A Republican from the party establishment enters the presidential race and immediately tops the polls. A few months later, he trails a politically inexperienced but media-mesmerizing businessman. The story of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump? Yes—but also the story of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in late 2011. And a glimpse back at the early months of GOP contests in 2008 and 2012 suggests what’s to come in 2016: a Christian conservative leaps to first or second place, surprising the pundits, only to lose at last to the inevitable establishment nominee.
This is no inscrutable design of fate. The Republican Party’s knack for nominating Bushes and Romneys and McCains has a reason, just as there are reasons why certain kinds of opponents catch on. Nate Cohn of the New York Times supplies a piece of the puzzle in a story headlined “The Surprising Power of Blue-State Republicans.” But there’s a deeper philosophical explanation for why the GOP perpetually fails to nominate another conservative like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan—conservatism itself has lost its identity to politics.
The truth is that leaders like McCain, Romney, and the Bushes represent the GOP as a whole better than right-wing candidates do. Contrary to caricature, the GOP is not just the party of the South and relatively underpopulated states in the Midwest. Cohn’s headline calls the power of blue-state Republicans surprising, but it shouldn’t be: the majority of Americans live in blue states—that’s why Obama won the last two elections—and one would expect a national political party to draw a great proportion of its presidential delegates from the states where more Americans actually live.
Geography is ideology, at least in part. Blue-state Republicans may still identify as conservatives, but their conservatism is quite different from that of their red-state counterparts. As Cohn reports:
According to an analysis of Pew Research and exit-poll data, blue-state Republicans tend to be more urban, more moderate, less religious and more affluent. A majority of red-state Republicans are evangelical Christians, believe society should discourage homosexuality, think politicians should do what it takes to undermine the Affordable Care Act and want politicians to stand up for their positions, even if that means little gets done in Washington. A majority of blue-state Republicans differ on every count.
The blue states hold the keys to victory for establishment candidates: “Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney won every blue-state primary in 2008 and 2012,” Cohn notes, “making it all but impossible for their more conservative challengers to win the nomination.” Indeed, “Mr. Romney lost all but one red-state primary held before his principal opponent dropped out of the race”—that opponent being Rick Santorum, who a few months earlier had seemed utterly hopeless. Santorum lost his Senate seat in blue-state Pennsylvania in 2006. But in red-state presidential primaries six years later, he was formidable.
The division between blue-state and red-state Republicans by itself, however, is not enough to account for the party’s seeming inability to nominate anyone to the right of Romney or McCain. There remains a mystery: in the past generation, even as the GOP has come to be viewed as more right-wing than ever, conservatives have actually fared worse in its presidential primaries. In just 16 years between 1964 and 1980, conservatives won the Republican nomination twice. In the 36 years since Reagan left office, conservatives have never won it.
There were plenty of blue-state Republicans in the days of Goldwater and Reagan, of course, and even back then the party had distinct factions of conservatives and liberals—“Rockefeller Republicans,” as they were called. Why, then, did conservatives succeed in 1964 and 1980 but never again?
The answer lies in a development that appeared for the first time in 1988: the emergence of a distinct religious right or social-conservative candidate. That was Pat Robertson, who carried four states and won a little over 9 percent of the overall primary vote—behind Bob Dole’s nearly 20 percent and George H.W. Bush’s 68 percent. Robertson’s modest campaign, however, was like a hairline crack in the foundations of the political right. Since then in every election there has been a strong social-conservative contender in the Republican contest: Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012.
The gap is filled by George W. Bush, an establishment candidate who, as a born-again Christian himself, was “a uniter, not a divider” in appealing to religious conservatives. And he left nothing to chance: his “compassionate conservatism,” inspired in part by the evangelical thinker Marvin Olasky, was pitched directly to Republicans of strong religious sensibilities, and he was eager to accept whatever help Catholics like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus could provide in building interdenominational political alliances. Bush’s efforts came up short in November 2000, when he failed to win the popular vote—in part, his campaign believed, because not enough churchgoers went to the polls for him. But his re-election in 2004 was widely credited to success in mobilizing “values voters.”
Before 1988, religious conservatives voted with other conservatives. The religious right wasn’t yet organized in 1964, but “moral” voters were a significant component of Goldwater’s base, sometimes to the candidate’s own embarrassment. (He vetoed the distribution a short film, “Choice,” intended by his supporters to rally voters with alarming images of race, sex, and crime.) Reagan in 1980 was the first Republican hopeful, and then nominee, to benefit from effectively organized social-conservative groups like the Moral Majority.
The development of the religious right or social conservatives as a bloc discrete from conservatives generally proved to be the undoing of the right in Republican presidential primaries. But this differentiation into two distinct strands of conservatism, represented most of the time by competing avatars in GOP primaries, was not the result of hubris or short-sightedness on the part of religious conservatives. On the contrary, it represents a real philosophical divide that can be seen in the different emphases, attitudes, and even positions taken by social-conservative champions vis-à-vis other conservatives.
