It’s evident in recent elections and day-to-day political clashes in Washington that there is a substantial divide between traditional Republicans and what we may term “new conservatives.” Oh yes, it’s true that there are shades of differences on each side of this divide. To be specific, everyone knows that there are “liberal Republicans” at one end of the spectrum and “Tea Party conservatives” on the other end. They seldom even speak to each other, and the difference between them has become obvious.
This division has become so great that it may well tear apart what I like to call the traditional Republican Party. The main question here is, how we can understand this division in American politics?
Perhaps it may be captured in the phrase, “the courtship of Republicans by conservatives.” The Republican Party dates back to elections just before the Civil War and its great leaders included Lincoln, Grant, McKinley, Coolidge, Eisenhower and Reagan—to name a few. Coolidge was probably the last of the great “traditional” Republicans, meaning the last of the Republicans who truly believed in limited government based on the documents created by the Founding Fathers.
The Roosevelt Revolution under FDR pushed government in another direction, assuming that more government would solve all of the nation’s problems. In 1937, Senator Bailey of North Carolina stood up on the floor of the Senate and said that the Roosevelt program needed to be stopped. To begin that process he issued a “Conservative Manifesto.”
Soon Bob Taft appeared. And then others—Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk, and more. By the early 1950s a conservative movement was alive and growing. Taft was unable to gain the Republican Party nomination, to his great sorrow.
The courtship of Republicans by conservatives was a movement in earnest when the Republicans nominated Goldwater as their presidential candidate in 1964. One might even say that the Goldwater affair was “an engagement.” Why he was dramatically defeated by LBJ will be debated forever, but one result was a cooling of the conservative/Republican courtship. Ronald Reagan eventually appeared on the scene after several election cycles and was elected president. The courtship ended and a marriage was consummated. The Republicans had a conservative president.
Once his term neared its end, who would follow Reagan became an important question from the point of view of the courtship paradigm. Certainly, George H. W. Bush did not fit that mold. Though it appeared that George W. Bush was a conservative as he took office, it became clear to many that his big-spending binge and tendency to get involved in foreign wars disqualified him from the pantheon of conservatives—if Reagan be the standard of measurement.
And what followed? The Republicans turned to an older Republican, whose “turn to run” seemed to have arrived. The nomination of John McCain moved the courtship of a conservative candidate to the fringes.
Now the important question: Will mainstream Republicans—this likely includes the more liberal group from the Northeast, and the newly emergent bevy of self-styled conservatives—be able to at least have a coffee date? Will they return to a more serious courtship with the hope of a second marriage? Or, will the new conservatives insist that the Republican establishment adopt all of their programs immediately?
It certainly is fair to ask whether the current Republican establishment will look back to its past, before the term “conservative” entered the political lexicon, and see that the most popular American in the 1920s was a Republican—Calvin Coolidge. A traditional Republican, he stood for limited government and had reverence for the Declaration and the Constitution. He thought balancing the budget was a good idea, too.
If the courtship between Republicans and conservatives is to be renewed, each party will have to give a little. Republicans must renew a commitment to the principles that traditional Republicans stood for. The new conservatives say they are for those things that are the essence of the traditional Republican Party—limited government and a reverence for the Declaration and the Constitution. Their rambunctious style and their demand for reform makes for good theater but is unrealistic, given President Obama’s control of the White House, his Democratic Senate, and his liberal agenda. They need a clearly stated plan of their goals and a timetable for achieving it.
If the Republican/conservative courtship is to resume, and eventually mature into a marriage like Ronald Reagan’s, the parties will need to sit down and have serious talks. They may even need wise marriage counseling.
Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.