Magazine article The American Conservative

Why the Right Doesn't Win: How Blue States and Christian Factionalism Keep Conservatives at Bay

Magazine article The American Conservative

Why the Right Doesn't Win: How Blue States and Christian Factionalism Keep Conservatives at Bay

Article excerpt

A Republican from the party establishment enters the presidential race and immediately tops the polls. A few months later, he trails a politically inexperienced but media-mesmerizing businessman. The story of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump? Yes--but also the story of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in late 2011. And a glimpse back at the early months of GOP contests in 2008 and 2012 suggests what's to come in 2016: a Christian conservative leaps to first or second place, surprising the pundits, only to lose at last to the inevitable establishment nominee.

This is no inscrutable design of fate. The Republican Party's knack for nominating Bushes and Romneys and McCains has a reason, just as there are reasons why certain kinds of opponents catch on. Nate Cohn of the New York Times supplies a piece of the puzzle in a story headlined "The Surprising Power of Blue-State Republicans" But there's a deeper philosophical explanation for why the GOP perpetually fails to nominate another conservative like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan--conservatism itself has lost its identity to politics.

The truth is that leaders like McCain, Romney, and the Bushes represent the GOP as a whole better than right-wing candidates do. Contrary to caricature, the GOP is not just the party of the South and relatively underpopulated states in the Midwest. Cohn's headline calls the power of blue-state Republicans surprising, but it shouldn't be: the majority of Americans live in blue states--that's why Obama won the last two elections--and one would expect a national political party to draw a great proportion of its presidential delegates from the states where more Americans actually live.

Geography is ideology, at least in part. Blue-state Republicans may still identify as conservatives, but their conservatism is quite different from that of their red-state counterparts. As Cohn reports:

   According to an analysis of Pew Research and exit-poll
   data, blue-state Republicans tend to be more
   urban, more moderate, less religious and more
   affluent. A majority of red-state Republicans are
   evangelical Christians, believe society should discourage
   homosexuality, think politicians should
   do what it takes to undermine the Affordable Care
   Act and want politicians to stand up for their positions,
   even if that means little gets done in Washington.
   A majority of blue-state Republicans differ
   on every count.

The blue states hold the keys to victory for establishment candidates: "Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney won every blue-state primary in 2008 and 2012" Cohn notes, "making it all but impossible for their more conservative challengers to win the nomination" Indeed, "Mr. Romney lost all but one red-state primary held before his principal opponent dropped out of the race"--that opponent being Rick Santorum, who a few months earlier had seemed utterly hopeless. Santorum lost his Senate seat in blue-state Pennsylvania in 2006. But in red-state presidential primaries six years later, he was formidable.

The division between blue-state and red-state Republicans by itself, however, is not enough to account for the party's seeming inability to nominate anyone to the right of Romney or McCain. There remains a mystery: in the past generation, even as the GOP has come to be viewed as more right-wing than ever, conservatives have actually fared worse in its presidential primaries. In just 16 years between 1964 and 1980, conservatives won the Republican nomination twice. In the 36 years since Reagan left office, conservatives have never won it.

There were plenty of blue-state Republicans in the days of Goldwater and Reagan, of course, and even back then the party had distinct factions of conservatives and liberals--"Rockefeller Republicans," as they were called. Why, then, did conservatives succeed in 1964 and 1980 but never again?

The answer lies in a development that appeared for the first time in 1988: the emergence of a distinct religious right or social-conservative candidate. …

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