Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Campaign 2008 - Fault Lines, Fissures and Fractures

“So even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long.”
- Ecclesiastes 9:16 (New Living Translation)

I suspect the internecine warfare is about to begin in earnest. Newt Gingrich recently appeared on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” In response to a question about the possibility of a brokered convention selecting him as the Republican nominee he said:
“I think the brokered convention would pick one of the people who had filed for president, but I think the process, after all, it was... You know, Abraham Lincoln was running third and won the convention. He didn't come in first on the first ballot, and so, I think there's nothing unhealthy about the Republican Party having a serious discussion. We are at the end of the George W. Bush era. We are at the end of the Reagan era. We're at a point in time when we're about to start redefining -- as a number of people started talking about, starting to redefine -- the nature of the Republican Party, in response to what the country needs.”

I actually like the idea of a brokered convention. The king makers, however, don’t. The day after Gingrich made the comment, Rush Limbaugh took him to task:

“Is there a Gingrich coalition that has replaced the Reagan coalition? For that matter, what is the McCain coalition? If we're going to have a new era, what is the McCain era? What is the Huckabee era? What is their winning coalition? They don't have one. You know, all this sounds like Third Way kind of talk, the triangulation of the Clinton years in the nineties. But I don't know what the McCain era would be, and I don't know what the Huckabee coalition is. They don't have a coalition. They're out trying to get votes of independents and Democrats. They're pandering to moderates and independents.”

A couple of things became very clear to me after reading both transcripts. First, there’s a fissure about ready to pope wide open in the Republican Party. Second, the battle is really less about the heart and soul of the Party than it is about who is going to wield power and call the shots.

Limbaugh made it clear that he dislikes the ideas of Mike Huckabee and John McCain as much as he dislikes the things Newt Gingrich has to say, for principally the same reason. He claims that he wants to move the country, and the Republican Party, to a position left of center. He does everything in his power to paint the three men and those who support them as anti-conservative, anti Declaration of Independence, and anti-principle.

The truth is, conservatism is not a monolithic movement, subject to the dictates of a small, elite ruling class. Conservatives are automatons; they’re people. In 1980 Ronald Reagan rebuilt a movement. He swept into power with the support of blue collar Democrats and social conservatives. Were they his base? I don’t know, but I do know he could never have been elected without them. I suspect a good number of them are Mike Huckabee and John McCain supporters today.

I think Newt Gingrich was trying to express the challenge he sees in the Conservative movement. Like him, I think it would be healthy for the Republican Party to have the discussion about where we’re going. I think the first order of business if, or when, that conversation takes place is to determine what role the Reagan Democrats and social/religious conservatives should play. The great conservative ideas will remain, tried and true. But the coalition, built so skillfully by Ronald Reagan, will not again flourish again until those who call themselves leaders see that conservatives must “endeavor to teach humanity once more that the germ of public affections (in Burke’s words) is ‘to learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.’ The task for conservative leaders is to reconcile individualism- which sustained nineteenth century life even while it starved the soul of the nineteenth century – with a sense of community that ran strong in Burke and Adams.”

It is that sense of community that is driving some away from the conservatism practiced for far too long. Some years ago George Bush spoke to a gathering of supporters. In thanking them for their support he said, “I see here a gathering of the haves…and the have mores…or as I like to refer to them – my base.” I think what we’re seeing played out right now is a battle of the “little platoons.” It’s the social/religious conservatives and the Reagan Democrats versus the haves and have mores.

I’m hoping that the convention is brokered and we can have the necessary conversation. Perhaps we can reconcile our differences. On the other hand, it may be that our differences are irreconcilable. Whatever the outcome, it won’t be made by Rush Limbaugh or the Party’s king makers. It will be made by the “little platoons” of social/religious conservatives and Reagan Democrats.

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