Understanding the GOP’s Identity Crisis

Last November marked the first morning in twenty years that conservatives woke up without an excuse to ignore their greatest threat: the Republican Party’s identity crisis.

Obamacare was locked up before breakfast, Benghazi a moot point (or so it seemed). Republicans had again proven that when competing for the Electoral College, one of its candidates truly is as good as another (i.e., not good enough).

And the Republican base, a curious conglomerate freshly annulled of an unhappy marriage to Romney, could again look in the mirror without fear of undermining its projection of itself as a unified party. Conservatives could voice en masse those awkward but no less essential questions that many had been asking in private–ones that James Stockdale proved one cannot respectably ask while campaigning: “Who am I? Why am I here?”[1]

Perhaps a closer rendition of the questions facing about half of all Americans is, What is a conservative, and where is my party?

This time, though, the questions aren’t rhetorical.  And if left unscrutinized, the answers won’t improve–at least not in time for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

There is a good reason the “party of Reagan” is still called that almost 25 years after its patron saint left office, but that reason is not that the establishment has kept Reagan’s principles. It’s because the Reagan era was the last time the Republican Party had clear definition.

Consider its recent champions.  George H.W. Bush fared well as Reagan’s hand-picked successor until his presidency prompted the most successful third-party run since Teddy Roosevelt’s.[2] Having lost the White House, Republicans turned to House Speaker Gingrich, whose Contract with America stimulated conservatives, even if most of its initiatives were diluted, were vetoed, or actually increased the size of the federal government. Recalling the gap between rhetoric and achievement, Cato Institute founder Ed Crane wrote in Forbes in November 2000,

“the combined budgets of the 95 major programs that the Contract with America promised to eliminate have increased by 13%. . . . At some point Republicans are going to have to find some leadership in the mold of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater or risk becoming irrelevant.”[3]

Gingrich’s legacy is disputed on the political right, but the most recent election made clear that the Republican leader burned enough bridges with conservatives who remember him as compromising on principles, or even as hypocritical for investigating President Clinton amidst his own ongoing extramarital affair.[4]

Crane wrote his critique for Forbes just one week after George W. Bush barely eked out a contested electoral victory over Vice President Al Gore.  It was here, in the Bush years, when the GOP’s identity crisis, dormant for a decade, began to metastasize.

In some ways it coincided with a national crisis–the September 2001 attacks–after which the scope of government ballooned inversely proportionally to Bush’s campaign rhetoric.  Bush had campaigned on (and delivered) tax cuts and credits–even while promising a $5 billion boost in education spending–toward the overall goal of reducing and reforming the federal government.[5]  Defense spending and the national deficit continued to swell as Americans declined to switch horses in the middle of a war on terror.  In fact, two damning activities that many attribute exclusively to the Obama administration–NSA snooping and the bank bailouts–are next-generation descendants of Bush policies.

An even earlier sign of party identity crisis was the Bush administration’s revival and appropriation of the term “compassionate conservatism”–as opposed to that other kind of conservatism, the one that differs from the Bush brand.  Adopting this label was politically shrewd, forcing most conservatives to choose whether they were for Bush, heartlessness, or Gore.  But as every high schooler who has read Orwell knows, while language shapes thought and alters perception, it cannot change reality.  Between 2001 and 2008, the reality was that conservatives (compassionate or not) were separating into two flocks: those craving a long-promised reduction in government, and those seeking to wield a broad government differently than Democrats hoped to do.[6]

And here, more or less, the GOP continues to idle.  The elections of 2008 and 2012 suggest the new (and unacceptable) normal. McCain was a merely logical pick, made less so by his choice of VP.  Palin, for all of the epinephrine she injected into her party, injected just a little more into her opposition (personal as well as partisan).  The heavy runners-up of the 2008 primaries–Romney and Paul–were essentially promoted in 2012.  One might say that Huckabee was reincarnated in Cain, both of whose races ended in syndicated radio and/or television shows after short-lived leads in the polls.  And after five years of running for president–twice–Mitt Romney championed a number of causes (some contradictory), ultimately making himself into little more than the last-best hope to repeal the judicially reinforced Obamacare, one of the few initiatives Republicans widely agreed upon.

Eight months later–sixteen before midterms–the GOP has some self-auditing to do.  As a new crop of GOP players auditions for the grandest of stages, a splintered Republican base demands actions as disparate as the return of police powers to states and the adoption of a federal marriage amendment, as polar as isolationism and expansionism in the Middle East.

Individual states–especially Ohio, a critical swing state–add their own nuances to be reckoned with.  In April, the Ohio Republican Party elected as its chairman a former lobbyist for a gay-marriage interest group, hardly endearing itself to social conservatives.[7]  On the government side–all three branches of which are Republican-controlled–fiscally conservative Ohioans pressure Governor Kasich from all angles on his plans to expand Medicaid,[8] while so-cons push legislators for tougher abortion restrictions.[9]

Can the party of Reagan redefine itself in time for the next election?  Can conservatives secure a meaningful place in it?  Both certainly are possible.  Two things are clear: if Republicans don’t use this off-season to decide what they’re playing for, they will keep losing the game.  And conservatives have a precious window to stake their claim of the field.[10]

Featured-Columnist1Michael Hamilton teaches AP U.S. Government & Politics and Honors American Literature at Dayton Christian High School in Miamisburg.  He holds a B.A. in English from Hillsdale College (’08).  He is the Executive Editor and a Co-Founder of OCR.

All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.

[1] Remembering his 1992 vice-presidential debate performance, Stockdale told Jim Lehrer in 1999, “It was terribly frustrating because I remember I started with, “Who am I? Why am I here?” and I never got back to that because there was never an opportunity for me to explain my life to people.”  “James Stockdale Interview,” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/interviews/stockdale.html.

[2] In 1912, Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party Candidate Teddy Roosevelt carried 27% of the popular vote, 88 electoral votes, and 6 states, over incumbent President William Taft’s 22%, 8 electoral votes, and 2 states.  Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the White House.

[4] Jake Tapper, “Gingrich Admits to Affair During Clinton Impeachment,” ABCnews.com, March 9, 2007, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=2937633#.UdgqyVV7P2E.

[5] “George W. Bush for President 2000 Campaign Brochure,” http://www.4president.org/brochures/georgewbush2000brochure.htm

[6] Stay tuned to OCR for relevant analysis of strategic choices facing conservatives.