Republican Party at the Crossroads

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....

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.

Reprinted from State Senator Curt Thompson's (D-5th) blog. Also, check the Senator out on Facebook and Twitter.

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Ground Chuck January 27, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Thomas, your comment would be insightful, but it is too full of inaccuracies and errors. You must be a volunteer and/or supporter of Obama. Clearly anti-Republican across the board. One, Ron Paul is the voice of the Tea Party (since David Axelrod's orchestrated attack on Herman Cain). Two, I know several evangelicals in South Carolina who voted for Mitt Romney (amazing what happens when people are angry about incompetence in the Executive Branch). Three, Romney is shown to be in a dead heat with Obama if the election were to be held today. The comments about Newt are reasonable accurate, he is definitely a firebrand and because of this, he will not receive the nomination (he has no chance of defeating Obama although he would punish him in a debate). It is Romney's to lose. The problem today is lack of reasoning and consideration of new ideas. Americans do not like to be called stupid, and the leadership of Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz implies just that if you are a registered Republican with a moderate leaning (like myself). I like Curt and have voted for him, but until the Democratic Party moves a little more to the center, they will not win a majority of anything in the South regardless of the quality of the Republican opposition.
Thomas Wight January 27, 2012 at 02:23 PM
Unfortunately, the current President has proven to be too inexperienced and too interested in wielding executive power and to be trusted to govern. The Republicans have once again proven incapable of nominating a candidate competent in govern. The choice in November will once again be between the evil of two lessers. What is a voter to do?
Ground Chuck January 27, 2012 at 02:34 PM
Curt, great article. I agree with 95% of your talking points. David Brooks has also hit the nail squarely on the head regarding the majority of American's and their political stance. The problems today (whether perception of reality) is that both parties have been hijacked by both the far-left and far-right. That is why people are turning to independent status and positioning their support for whom they believe to be the best candidate (hence your support locally in a primarily Republican district). The leadership of both parties are just wasting their time by leveraging broad statements regarding their support among the populace when both continue to embrace unpopular platforms. Truly this is a time for the emergence of a third party (although it will never happen). The next great leader is going to be one that embraces the challenge of addressing our socio and economic problems, and the only questions are who will have the courage to stand up to the status quo and when will this take place. Otherwise, the voter will simply support the candidate he or she deems to be the lesser of two (or three) evils.
Jimmy January 28, 2012 at 01:39 AM
In 1964 the conservative Barry Goldwater battled the moderate Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination. The democrat punditry waxed poetic about the battle for the soul of the Republican party... In 1968 the conservative Ronald Reagan battled the moderate Richard Nixon for the Republican nomination. The democrat punditry waxed poetic about the battle for the soul of the Republican party... In 1980 the conservative Ronald Reagan battled the moderate George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination. The democrat punditry waxed poetic about the battle for the soul of the Republican party...
Jimmy January 28, 2012 at 01:46 AM
In 2000 the arguably conservative George W. Bush battled the moderate John McCain for the Republican nomination. The democrat punditry waxed poetic about the battle for the soul of the Republican party... Come 2012 and the latest democratic pundit comes to us in the form of a state senator from Lilburn, waxing somewhat poetic about the battle for the soul of the Republican party while suggesting this type of rancorous debate doesnt occur among Democrat candidates....Anybody remember 2008 when Hillary ran the famous 'who do you want answering the phone' at 3am campaign ad? Or when Obama played the race card on Bill Clinton? Maybe the reason there isnt as pronounced a battle for the soul of the Democrat party is because for all their devotion to the concept of diversity there is remarkably little diversity in the party...To be sure, there is great diversity in their outward appearance but little diversity in the core belief that somehow they and others are being unfairly beaten out of something to which they are entitled, and therefore it is the government's job to take from others in order to improve their lot in life. On the other hand, we have Rockefeller, Goldwater, Reagan, Bush, McCain, Gingrich, Romney...not a lot of diversity in their outward appearance. A bunch of rich old white guys. But great diversity in their opinions as to the role of government. I submit we would all be better off if the Democrat party had similar battles for its soul once in a while.


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