Completely polarized. Distrust all around. Split down the middle. Sometimes paralyzed by divisions. We’re not talking only about the United States today. We’re talking about the Republican Party.
There are a million polls flying around, most saying the same thing: that President Barack Obama doesn’t have the support of the country, that the nation is worried about another recession, that unemployment will persist. But look a little deeper, beyond the usual questions that reap the usual answers, and you will see a stunner. Here’s the question, addressed to Republicans, from the latest New York Times/CBS News poll:
Which is more important to you, having a Republican nominee who agrees with your positions on most issues, or having a nominee with the best chance of defeating President Obama in 2012?
The answer: Agrees with issues — 48 percent. Best chance in 2012 — 48 percent.
It can’t get any closer, or more divided, than that.
This split mirrors the one on Capitol Hill between Democrats (who hold the Senate) and Republicans (who hold the House), and it runs through the GOP as the party prepares for what should be a breakaway layup in 2012.
The same poll shows former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with favorable ratings of 45 percent and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas with 42 percent. (Though respondents were asked about the candidates separately, it should not go unnoticed that the overall margin of error in that part of the poll is 4 percentage points, which makes the figures deliciously close.)
Perry is where the GOP’s heart is today. Romney is where the party’s head is. Will the Republicans go with the guy who makes them swoon but makes them worry what Mom will say? Or the one who makes them cringe but would let Dad sleep better at night? Whole Trollope novels have been written about less. One of them is called “The Way We Live Now.” Like the Republican nomination fight of 2012, it unfolded in monthly episodes in 1875.
Republicans have been divided before between their dedication to ideology and their desire to win.
It was a calamity in 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona pulled the party to the right and Cow Palace delegates moved away from the patrician establishment personified by two Eastern governors, Nelson A. Rockefeller (Dartmouth ‘30, Casque and Gauntlet senior society) and William Scranton (Yale ‘39, Berzelius secret society). It was a triumph in 1980, when Ronald Reagan (Eureka College ‘32), a conservative true believer, defeated George H.W. Bush (Yale ‘48, Skull and Bones), considered a moderate and widely regarded as more electable.
The Democrats have faced that choice as well. In 1972, the Democratic candidate of the head was Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, but the combination of an unusually large field — some of the dozen contenders included such powerful figures as Sens. Henry M. Jackson of Washington and Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, along with Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York — and a raucous primary fight held amid the emotions of the Vietnam War delivered the nomination to the candidate of the heart, Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota. He lost 49 states but retains the loyal affection of a small cadre. Some of them still have McGovern bumper stickers on their Volkswagen Bugs.
This year’s Republican split seems different from some of its predecessors — the one between conservatives and regulars in 1952, for example, or the one that divided House Republicans from Senate Republicans in 1995. The Newt Gingrich Republicans of that period were suspicious of the Bob Dole Republicans, but a year later there wasn’t much doubt that Dole would prevail and win the nomination. It was, after all, his turn, and the challenge mounted by his opponents — including conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan and a gaggle of established worthies, like former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana — didn’t pose that much of a fight.
Unless Perry fizzles out, and he’s not the sort to do so, the Republicans seem headed for a fight that, for the first time, might actually deserve the phrase that has been appended to earlier such contests: struggle for the soul of the Republican Party. And the battlefield for this fight, like the one for the general election, may well be in the suburbs and among independents, who can vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
It’s Texas hot versus Eastern cool, Aggie maroon versus Harvard crimson, a quarter of a state without health insurance versus a state health-insurance plan its author would just as soon disavow. And that’s the surface stuff. The two men don’t like each other, and their supporters can’t stand each other. Together they have repealed Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, sewn into the GOP consciousness if not its unwritten constitution since his 1966 campaign for governor in California: Though shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.
As the election approaches and the economy remains stalled, the Republicans have much to be excited about, the Democrats very little. Obama’s approval rating last week hit an all-time low (39 percent, according to the McClatchy-Marist poll).
The Democrats also are divided on issues (those leaning left believe the president has leaned too far right), but they are united on their candidate. Chances are that the Obama dissenters will end up pulling the lever for their man, despite misgivings and mounting mistrust.
The Republicans are united on some core principles (no new taxes, not now, not ever) but not on their candidate, or even on the tone — bombast from Paint Creek or silky sophistication from Belmont — they want to project against a weak incumbent. A party that can barely gather in the same room without having a fight about evolution or vaccination is a long way from planning an inauguration.