There is a real battle right now to define conservatism in America and that battle has made for an unusual first half of the Republican primary season. Interesting maybe, trifling and disheartening perhaps, but it has shined a very clear light on the fact that the Republican Party feels it has few leaders that accurately speak for the majority of them, in large part because the Party is scattered and there isn’t much connection to or consensus about the priorities of conservatives in America on a working-class, personal level. Some elements within the Party cling to outdated conservative tenets such as Deregulation always and everywhere, despite the fact that faulty unregulated financial practices led directly to the economic crisis. Some trade blatantly in emotional, reactionary rhetoric, a la anything Sarah Palin has ever said, the slogan “Drill baby drill!”, and the Tea Party movement in general. Some Neoconservative elements still persist, the influence of Religion (read: Christianity) is still alive and well in the Party (see: gay marriage debate), and Money and Greed are both still good, exemplified in the front-runner for the presidential nomination. The problem is that in the face of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, no Republican has any good solutions and so much energy is spent whining and finding reasons to hate Obama that no one is taking the time to lead the cause for useful, compassionate, relevant conservatism. I had planned to post a second Presidential Politics article early in the race, back when Mitt Romney looked to have the nomination locked up, but distractions are distractions and other matters needed blog attention. The contest has changed considerably since then, so for those of us that may not be following all the ins and outs, let’s do a quick crash course in the 2012 Republican Primary race.
Essentially, the Primary system is a popularity contest. The idea is to whittle down the field of Republican candidates for the presidential election to determine the Party nominee – Republican only, because Obama is running for re-election and thus the Democrats already have their candidate. Each state has a primary election date and the basic concept is that each state has a certain number of delegates to commit toward the nomination, the winning number this year being 1144 (more than 50% of the total delegates). The rules of each state’s primary differ, as far as how the delegates are committed to each candidate; some states are winner-take-all, some are proportional. Also, the majority of the primaries are binding, meaning the delegates won count toward the candidates overall total but some are non-binding (e.g. Missouri) and don’t count toward the candidates’ totals, making the Primary results serve no more purpose than to know the opinions of the voting populace in that state. The central concept of the primary process is usually one of momentum; once one candidate has won a large majority of the primary contests the other candidates bow out and the Party has its nominee to be officially voted on and announced at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in August. This year is different and we’ll begin to see why as we look at the four remaining candidates and conservatives’ general lack of enthusiasm for any one of them.
As I said at the beginning, the identity of conservatism, especially in a decade where the Tea Party has come into formation, seems to be being pulled in a number of directions. The size of government and the amount it spends dominate the national conversation, specifically in relation to the bailouts and the deficit. All four Republican candidates are vocal in their criticism of Obama’s handling of the economic crisis, a sentiment that is representative of the (conservative) American public, but have set forth few (if any) impressive ideas of their own on the matter. Beyond the economy, Obamacare, immigration, foreign policy (Iran), gay marriage and energy policy have risen as important possible election issues but with little in the way of a consensus.
Pretty much since the beginning of the Primary season, Mitt Romney has been the front-runner and appeared most likely to get the nomination. What was perhaps most disheartening about that, something that even those in Romney’s base know, is that he doesn’t actually believe in anything. It makes him a moderate, especially on social issues, but mostly by default. He represents a segment of the Republican population whose only real point of agreement is winning an election against Obama and feel (innately perhaps) that a centrist like Romney rather than his more conservative opponents, less likely to drive away independent voters who are not as adherent to conservative social beliefs, gives them their best chance of succeeding. Few (if any) Romney supporters describe themselves as ardent or passionately supportive and yet he somehow continues to be the front-runner.
Newt Gingrich is a more true conservative, fiscally and socially, and seems to be the biggest voice for defining conservatism in America (for better or worse). As former Speaker of the House, his efforts and accomplishments are vast, as are his political scandals and “extra-curricular” storylines. He is beloved in the South, an obvious conservative stronghold, but is having difficulty gaining support on a national scale.
Ron Paul is a not actually a Republican but rather a Libertarian and what some call a paleoconservative (gonna have to Wikipedia that one, kids, digging into that requires a whole other post). A social moderate (of sorts) but a fiscal ultra-conservative, promising to reduce the federal deficit by $1 trillion in his first year and wanting to get rid of the income tax altogether. His grassroots support is famously the strongest of any of the candidates, with a vibrant movement among college-age voters and with the closest ties to the Tea Party. He is a physician, a strict constitutionalist and an intelligent man with ideas that seem to hit at the explanations of problems where the other candidates deal in surface material and soundbytes. On his dark side, Paul has a number of supporters with, let’s say, less-than-appealing agendas and creeds. Most notably, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the newsletters bearing his name, The Ron Paul Freedom Report, et al., often featured disturbing views on issues such as race, homosexuality and immigration and the level of responsibility taken by Paul for the writings has been inconsistent at best. In addition, his political career features support from and for a host of white nationalists; David Duke, Chuck Baldwin, Don Black, to name a few. While the views of these individuals are obviously not illegal, association of an elected official and presidential candidate with figures that the general public would label archaic and extreme – consistent, not passing association – can be troublesome.
This brings us to Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania senator that no one else really knows and the closest remnant we have in this race to a neoconservative (think Bush/Cheney). Advocating strict conservative views on same-sex marriage, birth control and foreign policy (specifically Iran and the War on Terror), Santorum often comes across as the most confrontationally conservative. While little weight has been given to social issues in an election focused on the economy, with Rick Perry gone the other Rick has taken on the mantle of the liberalism-is-destroying-your-family conservative, in many ways a staple of the Republican Party.
So those are the players, now let’s take a quick look at the score: The first four primaries, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, are commonly the most important since they establish the tone of momentum going forward. This year, despite an (eventual) win by Santorum in Iowa and a surge for Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney was fairly secure in his position as front-runner after the first four contests and went on to take more than 50% on the vote in Nevada, the fifth primary. Then things got a little scrambled. The next four primary contests (Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado, and Maine) were non-binding (mentioned above) and Santorum brought himself back to the national forefront with overwhelming wins in the three of the four. In step with his wins, Santorum has ramped up his rhetoric on social issues like birth control health care coverage, pre-natal screening, gay marriage and the president’s theological tenets. At first glance this might seem to be an effective strategy, marking a return to a conversation about family values and other more “traditional” Republican issues. But the same “culture warrior” role that Santorum is now painting for himself and finding success behind, is also making many in the Party nervous as they look forward to November. He appeals in a visceral sense to the conservative of the 1990’s and early 2000’s but doesn’t fit the role of Republican leader in a new conservatism focused chiefly on fiscal responsibility. And yet somehow, in this crazy thing we call the Primary Race, the battle for the lead and the voice of conservatism in America is between the Flip-Flopper and the NeoCon, leaving the PaleoCon flapping his gums in the wind and Gingrich, the “true” conservative, steadily losing his voice in the conversation.
There have been rumors in the last couple weeks about a fifth candidate, someone not in the race thus far who could emerge in this second half of the primary season, and about what will happen if we reach the RNC without a clear nominee. As a devout Obama-ite, nothing makes me happier than seeing such disorganization in the GOP. It truly speaks, though, to the struggle to define conservatism in modern America. Much like 2004 when Democrats faced an incumbent president that they greatly distrusted and disliked but could not produce a candidate of their own to oppose him that inspired confidence, in 2012 Republicans are searching for a voice to unify their party and after seeing the four men vying for the nomination they continue to say together, “Who else you got?”