The bottom line is that however different a Romney or McCain might be from the average conservative Republican, figures like Huckabee and Santorum are even more so. In tone, social conservatives are apt to be either provocative (Buchanan, Santorum) or “folksy” (in the case of Huckabee and George W. Bush). On issues, the religious right’s candidates have tended not only to emphasize homosexuality and abortion more strongly than other Republicans, but significantly they have also staked out more blue-collar economic positions, most notably in the case of Buchanan but to varying degrees with Huckabee and Santorum as well. (George W. Bush tried to square the circle and failed: his compassionate conservatism was never accepted by the right’s old guard, who sensed that the adjective implied an unflattering judgment about their free-market philosophy.)
These candidates represented, all in their own ways, a very different worldview from that of the Goldwater-Reagan type of conservative. Christian conservatism is a clear enough idea that it finds independent champions, and it’s politically well enough organized that those champions can be “competitive losers” every four years: never winning the nomination but always finishing with the second or third highest aggregate vote totals. To state the obvious, if Christian conservatism were really as similar to the rest of the right as the conservative movement likes to insist, there would not be a “market” for a separate “product.” The one candidate since 1988 to bridge the divide, George W. Bush, left almost all conservatives feeling disappointed or betrayed by the end of his presidency.
It’s not a coincidence that this ideological and political differentiation expressed itself immediately once the Reagan era had reached its end: before Reagan, an all-purpose conservative represented to the religious right—whether organized or nascent—a candidate who might give them the kind of country they wanted. Goldwater’s defeat avoided the disillusionment that victory would have brought. Reagan, however, showed that a general-purpose conservative once elected could only go so far: he appointed Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, after all. Reagan himself did not come in for much blame, but the spiritually diffident conservatism that he and Goldwater represented—neither was more than nominally religious—was no longer enough.
The mythology promulgated by the conservative movement has it that a candidate who naturally expresses both Christian conservatism and Goldwater-Reagan conservatism must be out there somewhere. But the record of three decades since Reagan won the nomination with support from both camps suggests otherwise: in a full generation, there has never been a candidate equally appealing to both kinds of conservative. What reason is there to think there ever will be one?
Christian conservatives may no longer be the only ones who have this problem. Libertarians have had cause to celebrate in recent elections, as they too seem to have emerged as a distinct force in the GOP, with presidential standard-bearers of their own in the form of Ron Paul and Rand Paul. But here again, what this differentiation suggests is that libertarian Republicans have a vision distinct from and to some degree incompatible with—unsubstitutable for—that of other conservative Republicans. When religious conservatives came to this awareness, the results proved ruinous as far as winning the GOP presidential nomination went, for themselves and for the older Goldwater-Reagan conservatives. Will libertarians avoid the same trap?
Conservatives of one faction or another may be tempted to see this sorry scene as a failure of team spirit. But that would be a mistake, and a counterproductive one. Christian conservatives are not being narcissistic when they field and flock to their own candidates rather than to some generic right-wing Republican—a Reagan-of-the-week of the Fred Thompson or Rick Perry variety, for example. They are being true to their beliefs, including their political beliefs—just as more pragmatic conservatives are being true to theirs in rejecting candidates like Huckabee and Santorum.
The proper way to address principled differences is not by disguising them. Once, before an entrenched conservative movement existed to assure the right that every GOP nominee was the gold standard in conservatism, the right had a few institutions that put a bit of daylight between themselves and the Republican Party, and these institutions—notably periodicals such as the ’50s and ’60s National Review and Modern Age—devoted themselves to working out a coherent yet capacious worldview, not by insisting on a politically convenient orthodoxy but by honestly confronting the differences between various schools of thought. Ironically, as intense as the intellectual battles were, and as inconclusive as the quest for an agreeable-to-all “fusionist” formulation proved to be, in practice traditionalists and libertarians voted together for Goldwater and Reagan. They did so for their own reasons, and that was quite enough.
The situation has been reversed ever since Reagan: every movement magazine, TV pundit, radio host, and think-tanker has come to insist upon a single, bland, homogenized ideology devised for maximum political convenience. The lively fights on the right used to be in the pages of its books and magazines; now they are at the ballot box, where the only winners turn out to be establishment Republicans—and ultimately liberal Democrats.
The right, not just the Republican Party, is deeply culturally and geographically divided—much as the country is. That can be a source of strength, if it leads to rigorous testing of premises and policies, to re-learning the arts of persuasion and principled coalition-building: that is, building coalitions not on the basis of fabricated principles but on honest differences openly engaged. But all this is more than a political task, and alas, the real dirty secret of the Republican establishment’s success has been getting the right to bet everything on partisanship.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.