When Coalitions Dissolve

As the GOP breaks apart, some blame the vanishing breed of free market Republicans.

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“Victory has 100 fathers,” the Italian proverb goes, but “defeat is an orphan.” It’s an old battlefield saw, trotted out by blame-taking commanders after ignominious defeats, such as President John F. Kennedy following the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. But it’s no less true when it comes to politics.

Anxious conservatives this year are evincing a powerful nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, giving the former president credit for fathering the modern era of consistent Republican victories. Reagan, the myth goes, kept together the three “legs” of the GOP “stool”: social conservatives, free marketeers, and national security hawks. As a result, Republicans held the White House for 20 of the last 28 years, broke the Democrats’ stranglehold on the House of Representatives, cut income taxes, and won the Cold War.

But in 2008 the stool seems on the verge of breaking apart. Less than two years after holding the White House and both houses of Congress, the Republican Party is threatening to squander all three. Already down 33 seats in the House of Representatives, Republicans are losing 26 incumbents to retirement compared to the Democrats’ five and as of early March were behind on congressional fund raising by a ratio of 5 to 1, according to The Wall Street Journal. Democrats are widely expected to extend their 51-49 advantage in the Senate, and President George W. Bush is maintaining a dismal approval rating of around 30 percent. The party that once brought forth such tepid poindexters as John Kerry and Michael Dukakis is on the verge of nominating a charismatic fellow preaching change, who, not coincidentally, also happens to be that rare national politician on the public’s side against the trillion-dollar war.

This prospective defeat has 100 fathers, if you listen to the nation’s pundits. During the presidential primary season, the GOP abandoned decades of precedent by failing to coalesce around an Establishment front-runner, leaving each leg of the stool kicking viciously at the others in a contest for the party’s soul.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson attempted to claim the Reagan mantle, attacked big-government evangelical Mike Huckabee for running against the other two legs of the Reagan coalition, and then promptly dropped out. Huckabee strategist Ed Rollins, a former Reagan official himself, declared to The New York Times that the coalition was “gone” and deserved to “go by the wayside” because of its insufficient social conservatism. Conservative talk show giant Rush Limbaugh predicted that either a Huckabee or a McCain nomination would destroy modern Republicanism as we know it.

And the libertarian long shot in the race? “I don’t take Ron Paul’s ideas seriously,” Daniel Casse wrote on the website of Commentary magazine, “but his presence in this debate really is the best proof that…the Reagan coalition is gone.”

Paul’s candidacyâ€"which drew the eye-rolling treatment from McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, and “serious” conservatives nationwideâ€"showed just how marginalized libertarianism has become in the party of Barry Goldwater. Paul’s lonely apostasy on foreign policy was greeted with hoots of derision on one debate stage after another. His calls for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and hacking back the federal bureaucracy rolled right off the standard-bearers of a party that retook the House of Representatives in 1994 on a platform of reducing government.

Yet despite raising $30 million, Paul and his limited-government supporters got their clocks cleaned by Huckabee and the social cons, who were treated with much more deference by eventual nominee McCain and the party establishment. Twenty-seven years after Ronald Reagan famously said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” the GOP’s appetite for rolling back the regulatory state appears as dead as the era of federal budget surpluses. Even former revolutionary Newt Gingrich agrees. “The Republican Party cannot win over time as the permanently angry anti-government party,” he writes in his latest book, Real Change.

In Comeback, one of several new whither-the-party books by traumatized Republicans, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum points out that the very Bush policies that fiscal conservatives like him despiseâ€"the prescription drug entitlement, the No Child Left Behind Act, campaign finance reformâ€"were overwhelmingly popular among the American people. “On issues from Social Security to healthcare to environmental protection, conservatives find themselves on the less popular side of the great issues of the day,” Frum writes.

The solution? Surrender: “There are things only government can do, and if we conservatives wish to be entrusted with the management of the government, we must prove that we care about government enough to manage it well.” Republicans should cave on new spending and regulations, says Frum, in exchange for tax cuts. “This is not 1964,” he writes. “The ideal under threat today is not the nation’s liberty, but the nation’s security, its unity, its effectiveness, and…its equality and beauty.”

As Sasha Issenberg wrote in a perceptive Boston Globe story last November, “With Republicans no longer preaching suspicion of Washington, a new consensus has emerged, as both parties have come in their ways to stand today for a more robust, aggressive federal government. As a result, Goldwaterism is without a natural home in the two-party system.”

The remaining libertarians in Reagan’s shrinking big tent aren’t just being ignored or marginalized; they’re being blamed for the Reagan coalition’s crackup. While John McCain was heading toward the nomination in January, The Weekly Standard published an online piece by the political scientists Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey slamming McCain’s critics as “strict free-market” ideologues whose rigidity jeopardized the conservative movement. “The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life,” the Storeys wrote. “Conservatives who forget that the free market is properly a piece of policy rather than an ideological end-in-itself not only obscure the importance of individual virtue, they undermine it.”

Intentionally or not, the blame-economists argument mirrors a popular critique of George W. Bush from the progressive left: that his presidency is an example of free marketeers run amok. In her best-selling book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein lays the original sin of Bushite misgovernance at the feet of an unlikely source: Nobel Prizeâ€"winning economist Milton Friedman, the “grand guru of the movement for unfettered capitalism and the man credited with writing the rulebook for the contemporary hypermobile global economy.” Never mind that Friedman, in his 10th decade on the planet, exerted little or no influence on the free-spending, government-growing Bush administration.

On some level, there is no use worrying about other people’s economic fantasies. But on another, Klein’s rant points to the downside of joining big-tent coalitions: Even if your ideological bloc-within-a-bloc is dwindling and disrespected, when it supports the party in power it will inevitably be branded with that government’s failings.

Voting and political party membership are deeply personal and arguably bizarre public signaling rituals. There is no right or wrong way to do them. My own bizarreness tends toward single-issue obsessives and third-party long shots, and away from political parties (which I’ve never joined). Meaning, I’m much more likely to write in Ron Paul than let the dog whistle of Supreme Court appointments lure me grudgingly back to a major-party nominee. Not the most responsible approach, I agree.

But I wonder how responsible it is to add libertarian votes to a shrinking coalition whose dominant rhetoric and political standard-bearer stand in increasingly explicit opposition to the party’s libertarian strand. McCain, whose National Greatness conservatism is openly hostile to individualism, has recently hit some encouraging free market notes. Nonetheless, a Republican defeat this November might just leave fiscal conservatives more orphaned than people yet realize.

Matt Welch
is the editor in chief of Reason.