• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

How the Republicans Got That Way

Mitt Romney; drawing by Pancho

The abrupt departure of Rick Santorum from the Republican presidential contest on April 10, and reports on April 25 that Newt Gingrich had decided to withdraw, gave Mitt Romney a direct path to the nomination, though he was headed there anyway following narrow victories in Ohio (less than 1 percent) and Michigan (about 3 percent) and a wider one in Wisconsin (7 percent). Gingrich had been reduced some weeks ago to the status of heckling irritant rather than serious challenger. Santorum posed a stronger threat, but his wins, when they came, did little to alter Romney’s insurmountable lead in delegates, many of them won in caucuses. Even as Santorum swept to victory in Kansas in March, Romney quietly collected more delegates in Guam, the result of his superior funding and organization.

Nonetheless, a heavy toll has been exacted, not only on Romney but also on the GOP. After more than three years of fierce opposition to President Obama, Republicans have winnowed their choices down to a presumptive nominee who has failed to excite the party’s base, though not for want of trying. No less than his rivals, Romney diligently espouses current GOP orthodoxy, which holds that Obama incarnates a “radical” vision, like FDR and LBJ before him. After winning in Wisconsin—the primary that effectively ended Santorum’s run—Romney said Obama “has pledged to transform America, and he spent the last four years laying the groundwork for a government-centered society.”

Meanwhile, GOP chieftains, including House Speaker John Boehner and the arch-conservative Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favorite, have said the time has come for the party to rally around the front-runner. Yet these endorsements have sounded more dutiful than enthusiastic. DeMint’s came on the same day, March 22, that Santorum, barnstorming in Texas, suggested that if the options in November came down to Romney vs. Obama, the incumbent would be preferable since “we might as well stay with what we have.”

This violated the GOP’s single unifying theme of “anyone but Obama.” But even after he was rebuked (by Gingrich, among others), Santorum returned to the theme. “Pick any other Republican in the country, but [Romney] is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama,” he said while campaigning in Wisconsin. “We need someone who can go out and rally the Republican base,” which remains suspicious of “the moderate Establishment,” as Santorum has termed it—an establishment that today consists of such partisan redoubts as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard, and Fox News, each of which, contrary to Santorum’s complaints, is firmly devoted to the dogma of movement conservatism.

Strategists at the top of the party’s pyramid may prefer a candidate they think will be palatable to independent voters in November. But true believers at the party’s base think differently. They don’t see a competition between two parties, with the prize to be won in the handful of battleground and swing states. They see instead an eschatological crisis, and the forces of darkness include not only Obama and the Democrats, but also “Republicans in Name Only,” ideologically suspect enemies within the gate. The GOP’s previous nominee, John McCain, another suspected moderate, compensated by running even harder to the right after he got the nomination, defying conventional campaign wisdom and alienating independents. If Romney fails to rouse the GOP base, he may be forced to do the same.

There is nothing new in this. Since the inception of “movement conservatism” in the 1950s, Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in Rule and Ruin, his comprehensive account of internecine Republican warfare, the long-range objective for such conservatives has been

to transform the Republican Party into an organ of conservative ideology and purge it of all who resisted the true faith. Moderate Republicans were the primary enemies and targets of movement conservatism. The need to do battle with Democratic liberals often was only a secondary consideration…. [Barry] Goldwater’s warning to moderates at the ’64 GOP national convention that they had to support “extremism in the defense of liberty” or leave the party was a classic expression of rule-or-ruin politics. So too were the conservative efforts to purge moderate Republican officeholders, even at the cost of replacing them with liberal Democrats.

This history underlies Santorum’s assertion that there is no meaningful difference between Romney and Obama and explains his promise, or threat, to continue “the fight” even after he left the race. And it may also explain why he quit when he did. His change of heart was the result, he said, of a shortage of funds, his inability to muster “a penny” to hold off what were sure to be Romney’s lavishly financed attacks in Pennsylvania, Santorum’s home state. A loss there would have been both an embarrassment, repeating Santorum’s humiliating defeat there for a third Senate term in 2006, and a handicap should he try to mount a future run. Better to depart with his armful of trophies and his position, at least for now, as the movement tribune whom the front-runner must appease.

