Thirty years after Ronald Reagan was president, Republicans are still running on a tripartite alliance of social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives. Alas, such candidates run on a myth; that coalition has splintered and what will replace it is far from clear.
We see evangelicals supporting a robust foreign policy, libertarians objecting to the war on terrorism, supply-siders pushing back against penny punchers, pro-lifers split between pro- and anti-gay rights support. The GOP is beginning look like that Jewish joke — show me two Jews and you’ll find three opinions.
How does the GOP reconfigure these pieces and on what basis? Or does it reform in some other fashion? The idea that a party can remain static in its component parts and beliefs is daft. If the country is evolving and changing in demographic, economic and cultural ways, how can a national political party remain fixed in a set of policy prescriptions and in its component parts? Huge shifts are the norm, not the exception. Recall that the Democratic Party went from being the pro-Jim Crow party to one embracing 90 percent or more of African Americans.
So what does the GOP do to remain a national party based on a core belief in liberty? One approach would be to become the reform party on entitlements, education, health care, employee unions and even the Pentagon while being agnostic on social issues.
Or the party could go fully libertarian leaving hawks and social conservatives adrift but gaining urban and suburban professionals and social liberals.
Another formula would be to embrace pro-life, pro-immigration, strong-on-defense conservatives with a Tory welfare state that loses business conservatives but takes on working class and minority voters.
These arrangements are unlikely to happen in a vacuum but rather emerge as a reflection the 2016 presidential nominee and the coalition he or she constructs. A clever candidate might embrace some issues (e.g. pro-life) while agreeing to a truce on others (e.g. marriage) or agree to prioritize without vilifying those objects that nevertheless don’t get top billing (e.g. a strong defense over fiscal conservatism).
The combinations are endless, and while the GOP in the past has been dependent on business donors, the rise of wealthy third-party organizers and PACs has lessened that dependency and opened up more alternatives to a pro-Wall Street bent. Moreover, with a bipartisan effort underway for immigration reform and the two hottest GOP leaders — Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — favoring immigration reform, the anti-immigration sentiment in the party appears to be evaporating much more quickly than most imagined. In the very next presidential election after Mitt Romney a pro-immigration reform, an anti-big business nominee might well lead the party.
The only certainty is that the candidate who comes forward as a cookie-cutter “three-legged-stool” (strong defense, economic conservative, social traditionalist) conservative is going to wind up pleasing no one and running into the same limitations that Mitt Romney did: There are not enough of those voters who follow those prescriptions to win the White House.
So where does this lead the party? I believe it will sort itself out in the primary itself, which becomes more akin to constructing a parliamentary majority (alliances, concessions, truces, compromises of convenience). Rand Paul will go for a libertarian majority, while Marco Rubio will present a pro-life, pro-immigration, domestic reform and internationalist agenda. The candidate who can both win the biggest share of and recruit more supporters to the GOP is the winner, and at the end factions agree to disagree on some items in common cause against an opponent devoted to the domineering welfare state.
This is a very attractive proposition. Fitting the party to a real candidate rather than forcing the candidate to contort himself to fit a static platform makes a lot of sense. For one thing, you’ll get a more genuine party leader. For another, the primary will determine where a substantial coalition can be formed. And most important, this puts a premium on policy.
Imagine a debate in which candidate X says, ” I don’t care much about gay marriage. But if you vote for me I will go to the mat on replacing Obamacare and here’s how I will do it.” Another will say, “I don’t want to replace Obamacare with anything. And I don’t want much of a military either.” No one strains to abide by principles he does not hold dear; the voters figure out which formulation is, while not ideal, most appealing and most likely to appeal outside the party.
Rather than conformity, heterogeneity is prized and special interest factions lose their sway as candidates are liberated to build their own coalition that might not include a no-tax pledge or an anti-same sex marriage pledge. It will also encourage candidates to grow the party to shift the electorate their way. Rubio will go recruit a couple million Hispanics, Paul will sign up a few million college kids and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is going to do the same with blue-collar voters and Northeasterners.
That could be pretty exciting and unpredictable. And in fact I think that is how it will have to work. The Reagan conservative coalition has been shattered and shrunk, and Republicans will figure out will replace it as they go along it in the next few years. Liberal reporters like to talk about a “war among conservatives” or “in-fighting”; in fact there is not a war but a grand re-sorting in progress, the end product of which will depend on how well candidates perform and how convincing are their ideas.
So 2016 wanna-be’s get going: Shape your own agenda, find and recruit your own coalition, and determine how you are going to fund it. But don’t spend any time trying to be all things to all parts of a coalition that for all intents and purposes no long exists.