Republican Party needs Zombie Reagan to build a new tent

Are we in the midst of a Republican schism 30 years in the making?

It’s seems outlandish, but the internal ideological struggles of the Republican Party are nothing new.  For those old enough to remember (and realistically I’m not old enough to have profound memories of this), the struggle between what we now call social conservatives and their fiscal conservative party mates is nothing new.

In the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s the Republican Party became strangely divided.  Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a leader within the Republican Party was concerned about the growing strength of the religious right.  Goldwater disagreed with social conservatives over abortion, gay rights, women’s rights, and the separation of church and state.  The growing antipathy was so strong that it allowed Ronald Reagan to ride straight up the middle of the Republican Party like the brooding hero of a spaghetti western.  It would end up being Reagan’s most important role.

Reagan’s subsequent creation of a “big tent” Republican Party allowed the party to create a sense of unity throughout the 80’s.  But in 1987, Goldwater retired, leaving fiscal conservatives and ultimately libertarians without a strong voice.  With the end of Reagan’s second term in 1988, the big tent started to fall apart.  Without a central figure to hold the party together, and without a strong voice for fiscal conservatives, the Republican Party started its hopeful turn towards the religious wing of the party.  It was subtle at first given the election of Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, but it was gaining momentum.

After 8 years with a Democratic president in Bill Clinton, Republican strategists were set to capitalize on the frustration within their new base.  Knowing that long time fiscal conservatives weren’t ready to jump ship and leave a party they believed in for so long, Karl Rove pushed the campaign of George W. Bush hard to the social right.  That fired up base would propel the junior Bush to 8 years in the White House despite record low approval ratings, two wars and a ballooning national debt.

In the meantime, fiscal conservatives were gaining a voice.  Now a senior member of the Republican Party, and a staunch libertarian in every sense of the word, Congressman Ron Paul was piecing together a social movement for fiscal conservatives.  Quietly, the schism was growing, but it was about to explode.

Out of the social movement surrounding Ron Paul, America’s right wing gave birth to a new libertarian movement and the slow growth of the Libertarian Party.  Shortly thereafter, the Tea Party was born.

Initial speculation was that the Tea Party represented frustrated, underrepresented fiscal conservatives.  But over time, the details of the Tea Party have gotten clearer.  The Tea Party emerged in the space vacated by the rift in the Republican Party.  These were social conservatives who had become economically disenfranchised and subsequently adopted select fiscal ideals to support their social ideology.

The Republican Party was now divided into three internal parts: Reagan conservatives, libertarians, and the Tea Party.  As the division became apparent following the 2008 and 2010 elections, Republican politicians and pundits immediately took to the Sunday morning shows and Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room, pleading for a big tent to emerge.  But without a single unifying voice like Reagan, there were no tent builders to be had.

The resulting 2012 Republican primary produced a wide range of ideological candidates, including Ron Paul, several Tea Party candidates and two Reaganites in John Huntsman and Mitt Romney.  With such a wide field, candidates were compelled to appeal to the religious base identified in the 2000 and 2004 elections.  The ensuing rush to the right has been widely blamed as one of the reasons for Romney’s loss in the general election.  Not only had that rush to the right alienated any Democratic leaning swing voters, it convinced many libertarians to vote for a third party candidate.

Clearly, Reagan proved that a unifying figure with an impressive cult of personality can bring the Republican Party together, but in the absence of such a personality, there are serious problems looming for the party.  Goldwater conservatives are moving to the Libertarian Party, traditional Reagan conservatives are aging, and social conservatives are faced with the reality that their candidates can’t break through to a general election fight.

Theories in political science suggest that voters who cast a ballot for the same party three elections in a row are much more likely to be locked into supporting that party for life.  That theory has lead some to suggest the Republican Party is in serious danger of losing an entire generation of voters.  But in a changing society much more focused on instantaneous results, there is hope in the field of landmines for Republicans.

The one hope Republicans have is a fickle populous and the emergence of leadership that can glue the fractured party back together.

In the absence of such a character, that same fickle populous could be the hanging yarn on the Republican sweater.  Generational conservatives – the children of Goldwater or Reagan conservatives – suddenly become a commodity for centrist Democrats.  After over a decade of watching as the religious base has been pandered to, it’s those voters – the heart of the Republican Party that become the low hanging fruit of the Republican electorate.  And the slow bleeding of the Republican Party is a dream to Democrats.  Regardless of the destination of those vacating voters, the Democratic Party becomes stronger.