Where Is The Republican Core?

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December 9, 2008 @ 23:23 UTC

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While campaigning for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele has admonished party conservatives to driving away moderates.  Steele’s argument is a rather old one in its vague terms — that the party needs to have a “big tent” where different perspectives on various issues can be accommodated by a shared commitment to certain core issues.  But this approach begs the question to many conservatives — what are those core issues to be?

Social conservatives who have dominated the Republican Party for the last decade define those core issues in harshly didactic terms deriving from religious roots.  Abortion, gay marriage, and a more nebulous but passionately held commitment to “family values” are what they see as the heart of the Republican Party.  They tend to resent calls by “moderates” to compromise as they see such calls as nothing less than an effort to read God Himself out of the party.  More pragmatically, social conservative leaders note the longstanding success of such principles in successfully building and maintaining a movement with strong double roots in both rural and suburban regions.

In recent years, social conservatives have been reinforced by an alliance of convenience with some rather questionable characters arising from the migration of Dixiecrats into the Republican Party. With strong roots in the South, these cultural conservatives have supplemented social conservatism with disdain for immigration as a threat to American cultural identity.  Stopping “amnesty” and demonizing any cultural or educational institution not encapsulated by a NASCAR race is the core issue for cultural conservatives.

Cultural conservatives also linked together with national security conservatives left over from the Cold War.  These national security conservatives were reinvigorated by 9/11 and place the strong pursuit of the global war against Islamic extremism as the core cause of the party.

In the aftermath of electoral meltdowns in both 2006 and 2008, however, this tripartite hegemony has come to be identified as pathological by old-style fiscal conservatives, usually dubbed as “moderates” due to their dissent from social and cultural conservatives.  The argument from the fiscal conservatives is that both events and demographic trends have intervened to destroy the viability of the tripartite coalition.  The myriad failures in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have served to undermine Republicans’ claim to be the safest stewards of national security.  This whittled down the numbers and enthusiasm of the national security conservatives.  Meanwhile, shifts in the cultural and moral ethos of younger generations have eroded the numbers that could be marshalled by social conservatives even while intensifying their self-perceptions as a beseiged minority.  And the undertones of racism and intolerance that too often infest the anti-immigration movement served to make cultural conservatives toxic, further driving away younger voters and centrists.  Fiscal conservatives thus argue that to renew the commitment to any of the tripartite groups’ preferred core is a suicide pact for the party, condemning it to permanent minority status regardless of the particular virtues of their moral claims.

The only option left, say the fiscal conservatives, is therefore to return to the party’s generational roots in pro-business, low-tax, pro-growth economics.

The trouble is how to craft that into a workable message during times of economic meltdown, necessary-evil government bailouts running into the trillions of dollars, and spiraling deficits in the midst of two continuing wars.  No horror movie hack writer could top this monster of a political problem.  But it is exactly the monster that the Republican Party will have to find a way to slay if it is to be able to function as an effective opposition, let alone a credible challenger in future elections.

The fundamental truth here is that Steele and the fiscal conservatives are right — the key issues of the day are economic and demographics make cultural and social conservatism secondary bases for the party anyway.  Any new Republican coalition will have to be built around responses to economic issues, not attempts to reconstitute the crumbling social or cultural bases.  In selecting which issues are “mandatory” for Republicans versus those with which the party needs to accept compromise and dissent, Republicans will need to take lessons from Democrats’ successes in dealing with their peacenik elements — accommodating and including, but not allowing them to control and purify everything.

And time is short.

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