The first couple months of 2008 look to be critical not just for the obvious nomination reasons, but for the entire future of the Republican Party, as cracks and internal contradictions within the coalition Ronald Reagan assembled become too big to ignore.
Reagan's smooth style and simple, simplistic message brought together three very different kinds of Republicans: Money Republicans, Jesus Republicans, and Leave Me The Hell Alone libertarian Republicans. The cognitive dissonance was there from the early days, as libertarians grappled with the religious Right's obsession with the bedroom. But all that was wallpapered over with the flag, using first The Commies then The Terrorists as the glue, and Faux News and talk radio as the brush that both slapped on the glue and simultaneously tarred the Democrats. Nifty trick.
But as Iraq gets stickier, that glue is drying out. It was, oddly enough, a Democrat who pointed out the crossroads the GOP is approaching. Two weeks ago, speaking to the National Press Club, Rep. John Murtha said the Republicans are stalled on Iraq until the nomination process is over: “As soon as the primaries are over, you’ll see Republicans start jumping ship,” he said.
The earliest nomination in modern times lengthens the Decider's lame duck tenure. Once the GOP has a nominee, in about four and a half months, Bush becomes increasingly irrelevant. Except for, well, his power to send more troops, nuke Iran and stuff. The anointed Bush heir, John McCain, has fizzled, and the Republican nomination process has already become the greatest repudiation by a president's own party in a century. Is the New Face really going to want an incumbent with approval ratings in the 20s campaigning anywhere outside a closed-door fundraiser? And what if, despite all indications, the nominee breaks with Bush on the war? That's a pretty big split to cover up.
That's not even the worst news yet for the GOP. The Onward Christian Foot Soldiers of the party have a deep unease with all the leading candidates. Mitt Romney's Mormon faith makes them a little theologically queasy, but at least he's with them on the issues -- well, now anyway, the statute of limitations on bygone Massachusetts campaigns apparently not being enforced. They'll take the Book of Mormon over McCain's second marriage and Fred Thompson's trophy wife and lobbying clients.
But all that pales next to their real nightmare: Rudy Giuliani, his three marriages, estranged kids and worst of all his pro-choice position. Open rebellion is brewing. Salon reports on a religious Right weekend confab:
"A powerful group of conservative Christian leaders decided Saturday at a private meeting in Salt Lake City to consider supporting a third-party candidate for president if a pro-choice nominee like Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination."
Meanwhile, back at the Leave Me Alone caucus, Ron Paul has become a bona fide net celebrity, and it's impossible to imagine his supporters willingly backing any other Republican in the race. The campaign keeps denying it but the history is there: the guy was a third party nominee once. Paul's devoted minions could overwhelm the tiny Libertarian Party just as easily as his philosophical soulmate, Pat Buchanan, took over the remnants of the Reform Party in 2000. Last week, Drew Ivers, a Buchanan operative from 1996 and 1999, signed on as Paul's Iowa campaign chairman, and Paul's anti-war from the right stance makes a lot more sense if you look at it as Buchanan-style isolationism.
So the GOP could be looking at splinter candidates on both their left and right flanks. Last time that happened was to the Democrats in 1948, and look how many years it took them to recover from that?
Well, none, actually. But the better analogy may be the 1968-1972 era, as the New Deal Coalition crumbled and two Democratic conventions became battles (literally, in 1968) over patriotism, war, the relative role of old powers and new interests within the party, and the very meaning of what it is to be an American. The Democrats are struggling with the 1968-72 legacy to this day. Why else would so many of them in Congress jump to condemn an ad that makes a bad pun on a general's name, if not for the myth of the spat-upon soldier?
The Republican contradictions of 2008 are just as deep as the hardhat-hippie divide of 1968, and likely to have consequences just as long-lasting. The bipolar dynamic of single member district, winner take all elections in America dictates that, when all is over, something calling itself the Republican Party will come through on the right half of the political spectrum to face off against the donkey. But what that elephant looks like will be very different that the beast that lumbers across our landscape today. I'm blind to the future and can't tell if I'm feeling the leg, trunk or tail. But even though some of their contenders deny the globe is warming, and don't believe in evolution, the Republican woolly mammoth must adapt or face extinction.