Lebanon, N.H. Up here in tranquil New Hampshire, where the hills glow peacefully in the summer sunshine, everyone’s talking about the war for the soul of the Republican Party.
Hold it, I am thinking. Haven’t I witnessed several wars for the soul of the Republican Party?
Six in my lifetime alone, now that I’m counting.
There’s no denying that there’s a struggle within the Republican Party as it moves toward the first presidential primary here, tentatively (and, given the nature of this campaign, perhaps mischievously) scheduled for next Feb. 14. But the Republicans are holding no lovefest in New Hampshire. Already the party is divided every which way — between regulars and irregulars, economic conservatives and social conservatives, established politicians and newcomers, Westerners and Easterners, males and females.
The Republicans haven’t been at each other’s throats this much since ... the last election.
In our historical imagination, the Republicans are the sober, organized, unflappable ones — the quiet members of Rotary and Kiwanis who do their duty, tend to commerce, stiffen their upper lips at adversity, take everything in stride. They don’t raise their voices or raise hackles. They’re the party of social order and stability. That’s the image. The reality is quite different.
History shows other rivalries
Look back at the last century — go all the way back to the critical election of 1912, when giants strode the Earth and four of them, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Eugene V. Debs, ran for president — and you can count nine distinct battles for the soul of the Republican Party. The Democrats, the ones ridiculed as being the disorganized and emotional pugilists in American politics, have had only four such battles, fewer than half their rivals’.
This time, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party pits three former governors, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah, against each other — and against a group of rebels that includes Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Ron Paul of Texas, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and businessman Herman Cain. A measure of the chasm between them: Can you imagine Romney putting Bachmann on his ticket or the other way around?
But the Republicans had a similar struggle in 2008, when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, only four years after being considered a vice presidential possibility on the Democratic ticket, had almost nothing in common with his Republican rivals, primarily Romney and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Four elections earlier, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan took on President George H.W. Bush here in New Hampshire, painting Bush as effete and feckless and indicting him for being an apostate from the true Reagan faith. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan spoke openly of a “culture war.”
More GOP struggles
It turns out that Ronald Reagan and Bush played central roles in two other GOP struggles, the one that spanned the 1976 and 1980 elections (main themes: the aggressiveness of modern conservatism and the validity of supply-side economics), and the one in 1988 (main themes: whether and how the Reagan revolution would be extended, and whether and how the demands of religious conservatives should be accommodated).
Major struggles over the nature of conservatism also occurred in 1940 (over Wendell Willkie’s views on internationalism) and in 1952 (when the Taft and Eisenhower wings clashed).
Perhaps the most significant GOP struggle occurred in 1964, when the Eastern Republican establishment personified by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York was challenged, and defeated, by the new Western conservatism represented by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Goldwater’s landslide defeat at the hands of President Lyndon B. Johnson left the Republican Party in tatters — only to be revived four years later when former Vice President Richard M. Nixon beat Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey as the Democrats were undergoing one of their own internal struggles.
Democrats also battle
The Democrats’ internecine battles have been far less frequent but just as explosive.
The 1968 split, which continued through the 1972 election, was over Vietnam and cultural matters. It led to violent disruptions outside the Chicago convention hall; made the party vulnerable to the Republican taunt that the Democrats had become the party of amnesty, acid and abortion; and opened the door for many blue-collar voters, ardently Democratic since the New Deal, to abandon their party.
That split followed the upheavals over race in 1948 (when Strom Thurmond and his allies bolted the party) and 1964 (when the national convention divided over which Mississippi delegation to seat) — episodes which for the purposes of this argument we’ll consider two parts of the same split. These fights essentially involved how to deal with the differences between the Democrats of the North and the Democrats of the South.
The party also split in 1928 over legalized drink and the degree to which the Democrats, who nominated Gov. Al Smith of New York for president that year, should identify themselves with Catholics and the immigrant families from Ireland and Eastern Europe that increasingly were becoming part of the political mainstream.
There’s no obvious reason why the party of stability, as Republicans sometimes regard themselves, has had more upheaval than the party of change, which is how Democrats sometimes think of themselves. Perhaps it is because these internal struggles often precede and follow the appearance of political titans, and the Republicans have had two in modern times (Dwight Eisenhower and Reagan) while the Democratic century was dominated by one (Franklin Roosevelt).
Eisenhower and Reagan were skillful above all in their ability to mask the differences in their party. The Goldwater-Rockefeller fissure was in large measure the result of the struggle to replace Eisenhower, just as more the recent fights in the Republican Party have been conducted in Reagan’s long shadow.
But the truth is that both major parties have had inner contradictions. The Democrats’ were almost fatal: The fight between Southern conservatives and Northern liberals so divided the party that it took a generation for it to recover.
The Republicans’ main contradiction, between the traditional conservative yearning for stability and the modern, muscular conservatism forged in reaction to the Great Society, has not yet been resolved. That, more than Afghanistan policy and Romney’s views on climate change, is what the 2012 primary and caucus season — and the latest of the many fights for the soul of the Republican Party — is really about.