Republicans: a party in pieces
The McCain, Huckabee and Romney roadshows showed that the GOP ain’t so grand anymore.
The Republicans seem to have a clear frontrunner in the race for their presidential nominee. While the Democrats continue to battle through the primary process, it seems fairly certain that Senator John McCain will be the next Republican presidential nominee. McCain scored a series of major victories in the Super Tuesday primary voting, winning contests in most of the big states, including New York, New Jersey and California.
McCain’s supporters have waited a long time for this. In 2000, McCain ran against George W Bush for the Republican Party’s nomination. Then, he was seen by many as a popular and likeable maverick, but his candidacy was crushed by the central party machine, which pushed Bush forward. Now in 2008, McCain supporters finally feel they have payback. They are vocal and enthusiastic. ‘Mac is Back!’ is their rallying cry.
Yet for all their gusto, the party that McCain looks set to represent in the presidential elections is not the gilded prize it might once have been; rather it is divided, demoralised and lost.
The Republican presidential nomination process has revealed what a motley crew the party has become. Seven years of the Bush presidency has left the Republican Party exhausted and bereft of ideas and policies. With no clear mission, it has fractured around narrow concerns and outdated interests. Even if the populist John McCain takes the helm, it is hard to see how the Republicans can continue to wear the badge of ‘Grand Old Party’.
Throughout the primary process, it’s become clear that there is no natural successor to Bush and the party leadership. The Republican candidates who battled it out on Super Tuesday well reflected the fractured nature of the GOP. Look at the three Republicans who clashed on Super Tuesday, and it’s clear that they have sprung from a party that simply cannot agree on priorities and which has no unifying mission.
McCain’s appeal to Republicans is built on his reputation for being tough on security issues. He frequently speaks about ‘going after bin Laden’; he pushed for the surge in Iraq long before President Bush made it happen. He is, then, an ardent supporter of US troops and the war. At the same time, however, McCain takes every opportunity to distinguish himself from the tarnished Bush.He is also seen as the candidate who can reach across the political aisle. He has attracted moderates and independents, because he has more liberal views on gun control, immigration and campaign finance reform than other Republicans. It is striking that, on Super Tuesday, he polled best in so-called ‘blue states’ – that is, states that are likely to vote for a Democratic president in November.
Mitt Romney, who had a poor showing on Super Tuesday, appeals to the more fiscally conservative elements of the GOP. Despite his own spending record in his home state of Massachusetts, Governor Romney’s supporters see him as the guy who can return the party to its Reaganomic roots by cutting spending and reining in the massive federal budget deficit. And yet, the fact that he is floundering highlights the extent to which Republicans have deprioritised and even abandoned this former stalwart idea in their political programme. Romney is learning that in a campaign in which both Republicans and Democrats are speaking in the language of ‘change’, harking back to a Reagan-style agenda doesn’t work.
Mike Huckabee appeals to socially conservative voters. He has put his opposition to abortion and his religious faith at the centre of his political campaigning. He made some gains in the Bible Belt south, and won the nominations in Georgia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. But the narrow geographical spread of his support shows that Christian conservatives are not the force they once were. Outside the old Bible Belt, evangelical Christians failed to vote as a bloc. In non-Southern states, nearly a third of evangelical Christians threw their lot in with Senator McCain – even though he supports embryonic stem cell research. This shows that so-called ‘values issues’ are less important to these voters than people imagine. For all the talk of a powerful and coherent religious right in the US, in fact Christian voters seem as undecided and changeable as many other voters around the country.
The Republican Party is split into factions because the neo-conservative mission that drove the George W Bush presidency, and which has dominated the GOP since the days of Reagan, has reached a state of complete political exhaustion. The Republican candidates’ campaigning on Super Tuesday – where appealing to religious sentiment didn’t quite work, and where McCain was looked upon favourably as much for his non-Bush style approach and his liberal veneer as for his support for the Iraq war – shows clearly that old Republican values have corroded and collapsed.
For example, the notion of ‘spreading democracy’ around the globe ran aground long ago in the debacle of the Iraq war. American troops were not welcomed with flowers and open arms in the way that many neocons believed they would be. While some, including McCain and many (but not all) of his supporters, refuse to admit defeat in Iraq as a matter of principle, it is hard to imagine how any future Republican leader could use the rallying cries of ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ to launch another international venture. Pragmatism and containment are now the overriding principles of the Republican approach to foreign affairs; even McCain tends to limit himself to speaking about ‘security’ – that is, keeping Americans safe – rather than talking in old neocon tones about bringing freedom to the world.
Fiscal conservatism also seems to have no place in the modern Republican Party. It is true that Republican voters still cling to the fantasy of small government and fiscal restraint, yet President Bush has increased government spending three time faster than President Bill Clinton did. And with his recent call for a three trillion dollar budget, Bush’s administration does not project a balanced budget until the year 2012.
Despite Mike Huckabee’s support in the Bible Belt, even the Republicans’ social conservatism agenda is dissipating. A hard core of evangelicals still battles on, but the failure of the Bush administration to genuinely shift the ground in the Culture Wars – in the way that many East Coast liberals told us they would – means that even evangelicals are re-evaluating their priorities.
Conservative Christians are now a far more disparate group of voters than they were in the past. Conservatives have not been immune to the social and political changes that have occurred over the past eight years. For example, many in the Christian conservative movement have gone green. ‘Saving the planet’ – or as they put it, ‘stewardship of the earth’ – is considered by many to be the true Christian calling in 2008. Here, the so-called Bible-bashers have more in common with someone like Barack Obama than with certain hard-faced neocons of the past.
However, one of the main reasons why the indirection of the GOP in the current campaigning seems so striking, certainly to liberal voters and commentators in the US, is because the notion that the Republicans were ever a coherent, religious, imperial and ambitious force was always more of a myth than reality. For years, both liberal Democrats and international observers discussed the Republicans as a party of crazed conservatives driven by blind fundamentalism and with a fervent, unshakeable grip on the country’s stupid electorate. In truth, the Republican Party was never that party. True, it sometimes looked invincible – but that was largely a result of the feeble character of the Democratic opposition. In the past 30 years, the Republicans have not been a strong-willed or purposeful party – and the current campaigning seems to be making that clear to anyone who cares to look.
What next? McCain may try to cobble together some kind of alliance with Huckabee’s supporters. While this might help to win some social conservatives to his cause, it may not go down very well with the more moderate and independent voters who have been key to McCain’s success. Perhaps McCain’s best chance is to run against Hillary Clinton. While Republicans conservatives cannot agree on much in their own party, they do find Hating Hillary to be a strangely unifying experience. They may unite in November to keep her out: but even if that were to bring Republicans presidential victory, being anti-Hillary would not provide them with anything like a mission or a vision for the future.
Helen Searls live in Washington DC and is managing editor of Feature Story News.
Helen Searls looked at the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. Sean Collins asked if Obama will change American politics, while John Browne characterised Obama as the candidate of white America. Mick Hume asked what Hope for real Change in America? Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.
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