Saturday, February 13, 2016

Et Tu, Rafael y Donaldo? The Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

The first caucus and the first primary of the 2016 race for the White House are now in the rear view mirror.  Voters in the two whitest states in the union rendered a split verdict with 28% of Iowans voting for Rafael Edward 'Ted' Cruz and 35% of New Hampshire voters casting ballots for Donald J. Trump.  Meanwhile, traditional Republicans like John Kasich and Jeb Bush struggle to gain traction with voters.  Their brand of moderate, fiscal and social conservatism has fallen into disfavor among an electorate looking for bold, sassy, and sexy.  Make no mistake about it, true conservatism is anything but sexy.  Governing and attempting to solve problems to make people's lives better is not bold but it is morally right.  Making promises that are impossible to deliver upon (a wall paid for by Mexico, deporting 12 million immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the U.S., etc.) are not conservative ideas at all...they are populist demagoguery.  Promising to grow the military while cutting taxes, ripping up the international agreement with Iran, and canceling the health insurance subsidies of 13 million Americans are not conservative ideas either, but they are bold.  Making people's lives worse is not what conservatism is about. 

We really shouldn't be surprised at where we are now because we've been here before.  The extreme right was vanquished and sent scurrying back under the rock from which it crawled in 1964 when Lyndon Baines Johnson annihilated Barry Goldwater by 23 percentage points while winning 44 states to Goldwater's six states (all southern + Arizona).  Four years later the 'moderate' California Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in a close contest after Johnson declined to run and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, leaving only Hubert Humphrey standing for the Democrats.  Nixon governed as a social conservative but an economic liberal and staunch anti-communist.  In essence, he was a Rockefeller Republican rather than a Goldwater Republican.  His successor, Jerry Ford, also governed as a traditional Rockefeller Republican...with Nelson Rockefeller as his vice-president. 

The first Goldwater disciple elected president was Ronald Reagan, the Democrat cum Republican.  Reagan preached a toned down version of Goldwater's extremism and George Wallace's racism, preferring to use 'dog whistles' to appeal to boll weevil southern Democrats.  Yet, Reagan governed as a pragmatic conservative who fought to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, cut tax rates but also raise them when necessary to slow the growth of the deficits.  A fervent warrior against communism, Reagan nevertheless sat down with the Soviet leadership to negotiate treaties to reduce the risk of nuclear war.  Through it all, Reagan maintained a good working relationship with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. 

Running to succeed Reagan as the favorite son was his vice-president, George H.W. Bush, himself socially conservative and fiscally responsible.  He governed as a true northeastern Rockefeller Republican who was true to his convictions, sought to use the power of government to improve people's lives through legislation promoting clean air/water and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  More importantly, Bush was willing to break his pledge not to raise taxes when faced with a deficit spiraling out of control by extracting some spending reductions from Democrats in exchange for tax increases, a deal that was instrumental in setting the nation on a course toward the budget surpluses of the late '90's.  Yet, that broken promise would be the impetus for the rebirth of the Goldwater wing of the party.  George H.W. Bush would be defeated by Bill Clinton in a three way race that saw many Republicans abandon Bush for H. Ross Perot.  My own calculation shows that without Perot in the race there were at least 140 Electoral Votes that might have gone to Bush rather than Clinton, enough to win a second term.

When the Republicans took control of Congress after the 1994 midterm elections, Goldwater conservatism was on the rise.  After the rebuke of two government shutdowns, the re-election of a popular Democratic President, and a narrow Electoral College victory by George W. Bush (while losing the popular vote), the Goldwater Republicans were reeling.  It took eight years of George W. Bush, an economic meltdown of epic proportion, the election of an African-American Democrat, and the emergence of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party to awaken the slumbering Goldwater wing.  Yet, the far right was unable to muster enough strength to nominate a 'true' conservative in either 2008 or 2012. 

So here we are in 2016, facing yet another battle for control of the Republican Party, one that may just lead to its implosion.  The Goldwater wing has suffered setback after setback in its attempt to seize control of the party.  Now it has been handed another chance by Donald J. Trump and his populist demagoguery.  In a wisp of irony, Rafael Edward Cruz, the Canadian born son of a Cuban emigre, is vying to be crowned as Goldwater's true heir by pushing an extreme brand of conservatism that dates back to the John Birch Society and McCarthyism.  Seventy-two percent of Iowans and 88.3% of New Hampshire voters chose somebody else in their recent caucus and primary.  The so-called establishment wing of the party split the vote among four candidates in IA and NH.  As of this writing one has left the race (NJ Gov. Chris Christie).  One week until South Carolinians get to weigh in.  The question is, will they help Donald Trump stick yet another knife in the back of the Goldwater wing?  Will the three traditional Republicans be able to garner enough of the vote to take the fight for the heart and soul of conservatism forward?  A week from now we're likely to get some answers.

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