The Republican coalition born out of remarkable political personalities needs to be rebuilt by a remarkable political personality. The GOP needs a W in 2012. Not a win. A Bush.
In my last post I wrote about the departure of security voters from the GOP, the loss of whom does not just spell electoral defeat now - it is a potentially crippling blow to the Republican Party, one that leaves them vulnerable to a divisive internal struggle which could prolong their period in the wilderness.
The problem is not simply one of numbers. The national security advantage of the GOP concealed a serious crack in the Party's foundation - the fact that wealth conservatives and social conservatives are not natural allies. There can be areas of overlap - a wealthy conservative may be against gay marriage, for example, and a social conservative may favor lower taxes - but there are a host of opportunities for conflict within the party that have been sidestepped by a general consensus over national security.
A good example of this is immigration, which pits the socially-conservative, populist base (opposed to the supposed loss of American jobs and, in my experience, to the Spanish language as concept and reality) against wealthy corporate conservatives, many of whose business interests benefit from a class of worker not protected by labor laws and unions. National security was a trump card for the GOP (and some Democrats) - 'we have to close our borders because bad people could sneak across', a talking point which satisfies both.
The future of the GOP has played out during the economic crisis, as John McCain and Sarah Palin have railed against a political system that favors Wall Street over Main Street. The devil in these particular details is that Wall Street and Main Street are both Republican constituencies, and the only thing that kept them away from a bloody class-war was the military base in between. Now that the soldiers, vets, and concerned citizens of that base have decamped, there is no buffer. What the GOP must fear is that Main Street social conservatives will continue to publicly militate against wealthy Wall Street conservatives, who have already demonstrated an inclination to stray from the Republican fold.
This does not mean that the Republican Party will automatically devolve into civil war, or that the wealthy will depart permanently. The Republican Party has the market on tax cuts for the wealthy, and as long as that incentive is around the wealthy will eventually return. What it does mean is that the Republican Party will require a very skilled leader as their candidate in 2012 to make peace between the party's financiers and its core voters; that might not win them the election, but it will go a long way toward coalescing and energizing a dispirited and fractured party.
Who will play the role of the 2012 Bush, rebuilding what W himself shattered? Let's take a look at some of the likely Republicans auditioning for the 2012 role of all the king's horses and all the king's men (I rely on readers of this blog to let me know who I have omitted, as this will not be the last time we at VomPolitik write about the GOP race in 2012):
- Mike Huckabee (former Governor, Arkansas; conservative television presenter)
- Sarah Palin (Governor, Alaska; Vice Presidential candidate)
- Mitt Romney (former Governor, Massachusetts)
- John Thune (Senator, South Dakota)
- Bobby Jindal (Governor, Louisiana)
- Newt Gingrich (former Speaker of the House of Representatives; conservative political analyst)
- Tim Pawlenty (Governor, Minnesota)
- Rick Perry (Governor, Texas)
The danger for the Party is clear. Of the Top Tier candidates (whom I define based on recent exposure and experience on the national trail - all three were on the stump this year in one form or another), only one of them has the chance to be the party's next W. That would be Mike Huckabee, whose conservative Christian roots created initial concern amongst some members of the GOP but who has since mended fences via his strong anti-tax positions, eliciting the support even of Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform. More than that, he's been able to balance interests on the potentially-lethal immigration question, calling immigrants 'the children of god' while at the same time supporting the 700-mile wall.
Palin, meanwhile, has branded herself as the representative of the small-town Republican Party that belittles and despises the educated, wealthy conservative elite of which Romney is one of the most public examples. The choice of either is not likely to unify the Party and give the Republican leadership permission to be heard again by its own membership, delaying by four years the chance to win permission to be heard by the electorate as a whole.
The other candidates have their own advantages, of course, and some of them have the potential to develop into the next W. Any analysis of the strong candidates, however, must begin with the Top Tier, who have been in critical states as candidates for the White House for the past year, and that same analysis must note the significant absence of a national security candidate. For now, the GOP's chances of beginning its rebuilding in 2012 from its Top Tier stand at no better than one in three. The long, dark night is just beginning.