The battle for the Republican soul

A post-mortem from the UK:

Republicans are now divided between social conservatives for whom abortion and gay marriage still override all other concerns, and moderates who think the fanaticism of some evangelical voters has driven away independent voters. Many fear the collapse of the Reagan coalition, which united social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives….

The moderates on Wednesday began to voice the view that Mr Obama’s ability to win states in the previously Republican south and mountain west means that in order to compete, Republicans must also change their battle map and again contest Democratic seats in the north east that they have not won in a generation. David Frum, the former White House speech writer, who has emerged as a standard bearer for what might be deemed the ‘David Cameron’ wing of the Republicans, said that the party must change and start addressing issues that concern floating voters.

“We’re not in good shape. Two big things won this election for Barack Obama: a big increase in turnout by ethnic minorities and a big shift in preference by college educated white people. That is where the Bush collapse really took place. That is where Sarah Palin was such a damaging force in the Republican Party. She symbolised a problem that in the eyes of many college educated white people, who Bush got in 2004 and the Republicans owned in the 1980s, the Republican party has become the party of culture war;”

The view from Arizona, where Republicans were digesting John McCain’s defeat, proved that Mr Frum will have a hard time winning over those doctrinaire conservatives who believe that it is the Republican brand, rather than its principles, that is damaged and that it is the Bush administration’s abandonment of the small government conservatism of the Reagan era that caused John McCain’s defeat.

In my opinion, David Frum’s analysis is factually incorrect and logically incoherent, and an intelligent observer will note that while the Republican pragmatists and moderates were obliterated – again – on Tuesday, it was culture war issues that not only triumphed in Democratic strongholds such as California, but downright dominated in battleground states that went for Obama such as Florida. This isn’t to say a cultural approach is a certain vote-winner in all circumstances; voters tend to be skittish of altering state constitutions and usually prefer to steer clear of the more comprehensive abortion bans, but there’s no question that the anti-homogamy, anti-abortion wing of the Republican Party is far more popular than the banker’s bail-out wing or the Israel First feather.

This should be completely obvious, since one of the main accusations leveled against Sarah Palin by the Frum camp has been that she is a “populist”.

“Cameronian” is an apt description of the squishy Republican moderate faction, since Cameron’s wets had absolutely no hope of defeating a decrepit and scandal-ridden Labour Party until Gordon Brown made the mistake of not calling for an election prior to the UK’s economic meltdown. What the Squish faction is calling for should be familiar to everyone who remembers the pre-Reagan Rockefeller Republicans: a Democrat Lite option designed to appeal primarily to those who generally favor an amount of government intervention but fear the Democrats have gone too far.

This is the political version of Brad Childress’s coaching strategy, with which every despairing Vikings fan is all too familiar. Try to keep it close, don’t take any risks or make any mistakes, just stay in the game and hope that your opponent makes a mistake towards the end that will let you steal a victory. In football, this strategy will win the occasional game, but it never wins the Super Bowl. (Don’t bother bringing up the Baltimore Ravens; if you’ve got a powerful defense capable of overwhelming the other offense at will and forcing it to make mistakes, then the caretaker-QB route is perfectly viable.)

It’s worth noting that the same Republican squishes who are now inaccurately claiming that social conservatism is the problem simultaneously cling to three of the most widely unpopular policies in politics today: the military occupations, the Wall Street bail-outs, and open migration. If the Frum faction remains influential in the Republican Party, they will ensure its return to the tiny minorities of the FRD era. Followership is not a functional strategy in any field of life, least of all national politics.