
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