The GOP's Disputed Soul

As the 2012 Republican National Convention begins, a declining party's core values remain in flux


On the eve of a 2012 Republican National Convention that will coronate Mitt Romney as presidential nominee, the GOP's third-place finisher in the delegate count held a counter-rally at the Florida Sun Dome that exposed many of the party's considerable fault lines.

Whereas Romney wants to jack up military spending and take a more forceful approach to Syria and Iran than President Barack Obama, multiple speakers at the rally, especially featured attraction Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), embraced the "blowback" theory of international affairs and called for immediate imperial withdrawal. Hearty cheers from the low-thousands crowd greeted stage mentions of raw milk, industrial hemp, and imprisoned Army leaker Bradley Manning, topics we can assume will not be coming up at the RNC this week. At one point, a video montage showed snippets from such revered conservatives as Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and Rudy Giuliani; each was lustily booed.

The divisions will be less vociferous (and eccentric) inside the Convention Center this week, but the attempted display of anti-Obama unity will be balancing on an edifice of unresolved discord between the party's competing factions. After three years of grassroots revulsion at big government, Republicans have a standard-bearer who defends the Department of Education instead of targeting it for elimination, who leads the charge against the federal health insurance mandate from the awkward position of having invented it at the state level, and who promises to reform Medicare out of one side of his mouth while bashing proposed Medicare cuts (even those proposed by running-mate Rep. Paul Ryan [R-Wisc.]) out the other.

The Republican Party was famously described by Ronald Reagan as a "three-legged stool" comprised of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and national security conservatives. Rather than representing the triumph of any of those groups, Romney is a consensus electability candidate who dabbles in all three with varying levels of conviction.

If, like Reason Senior Editor Peter Suderman argued persuasively in a March 2012 cover story, Romney can be seen as the "consultant's consultant," repackaging GOP ideas in a way to make them maximally saleable first to Republicans and now to the rest of America, then the ideological center of gravity within the GOP matters all that more. President Obama, after all, campaigned against the individual mandate and against piling up more federal debt, but his party helped tug him leftward.

This week will be about more than watching the Weather Channel for Hurricane Isaac updates; it will also represent a chance to take the temperature of the contemporary GOP. If the schedule is anything to go by, the readings will be mixed indeed—on Wednesday night, for example, delegates will be greeted in rapid order by a video of Ron Paul, then Senate Minority Leader and longtime establishment hack Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), then the man McConnell tried desperately to prevent winning the GOP senatorial primary in Kentucky (Sen. Rand Paul), then after another speaker a man who stands for most everything Ron Paul abhors (Sen. John McCain [R-Arizona]). You can count on one hand, maybe even one finger, the core beliefs those four men share.

The Ron Paul insurgency in particular presents a conundrum to the GOP. Even though some establishmentarian types would love to wash their hands of him, and the liberty movement's future without its anti-charismatic leader is unclear, Republicans just can't afford to lose Paul's 11 percent share of the primary vote.

That's because despite 43 months of Democratic mismanagement of economic policy, the Republican Party, amazingly, is still losing market share. A recent analysis by the centrist Third Way think tank found that in eight swing states (including Florida), GOP registration is down 79,000 (or 0.7 percent), while the ranks of registered independents have grown by 487,000 (6.4 percent). Voters clearly don't like what President Obama has been selling—swing state Democratic registration is down 800,000, or 5.2 percent. But they have steadfastly refused to endorse the Republican alternative.

So the party that hasn't figured out what it believes cannot afford to alienate any of its members who disagree strongly with one another. Though you will hear a lot this week about Republican unity against President Obama, that masks an ideological peace that at best is fragile, unattractive, and unsatisfying.