Jacob Weisberg offers a superficially plausible explanation of recent struggles on the Right — he sees them reflecting a split between Western and Southern varieties of conservatism, the former identified with Barry Goldwater and now Rand Paul, the latter with Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. The examples he provides suggest that his West/South breakdown is just a remapping of the conventional libertarian/religious Right divide. But the remapping doesn’t work: Ron Paul hails from Texas, after all, which is Southern as well as Western, and his son lives in the Bluegrass State, which is certainly more Southern. Meanwhile, Midwesterner Tim Pawlenty is the darling of the Bush-style compassionate conservatives. And before he destroyed his personal and political lives at a single stroke, South Carolina politician Mark Sanford had seemed like a leading voice for the budget-cutting Right.
Plainly enough, the South is still the center of gravity for the GOP, and many of the most prominent figures in the Christian conservative and small-government camps alike hail from that region. Moreover, the two groups overlap more than Weisberg admits: not only do both Pauls have strong social conservative credentials (tempered by libertarianism, to be sure), but Sarah Palin, whom Weisberg assigns to the “Western” faction, is supported at least as strongly by the religious Right. Weisberg’s categories are just plain wrong.
“A GOP dominated by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed was increasingly noxious to potential supporters who happened to be secular, Jewish, Mormon, or gay, or who accepted evolution,” he writes. This is risible: Mormon voters are a very important, if imperfectly assimilated, bloc of the religious Right — they have been indispensable in campaigns to stop gay marriage, for example — while Christian Zionists are considered welcome allies by many in the minority of American Jews that votes Republican. (It’s true that Glenn Beck is a Mormon, and there are strong traditions of self-reliance in Mormonism, which can be a source of libertarian tendencies. But the religious Right side to Mormon political activity is equally pronounced.)
Weisberg, alas, not only is wrong in his general argument, but can’t even get the particulars right. He claims that Harry Jaffa “wrote Goldwater’s famous convention speech.” No, he didn’t — Karl Hess drafted that speech, borrowing the idea about extremism in defense of liberty from a letter Jaffa wrote. No research, no original thought, just cliches. Weisberg ought to try harder.