Political parties exist for a reason, and it’s a pretty simple one: to implement the policies their voters prefer. It’s a pretty straightforward deal. The voters pick the candidates that best embody their policy preferences, and the candidate, if elected, implements those policies. It works most of the time.
But not always. Parties sometimes go astray for an election cycle or two. Generally, they are pulled back into line by the voters. But, once in a great while, a political party simply fails. The most recent failure of a major political party in the United States was that of the Whigs in the 1850s, when the issue of slavery so divided the northern and southern factions of the party that its voters were simply unable to continue as a unified political entity. Pro-slavery elements absconded to the Democratic Party, while the anti-slavery elements created the Republican Party.*
It is interesting to note this history when viewed against the current state of the Republican Party. What seems to be developing in the GOP is a similar fissure over the size and scope of government. It seems not to be so much a debate among the rank and file, however, as it is between the grass roots and the party establishment.
When I speak of the GOP establishment, I will define it, for convenience, as those members of the GOP whose incomes and/or professional lives are derived primarily from participation in electoral politics, either directly, as a candidate or staffer, or indirectly through journalism, consulting, policy study, or party activism.
There is an increasing sense that the party establishment is more interested in the process of politics, bipartisanism, and policy than they are about the principles behind the party’s ostensible ideology.
The result seems to be a long succession of candidates for whom the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility seem to have taken a back seat to "getting things done" and "working with the Democrats" to "solve problems". The perception seems to have taken hold that this has resulted in accepting to some extent the collectivist ideological premises of Democrats, though in a milder form.
Bob Dole, famously criticized as "the tax collector for the welfare state", was generally thought of as a political moderate. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism was essentially an embrace of big government for socially conservative ends, rather than limited government, and ultimately, through No Child left behind and Medicare Part D, an embrace of big government for political ends. John McCain was notorious for his "maverick" ways, which came to be generally defined as siding with the Democrats on domestic issues. The GOP seems incapable of producing identifiably limited government conservatives as national candidates.
During this same time, the GOP electorate has become increasingly interested in restraining the size and scope of government, reducing regulations, reducing taxes, and balancing the Federal budget.
Indeed, it’s important to remember that the TEA Party movement began not as a reaction to Mr. Obama’s election, but rather in opposition the Bush Administration’s push for TARP and the bailouts, all of which President Obama embraced and expanded.
This increasing divide between the GOP electorate has led to some embarrassing moments, such as the candidacies of Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in opposition to the GOP establishment, but also some successes, such as the candidacies of Marco Rubio and Allen West. Both, however, often came in opposition to the wishes of the GOP establishment. Some results of this tension are not yet fully known, such as the ultimate outcome of Sarah Palin’s position as a sort of spokesperson and power-broker for a large percentage of the GOP electorate, at the same time her reputation among the GOP is establishment is, shall we say, mixed.
So, we come to the 2012 election, and the primary candidates for the GOP presidential nomination are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Both men are identifiably part of the GOP establishment. Both are flawed candidates from the point of view of limited-government conservatives. Frankly, neither of them would have a chance at winning an election against Mr. Obama in a normal political environment. Their one hope for beating Mr. Obama in the fall is that this election year is decidedly not normal.
From a policy point of view, Mr. Romney simply isn’t a conservative. He is merely somewhat more conservative than the average Democrat, which is to say he is noticeably more liberal than the GOP rank and file. His record gives every indication of willingness to "work with" Democrats, which can be best understood as code for doing nothing that Democrats strongly oppose. In a normal election, this would translate into a deep sense of ennui among GOP voters that would probably doom his chance of victory.
Mr. Gingrich has a more credible argument for supporting and implementing conservative policies than Mr. Romney in many ways. He is also one of the most actively disliked politicians in the United States. He seems utterly incapable of seeing himself in anything other than world-historical terms, and the result is a noticeably overweening ego. He is the modern embodiment of General George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 election, who once remarked about himself, "I know that I can save this country, and that I alone can." The instinctive dislike of Mr. Gingrich by the general electorate would normally doom his candidacy in an election as well.
Mr. Romney carries Romneycare like a millstone around his neck, yet does so gladly, and refuses to repudiate it. One of his advisors, former MN senator Norm Coleman, said yesterday that Obamacare would not be repealed. Though the campaign quickly came out in opposition to that position, Mr. Romney’s continued defense of the Massachusetts health care plan remains troubling to GOP voters. He speaks about conservative ideals, but his entire political history is one of compromise with them. This may have been a necessity in a deep blue state like Massachusetts, but it translates poorly to a far more conservative national GOP electorate.
Mr. Gingrich managed to make himself so unpopular as Speaker, even with his fellow Republicans in the House, that he was driven out of Washington like some sort of poison troll. Moreover, as recently as last March on Meet the Press, he supported the individual mandate for health insurance, the key controversy over Obamacare. Mr. Gingrich still defends his support of Medicare Part D. Mr. Gingrich was also one of the primary movers behind the K Street project, which tied the Republican Party deeply with lobbyists, pushed the party into supporting lobbyist pet projects, and ended with the fall of Jack Abramoff, as well as some leading GOP politicians like Tom DeLay. His recent criticisms of Bain Capital, and the concept of private equity firms in general, are also troubling, coming, as they do, from a progressive viewpoint.
In short both men have troubling histories that raise serious questions about their ability to govern as conservatives. I would suggest that if the next president is a Republican, and does not do everything in his power to repeal Obamacare, the Republicans will be finished as a national political party. The same holds true of they fail to restrain federal spending or the growth of the national debt. That would be the short path to the GOP going the way of the Whigs.
Irrespective of presidential politics, however, the GOP is still on the path to decline under their current leadership. If, over the next few election cycles, the GOP establishment cannot bring themselves to actively push candidates of distinctly limited government views, and if they do not actively push for smaller government, less spending, and less debt in Congress, the GOP rank and file will abandon the party and create a replacement for it.
Barry Goldwater’s motto in 1964 was, "A choice, not an echo". Sadly, the GOP establishment seems most comfortable offering a moderately less radical echo of the Democrats. The GOP electorate, however, increasingly wants a choice. A party that is incapable of promoting candidates with a distinctly fiscally conservative, limited government ideology is also incapable of providing that choice.
That is a path to extinction.
*Interestingly, the southern Whigs imparted a more conservative, business-friendly element into southern Democrats, the vestiges of which still remain, and one result of which was the general electoral success by southern Democrats for the Presidency, opposed to Northerners. Of the Democratic presidents in the 20th century, Wilson, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton were all distinctly southerners, while only Roosevelt and Kennedy were northerners. Truman is the odd man out, being from Missouri, though it certainly was at least as much southern as it was northern.