Among the many lessons of the GOP primary in its first, bitterly contested phase is that the conservative movement, still the ideological engine of the GOP, looks very much as it has for many years now, even as new organizations and leaders arise. What initially looked like a fresh burst of populist-libertarian energies on the right, heralded by the emergence of the Tea Party, with its fervent antitax, anti-government “Constitutional conservatism,” has since subsided into familiar arguments about threatened “family values.”

This accounts for the unexpected rise of Santorum, who tapped the energies of evangelicals, including evangelical women who thrill to the story of his seven home-schooled children and his wife’s decision not to abort the last, who was born with a severe birth defect. These voters respond to his revival of issues—birth control and contraception, the corrupting dangers of liberal college professors, the separation of church and state—that many assumed had been settled for most of the public and that are remote from the practical economic matters that many also assume will decide the outcome in November. Yet social and cultural protest has been the touchstone of the American right for more than half a century and at this point is inseparable from GOP politics.

It was fitting that Ralph Reed, a top official with the Christian Coalition in the 1990s and a prime champion of Santorum and the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition (founded in 2009), recently chose to remind Romney that he would be well advised to adopt Santorum’s program, in which economic issues are recast in the terms of “marriage and family” that resonate with religious voters:

Over the course of a low-budget campaign that relied almost entirely on volunteers and was met with disdain by the GOP establishment, Santorum won more than 3 million votes and 11 state primaries—the most by a conservative insurgent candidate since Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Reed pointed this out in The Washington Post shortly after Santorum withdrew, echoing Santorum’s own claim, after his victory in Louisiana, that his was the most successful conservative insurgency since Reagan’s. Reed added: “Santorum outperformed Romney among two key demographic groups, one religious and cultural, the other socioeconomic—and Romney needs both to win in November.” He might have added that those constituencies are most powerfully present in the border states and in Dixie, states that the moderate Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976, but that the movement idol Reagan recaptured in 1980. In recent primaries Romney’s showing among evangelicals has improved (particularly in the Midwest), and he has won the provisional support of longtime social conservatives like Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins, but both have questioned Romney’s “passion” and the intensity of his commitment.

Ralph Reed calculates that in 2008 evangelicals

“made up 23 percent of all voters in the general election. Romney will need them to turn out in even larger numbers to defeat Obama. (He already has a running start; Romney won almost a third of the evangelical vote during the primaries, and a majority of Tea Party voters in Florida and other critical states.)”

But if recent elections are any indication Romney will have to court those voters ardently all the way through the general election. This was the lesson George W. Bush and his strategists drew in 2000, when they took the Christian right for granted, rather than making a concentrated effort to attract it. Sifting through the returns, Karl Rove and his colleagues estimated that as many as four million evangelicals had failed to vote, because their main organization, the Christian Coalition, had “fallen apart,” Dan Gilgoff wrote in The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War (2007).

The mistake would not be repeated in 2004. Extraordinary effort went into organizing evangelicals; the strategy included luring them to the polls by putting on state ballots referendums on same-sex marriage and also “solicit[ing] church directories from Catholic supporters in Pennsylvania” to identify potential voters, Gilgoff noted. The results in November were very different:

Exit polls showed that 3.5 million white evangelicals who stayed home in 2000 cast ballots in 2004. Bush also captured a larger share of the evangelical vote in 2004—78 percent—than in 2000, when 68 percent backed him. Between new evangelical voters and those who had voted for Gore in 2000, Bush picked up nearly 6 million new evangelical votes, about twice his margin of victory.

And their numbers seem to be growing. According to one recent survey, slightly more than half of all primary voters up through March were evangelicals, accounting for “4.29 million votes out of 8.49 million cast,” significantly more than in 2008. In South Carolina the percentage of evangelical voters rose from 55 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2012. In Alabama and Mississippi, states Santorum won handily, as many as eight in ten voters identified themselves as evangelical Christians.

It may seem curious that Santorum, a militant Catholic, should connect so well with evangelical voters. But in fact it was Catholics like Senator Joseph McCarthy and William F. Buckley Jr. who first gave conservatism its modern tone of protest against a liberal elite. In his notorious speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, McCarthy said that the nation’s “enemies from within” could be found among “those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest Nation on earth has had to offer…the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.” A few years later, Buckley, whose book God and Man at Yale accused his alma mater of trying to turn students into “atheistic socialists,” argued that the federal government should increase funding for private schools since they were “the last, best bulwark against the monolith of the new, secular, statist social order.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print