For almost 30 years, a far-right faction of Republicans has been asking for a nominee that satisfies their conservative needs. Pat Robertson tried in 1988. Pat Buchanan ran in 1992 and 1996. Gary Bauer, 2000; Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, 2008.
Each time, the conservatives got a loyal party man: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney. And with a single one-term exception — Bush, 1988 — they all lost, because they weren’t conservative enough.
That, anyway, is the theory.
Now the Republicans have, in Rick Santorum, a candidate who’s a conservative runner-up.
There’s little point in dissecting the challenges Santorum faces. According to Politico, the former senator is polling near the bottom of a packed Republican field. One poll by Public Policy Polls shows him trailing Scott Walker by five points and tied with Ben Carson in his home state of Pennsylvania. Just about the only thing going for poor Santorum is the backing of conservative billionaire Foster Friess.
Santorum won’t win. That much is clear. And the reason why is the most obvious but perhaps the most vexing for today’s GOP candidates: The conservative base of the Republican Party is overrated. In fact, according to a recent Gallup survey, the percentage of Republicans who identify as conservative has dropped 15 points since 2012. There’s only so much GOP candidates should expect from a quickly contracting base.
Presidential politics are different from all other politics in this country. In terms of state and local politics, where most laws are made, the GOP appears stronger than it has been in nearly 90 years, according to political analysts Sean Trende and David Byler at RealClearPolitics. Given the Republicans' success in state houses and in the Congress in the two midterms of Barack Obama’s presidency, that’s hard to deny.
But winning the White House requires a national party to forge a broad coalition, even if that coalition is in essence a peace treaty between warring factions. For most of the first half of the 20th century, an uneasy alliance between Southern conservatives and Northern liberals made up the Democratic Party’s majoritarian hold on the federal government.
That coalition was the foundation for what’s sometimes referred to as the era of “liberal consensus,” a period from the 1940s to the 1960s in which moderate Republicans were forced to bargain while conservatives, if they existed, were barred from sitting at the table. When historian Arthur Schlesinger published “The Vital Center” in 1949, he wasn’t talking about centrism as we know it today. He was talking about the midpoint between liberalism and socialism.
Poll after poll shows an electorate increasingly liberal in social matters and increasingly impatient with a conservative base that’s unable or unwilling to change.
In the wake of major liberal advancements — the safety-net initiatives of FDR’s New Deal, landmark civil- and voting-rights legislation and the antiwar movement — that coalition began to crack, at first slowly in the 1940s, then precipitously in the 1960s.
By 1968, the coalition was destroyed after a party boss ordered police to crack the heads of protesters in the streets of Chicago. While establishment Democrats drove away liberals, Republican Richard Nixon peeled off conservatives in the suburban North and in the South and with his hugely effective “Southern Strategy” — these voters later propelled the rise of Ronald Reagan. The decline of the Democrats led directly to our first conservative president in 1980.
The Republican coalition — big business, evangelical Christians, libertarians, nativists and traditional conservatives — isn’t cracking. As I mentioned, the Republican Party may be more united than in any time since 1928. But unity may be symptomatic of a shrinking coalition. Poll after poll shows an electorate increasingly liberal in social matters and increasingly impatient with a conservative base that’s unable or unwilling to change.
Indeed, the Gallup poll found that one in four Republicans say they are liberal or moderate in these respects. And a fifth split the difference, saying they socially liberal but economically conservative. All of which bodes poorly for GOP candidates chasing the base.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are enjoying the strong, diverse and growing support of the Obama electorate comprised of nonwhites and white liberals (educated, professionals living in urban centers). Those under 40 will see in Hillary Clinton a major candidate running on a platform of economic populism for the first time in their lives.
Divide and conquer
The Republicans’ power to divide national Democrats on so-called wedge issues —whether they are Nixon’s “law and order” or George W. Bush’s “gays, guns and God” crowd — is declining. That suggests the political realignment that started decades ago is finally coming to a close. Because the Republicans can’t poach “moderate” Democratic voters anymore, they are trying to drill down into the base as much as possible, even if that narrows their long-term horizons.
The Republicans are thus returning to their historical role as the party of the minority, while the Democrats are reclaiming their historical role as the party of the majority.
Years from now, perhaps decades from now, we may look back on the Reagan years as not so much a conservative revolution but a long interruption while the Democratic Party rebuilt its coalition under political circumstances more favorable to its majoritarian principles. The conservative base doesn’t matter like it used to.
Someone should tell Santorum.