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Can the Party Still Decide?

I had to read Daniel McCarthy’s article on why the right loses GOP presidential contests a couple of times before I got it. He begins:

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 already starting to happen – Ben Carson, far from fading after a poor performance in the first GOP debate, has continued to rise, even catching Trump in the latest Iowa poll.

McCarthy continues:

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.

In other words, when the establishment has a candidate, blue-state Republicans fall into line to support that candidate. Which is a big blue wall to climb for any would-be insurgent, however apparently popular.

But the failure of the right is also the result of factionalism – specifically, factionalism by religious conservatives:

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.

Establishment Republicans want to paper over those disagreements in the interest of winning. Which only makes the religious right more restive, and to express their dissatisfaction in increasingly disruptive ways. McCarthy’s completely disinterested conclusion is that the American right needs more publications like TAC that aren’t wedded to any particular political faction, program or party:

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.

Like I said, it’s worth reading. But I do have a few questions:

First off, what does the establishment do when it doesn’t have a candidate? I was among those convinced that Bush would mostly clear the field of serious opponents merely by entering. That certainly hasn’t happened. Not only is Bush not dominating the race as a whole, he’s not even dominating the race to be the establishment’s nominee. He’s been behind Walker for a while in Iowa. He’s now behind Kasich in New Hampshire. And nationally he’s doing no better than fellow-Floridian Rubio. So who’s the establishment candidate?

If Bush wins the nomination in 2016, it’ll look something like McCain’s victory in 2008 – an unlikely turnaround dependent on all his various opponents failing to break through. But if there’s really no clear establishment favorite after South Carolina, what will happen? What will those blue state Republicans do without a line to fall into?

And then, take a look at the calendar. In February, we’ve got Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Then, on March 1, only a month after Iowa, we’ve got Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Oh, yeah, and Massachusetts and Vermont – but seriously, where’s the big blue wall?

And in what sense is Trump really a factional right-wing candidate trading on business experience, like Cain, or Forbes – or Carly Fiorina? Trump appears to be drawing support from across the GOP spectrum, at least in ideological terms. His positions, such as they are, don’t track well at all with what movement purists supposedly want. He’s not much of a Christian. He’s not really a conservative. He’s not even clearly a Republican.

Carson, Fiorina, Cruz – all of these candidates look like plausible “anti-establishment” flavors of the month comparable to those we saw in 2012. Trump is something else. He’s clearly tapping into the anger and dissatisfaction that fueled Newt Gingrich’s brief Napoleonic delusions, but it looks possible that he could channel those dissatisfactions in far less-predictable directions.

More specifically, if McCarthy’s thesis is partly that Christian conservative factionalism has weakened the right as a bloc, isn’t it notable that such a significant faction of conservative evangelicals have voiced support for a candidate – Trump – who barely pays lip service to their purported issues, and who, on a personal level, manifests basically none of the virtues that they supposedly deem crucial in a leader? Doesn’t that suggest that “principled differences” may not be the heart of the estrangement?

And doesn’t it feel notable just how much bigger the anti-establishment wave gets with each election? In 2008, McCain had to dodge challenges for the establishment nod from Giuliani and Thompson, plus Romney, a thoroughly establishment type masquerading as a right-winger. The factionalist Huckabee is McCarthy’s focus, but the main fight in 2008 was between far more mainstream figures. In 2012, we had a parade of implausible contenders – Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum – but they came in waves, and Romney remained the man to beat throughout (except for a brief moment when it looked like Rick Perry might be a thing).

But this year, Trump is way in the lead in the polls – but Carson and Fiorina are rising at the same time. And so is Ted Cruz. No, polls don’t mean much at this point. But does it really mean nothing that every plausible establishment candidate is polling in the single digits – in many cases the low single-digits? Has anything like that ever happened before in recent memory?

I’m not so much saying “this time is different” so much as “each time it gets worse.” So if this time isn’t different, what on earth are we going to be in for in 2020?

Finally, I think McCarthy gives insufficient attention to the colossal failure of the Bush administration in his explanation of how the GOP got here. In 2000, as McCarthy admits, George W. Bush won the nomination in part by winning over precisely the religious-right faction that he otherwise identifies as gravitating toward hopeless factional choices. The thing is that the Bush Presidency, which promised to be the apotheosis of a certain, more Christian version of fusion conservatism, turned out to be a disaster on virtually every dimension.

In the wake of that disaster, self-identified conservatives of nearly all stripes have pronounced themselves “disappointed” with what was wrought, but not only cannot agree on what, precisely, they should be disappointed by – they can’t even figure out how to disagree effectively. And that’s not a recipe for avoiding future disappointments – or defeating the establishment.

Now, I’m friends with a lot of self-identified conservatives who have been willing to make the case for what has to change. (Not all the same case, mind you – dozens of flowers are blooming, if not quite a thousand.) Many of them write for TAC. My anecdotal sense is that, out there in the world of people who read, there’s a palpable hunger for those kinds of voices. But does anybody actually read?

And at least a couple of candidates this time around – Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee – at one point or another looked like individuals who might have advanced arguments for a change of direction for the self-proclaimed conservative party. But these one-time dissenters have only grown more movement-friendly in their views. And still are pigeonholed as hopeless libertarian and religious-right factional candidates respectively. And now they are polling even worse than the establishment favorites.

It all begins to feel, after a while, like arguments aren’t really the point.

I suspect Donald Trump would agree.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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