With Mike Huckabee winning Iowa, John McCain winning New Hampshire and Mitt Romney winning Michigan, all in 12 days, pundits are saying the GOP is in chaos. That prognosis is premature.
Undoubtedly, with the nation in the fifth year of an unpopular war and the economy tanking along with President Bush’s poll numbers, GOP prospects for holding the White House are poor.
But what is taking place in the Republican primaries is healthy. A new party is taking shape, or rather being hammered into shape. GOP leaders are being introduced, sometimes rudely, to the reality that the national party has lost touch both with the country and its own base. And the would-be future leaders are either listening, or they are losing.
Refusing to hide his Christian beliefs, Mike Huckabee put them on public display in Iowa. After a second-place finish in the August straw poll, thanks to evangelical support, he rose steadily until he routed all four front-runners to win the caucuses on Jan. 3. Fred Thompson, a state’s rights man on right-to-life, and Rudy, who is pro-choice, are almost out of the running. Traditional values are still a trump card in the GOP
Before the race began, Giuliani was a sanctuary city mayor, McCain an amnesty man and Huckabee favored letting illegal aliens compete for state scholarships. Now, after being battered at a thousand town meetings and on a thousand talk shows, all of them sound like Tom Tancredo.
A year ago, the GOP was a free-trade NAFTA-GATT party, no one more so than McCain. After his New Hampshire win, straight-talking John went to depressed Michigan and told Michiganders their jobs in the auto industry were not coming back. And Michigan Republicans told straight-talking John to get lost and not come back.
In the early debates, Ron Paul was booed for calling the Iraq war a blunder and saying the terrorists of 9-11 were over here because we were over there. Rudy got a roaring ovation for denouncing him. The Michigan GOP chairman demanded that Paul be excluded from all future debates. But whenever Fox News ran a post-debate poll, Paul came out on top. And in Michigan, he paid back the GOP chair by thumping Fred Thompson and America’s mayor.
What is taking place inside the GOP is not decay, but creative destruction.
As in the Goldwater era, voices are being raised to tell an arrogant (Huckabee had the right word) establishment its policies are no longer producing and that if the party does not reconnect with the country, it is headed for the dumpster.
After his defeat in 1960, Richard Nixon, observing Barry Goldwater’s rise and the energy his campaign generated, realized the center of gravity in the party had shifted away from the establishment he had courted with his Pact of Fifth Avenue with Nelson Rockefeller. The center of gravity had moved South and West, and sharply to the right.
No ideologue, Nixon moved with it.
To win the 1968 nomination, he ignored the establishment and courted Goldwater, Strom Thurmond and the conservatives. After his victory in 1968, Nixon created a new center-right coalition that would win four of the next five presidential elections, two with 49-state, 60 percent landslides.
It is not Reaganism that is being repudiated in the GOP primaries, it is Bushism and its fruits: an unpopular war, a deindustrialized nation, a Third World invasion. Ronald Reagan’s principles and philosophy remain the bedrock upon which any conservative and Republican majority must be built. But the policies of that era, on immigration, trade and jobs, must change. And as the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union are history, U.S. strategic interests are no longer at risk in every quarrel or on every continent, as in the 1980s. As our situation is new, said Abraham Lincoln, let us think and act anew.
Nor was Reagan an inflexible ideologue. Though a free-trader, he did not hesitate to put free-trade absolutism on the shelf if national interests commanded it. Thus he imposed quotas to halt the dumping of steel, autos, computer chips and motorbikes into the United States. Saving Harley-Davidson meant more to the Gipper than fealty to Manchester School economists, none of whom had ever built or run a great nation.
For Republicans, issues that yet unite the coalition and remain majority views nationally are family values, low taxes, conservative judges and Second Amendment rights.
But to win the election, the GOP has to be competitive in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania. It will thus have to come up with credible ideas not only to secure the border and roll back the invasion from the Third World, but to stop the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs and reindustrialize the country, and to extricate us from Iraq, as Ike got us out of Korea and Nixon pledged to end the war in Vietnam.
What the voters are saying to both parties is that yesterday’s men and yesterday’s ideas will no longer do.