Moment of Truth for GOP’s Conservative Wing

‘Be careful what you wish for’ is an old saying.  For nearly a generation, social conservatives have been pushing to reorganize American life around their strict vision of the world, an effort that has received a boost in recent years when the kindred Tea Party emerged.  The two movements, which could never have achieved majority status on their own, are poised to score a significant victory in their quest by seizing control of the Republican Party.  Moderate Republicans, who have chosen a strategy of accommodation and appeasement, are facing the destruction of their party from inside.

A minority grows bold
Conservatives are betting that their views are a majority: that’s why they are uninterested in compromise.  That’s why they’ve conducted vigorous state-level efforts to dislodge moderate Republicans from Congress, a dreaded process moderates refer to as being “primaried from the right.”  Conservatives have ousted moderates because they believe they don’t need them.  Now, with the Republican convention going on, the moderates’ position is growing more embarrassing, as their status as captives of the right becomes clearer every day.

Romney’s success in the presidential primaries should have been a caution to conservatives: a reminder that moderation is still a more more marketable quality than any of the varieties of conservatism that Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum were peddling.  Despite the vast media attention these conservatives received, their pull at the polls proved paltry.  Yet the pull to the right is so inexorable that Romney, once nominated, felt compelled to choose a conservative running mate, when he might have been better served by choosing a seasoned moderate Republican who knows something about foreign policy.

Moderate Republicans lack a leader who can demonstrate control
There is no moderate Republican strong enough to restrain the conservative wing and demonstrate that moderates remain firmly in control.  Figures like House Speaker John Boehner have struggled unsuccessfully to marshal conservative forces and yoke them to an efficacious national agenda.  But conservatives, enjoying their power, won’t compromise.  The Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

The party platform is a humiliation for moderates
The Republican party platform is the new humiliation—a socially retrograde document that moderates must attempt to explain away.  Virginia governor Bob McDonnell took a stab at it last night, when he tried to convince Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour that the party’s platform represented only ‘the grassroots’ but wasn’t really a binding statement of what all Republicans believed.  Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers also appeared on the show, disavowing Todd Akin’s comments on ‘legitimate rape’ as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘wrong’ while trying to minimize the implications of such views and the fact that many in her party harbor them.  McDonnell also tried to dismiss the objectionable planks by claiming they were ‘small issues’ and just a ‘small part’ of what Republicans believe.

As moderates’ influence wanes, chances increase that the right will destroy the GOP
Yet if these opinions are not representative of the Party, why couldn’t party leaders keep them out of the platform?  Signs of ideological strain within the GOP are mounting, again raising the question, “Should leaders who can’t govern their party govern the country?”—a question I explored here several months ago.

The November election represents a moment of truth for conservatives and the GOP.  At that moment, we will discover whether conservatives’ assumptions are right: whether the backward-looking vision they espouse is one that a national majority cherishes, too.  And if they are wrong?  They will have destroyed the Grand Old Party in pursuit of their dreams.

S. Barsy, Bring Back The Platform, Our Polity.
S. Barsy, Should Leaders Who Can’t Govern Their Party Govern the Country?, Our Polity.
S. Barsy, 2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II), Our Polity.
A. Nagourney, A Party of Factions Gathers, Seeking Consensus, New York Times.

7 responses

  1. The Tea Party and the far right (Paul Ryan) etc., will destroy the GOP……they are going to be a marginal party of white men and “social conservatives” at odds with the changing demographics in this country. This explains their talk about “Armageddon” in this election….it may be literally their last gasp. . . . What I found troubling about the GOP convention was the total lack of factual integrity. I also found it absurd that C. Rice saw fit to lecture Obama on foreign policy. This is a woman who presided over the most disastrous foreign policy in the history of the U.S.

    Make no mistake: a victory by Romney/Ryan would set us back to the pre-New Deal Era. My guess is independents will not buy this nonsense.

    • Joe,
      Many others share your view. Some are even Republicans:,0,3047039.story

      It will be interesting to see whether the president addresses the need for some “healing” around racial issues. Racism and racial acceptance remain stumbling blocks for Americans, as is evident in many blatant and subliminal ways in the present campaign. Even Clint Eastwood—getting the crowd to chant “Make My Day” at the end of his imaginary monologue with the president—ended up enacting a racist fantasy. . . perhaps without even knowing it.

      In general the ideology of the Republican party is very badly dated—yet many in the party seem to be glorying in it, for the reasons that you suggest. The nostalgia is palpable. Wonderful stay-at-home mothers, ample time for charity, small-town verities: where are these now? Yet this seems to be the core (if one could call it anything so substantial) of what the Republicans are yearning for.

      The emotional desire to preserve the vision of an “exceptional” America is visceral and widespread, and will continue to be a strong current in politics until we can replace it with another narrative. SB

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  3. I am very worried about how powerful the tea party has become. As you mention, the monied people in the party are going after the “moderate” GOP lawmakers. The tea party is extremist, but, somehow, its leaders have convinced and fooled millions to join them under their ugly tent. In this 2012 election, if the tea party continues to pick up votes, even John Boehner and Mitch McConnell might find themselves vulnerable—if those two were overthrown, then what could one say about the GOP ??????

    • Goodness, that is a frightening scenario, all right. But I think that it is easy to overestimate the tea party’s strength. Do you think it will be as strong as in the 2010 elections? I think some of the Tea Partiers, like Illinois’s Joe Walsh, will be thrown out of the House; and that it’s possible we’ve already passed the crest of the TP’s gains. The problem for a third party is accomplishing anything while maintaining ideological integrity. The Tea Partiers have not compromised–but they have also not built many majorities, because doing so requires compromise and striking a deal.

      A loss for the GOP’s presidential ticket could signal a waning of the party as a whole. It would lose adherents swiftly, if more come to doubt its status as a majority party, with the capacity to win the White House.

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