With Newt Gingrich’s resurgence winning South Carolina, the gauntlet truly has been thrown down in the Republican nominating process. Romney is setting out in Florida to demonize Gingrich as someone who will tear down the Republican Party. Likewise, Gingrich is saying the same back about that “Massachusetts Moderate”. But why is this likely to become so nasty? Why isn’t this intraparty nomination process like the competitive, but not demagogic, race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008? The is reason is that Mitt vs. Newt isn’t just about who’s going to win the nomination; it’s about whose vision for the Republican party is going to dominate it for the next decade.
The GOP is now at a crossroads of a journey that began four years ago with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama and huge Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. One path leads to the eventual nomination of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the “establishment candidate”, representing the belief that the path to electoral victory for Republicans lies with independent voters who can be wooed by a business oriented moderate. The other path leads to the nomination of the firebrand conservative former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the candidate that represents the party’s conservative and Tea Party base. The struggle you see playing out in the Republican nominating process is not Republicans choosing which candidate is best suited to beat President Obama, instead, it’s Republicans choosing what the Republican party is going to be in the 21st century. And each side in this decision believes the path they want to take is the path to victory, while the path of the “other side” will lead to nothing short of ruin and disaster.
The GOP began this journey with a divergence of analysis about their losses in 2006 and especially in 2008. The common conclusion trotted out by the Republicans their base of support, such as conservative columnists and the folks at Fox News, was that the Republican Party wasn’t conservative enough. With “big government conservatism”, represented by W and Sen. McCain, the GOP had strayed too far from the hard right, combative conservatism of folks from Goldwater to Jesse Helms and from Buchanan to Gingrich.
That conclusion birthed the Tea Party, drove right wing punditry, and lead to calls for “Second Amendment Remedies” to “take their country back”. With the Tea Party came not only a frontal assault to take back Congress, but the movement to “take back the Republican Party” from those they perceived to be Republican moderates believed to be nothing short of “fellow travelers” and “collaborators” with Democrats. In 2010, they believed their arch-conservative, hyper-partisan message paid off and paid off big. The Tea Party folks believe it was this, and not merely voter anger over the economy, that won them the US House by a huge margin and lead directly to the election of right wing and “base Republicans” to multiple governorships and state legislative majorities. Of course, this managed to hijack the entire legislative process of 2011 in multiple games of brinksmanship.
To their credit, the Tea Party and Republican base have a story line that makes some sense if the premise is true: This worked in 2010, so why change course? To go with Romney is to leave that path and return to the Republican losses like those in 2006 and 2008.
The problem is that not all Republicans believe this story line. Their narrative is that, issues of ethics, coupled with the Iraq war in 2006 and the economic collapse in 2008, was what cost Republicans their legislative majorities. They agree with columnist David Brooks that “America is a Center-Right Country. But they don’t think it is a Far-Right Country.” They believe the path is solid centrist conservative business principles. Additionally, they believe that the hyper partisan confrontational tone has hurt the nation, is hampering the economy, and that such a continued right turn by their party isn’t just a path to a loss in 2012 but also taking down the Republican House majority and any chance of winning the US Senate majority with it.
Their narrative points to polling showing independents as being angry at ineffective government, but not angry at a lack of ideology in government. They look at the lost opportunities to win control of the US Senate with fringe candidates and the “walking dead” governors in places like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin and worry that their party is in serious jeopardy of losing its ability to reach those same independent voters.
That is why the ensuing debate seems to focus so much on which candidate will bring disaster upon the Republican Party. It’s why Republicans in both New Hampshire and South Carolina both overwhelmingly cited electability in picking very different primary winners. With the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic Party knew where it wanted to go and so the campaign to find the best candidate didn’t leave the scars this Republican contest appears set to create. The Republican Party is looking not just for its best candidate as the Democrats were in 2008. They’re searching for their soul.
As someone who probably identifies more with the “activist base” of the Democratic Party, I cannot help but understand the logic of the Tea Party folks (even if I don’t agree with their ideology). You cannot ignore the base and win an election. That said, I also know America has never been a nation of extreme conservatism. To claim you’re somehow taking us back to somewhere we never were is where the perceived logic seems to meet real world application. It doesn’t quite fit. The thing to remember is that how Republicans deal with that divergence will determine not just this election, but many more to come.