Prologue: I am not a Republican.
This weekend, an estimated 10,000 conservatives will descend upon National Harbor for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. This year’s show is sure to deliver three things:
1. Young, inebriated men in ill-fitting suits and bad haircuts and “inappropriately”-dressed young women looking for a hook-up.
2. A large, non-representative showing of Ron Paul followers.
3. More party infighting – and the continued rupturing of the Grand Old Party.
The Washington Times has a lengthy write-up of the clashing conservative attitudes that are sure to be seen this weekend. Basically, some conservatives want their party to “set” the temperature – lay out a principled platform and stick to it no matter the cost – while others want party leaders to “take” the temperature of voters and be pragmatic and responsive to the electorate. The “setters” crowd generally rallies behind figures like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, while the “takers” crowd is characterized by the establishment and its eye toward winning elections. This “full scale civil war” even has some GOP leaders worried about the possibility of a party-split – especially in the event of a Rand Paul presidential campaign.
The conventional narrative of the last 15 months has been that this is a divide the Republican Party cannot bridge. Electorally, the GOP appeals to a shrinking, older, whiter, rural-er, male-er, Christian-er demographic. The Tea Party, typically personified by the press as Sen. Cruz, is obstructionist and refuses to play ball with the establishment wing. The party’s historical stance against immigration reform is appalling to the country’s fastest-growing minority community, not to mention inconvenient for business interests. And of course, the Party’s evangelical wing’s unwavering stance against gay marriage is out of step with how quickly the rest of the country has gotten behind the issue, particularly young voters.
Going back to Poli Sci 101: Parties are coalitions of interests and factions. Recent polling suggests that political alliances are less clear-cut today than in the past and that most voters think they’re somewhere in the middle. In terms of factions, the Right may have once been a “3-legged stool” of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and defense hawks*; more recently, it’s looked like a marriage of convenience between business interests and social conservatives (plus a few single-issue stepchildren, e.g. gun advocates), stuck in a fight over pragmatism vs. principles.
While the short-term outlook for Republicans seems bad, I can’t help but wonder would happen to the loose association of interest and identity groups that makes up the Democratic Party if the one thing holding them together—the threat of a Republican White House and Legislature—recedes into the background. Would organized labor, public education, green energy, Planned Parenthood, the AARP, and so on, still have a reason to vote similarly? Or, with the common enemy weakened, will the left-leaning Millennials drowning under student debt finally realize they’re being robbed blind by their Jimmy Carter-and-Medicare-loving Boomer parents? Progressives are already famously disappointed with the wide disparity between Candidate Obama and President Obama [1, 2, 3, 4, and so on]. I’d reckon that if the GOP can’t keep the Tea Party on board, fracture lines would soon appear on the Left, too.
At a time when the country’s ever-growing debt burden and sluggish economic recovery has people fed up with Obama, at a time when the Republicans should be primed for midterm wins and a 2016 victory, the party is stuck in an epic battle over the direction it should take. One side even goes so far as to say they should be “principled,” as if such a thing were compatible with politics. It’s the kind of irony only an old, disenfranchised, libertarian curmudgeon could appreciate, am I right?
*Defense is now thoroughly entrenched within both the GOP and the Democratic Party.