Absent some ruinous event, Obama will likely win in 2012. Yet, the Republican primary could be one of the most important presidential primaries in a long time. With a cartoon cast of candidates poking their heads in and out of the race, pundits perpetually wonder why the Republicans have not been able to attract a charismatic candidate who appeals to a broad base of voters. The reason has a lot less to do with the lack of qualified personnel and a lot more to do with the civil war occurring within the Republican ranks.
For years now, the Republican “small government” Party has largely been puppeteered by social conservatives. As a result, “small government” Republicans have been forced to choose between their “family values,” like enforcing traditional marriage, and actual small government values, in which the government lets us make our own choices. This has forced the Republican Party to pick and choose candidates who have a selective sense of what limited government means. But now, as society becomes more socially accepting, combined with the sudden popularity of the tea party movement, the Republicans are at a crossroads: they can continue to be beholden to the old social conservative base, or allow candidates to embrace more traditionally “liberal” social positions.
Take two Republican candidates with arguably the most dissimilar approach to their candidacy: Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Mitt Romney, on the one hand, is a moderate Republican governor from a liberal state. Since the last election, Romney has had trouble with contradicting himself, whether on health care reform or abortion. While his actual positions may appeal to a broad base of American voters, the 'hard-line' Republicans will eat him alive if he is not conservative enough. Thus, Romney must finagle his way through the primary, embracing socially conservative positions that he may disagree with privately. The media and the traditionally “conservative” Republicans point out his inconsistencies and ridicule his positions as “too liberal” for Republicans. As a result, the Republican Party gets a candidate who is unappealing to their base, and the average American voter thinks he is a typical politician who will say anything to get into office.
On the other hand, Ron Paul is arguably the most consistent candidate from any party. He states his opinions, which haven’t changed much in 30+ years, whether or not that particular opinion helps his chances of winning. He is a classical liberal, which in today’s terms, means he is a conservative libertarian: advocating limited government intervention in both the economic and social arenas. He advocates an end to the federal drug war, an end to the federal income tax, and even an end to federal government involvement in marriage. Ron Paul is consistent despite the fact that “traditional” Republicans will find many of his positions unappealing. The hope is that Republican voters will realize that his message resonates with a broad base of American voters (especially otherwise-Obama supporters) in the general election. The media and traditionally “conservative” Republicans call him “unelectable,” “crazy,” and mock some of his more idealistic positions without giving him a full opportunity to explain himself. As a result, the Republican Party gets a candidate who is unappealing to their base, and the average American voter only knows Ron Paul as “that crazy Republican guy that I kinda like but would never win.”
Thus, the Republicans search and the media waits for the right-wing version of Barack Obama, circa 2008. Republicans anticipate a charismatic savior who will come to rescue the party and win the love of the average American. This day will not likely come because the social and religious “conservatives” are an ever-decreasing faction of the general electorate. To be truly embraced by the Republican base, one has to believe in a government that picks and chooses which people get complete freedom and those who don't. Further, that person has to equate a genuine disagreement on a single issue like abortion or gun control with being traitorous to the Party and the American way of life. As a result, the problem for the Republican Party is that these “values” forming the base of their party are distasteful to a broad section of the general American electorate.
But, with an increasing number of people leaving both major parties, or many staying in the parties simply to preserve their “right” to vote in a partisan primary, Republican and Democrat candidates alike are forced to appeal primarily to the hard-liners on the left and the right. If a candidate wants a shot in the general election, he/she first has to survive the primary. Thus, a candidate’s first loyalty is to his/her party base. Therefor, with each election cycle, we are left with two candidates whom a large portion of the electorate would just as soon flip a coin to determine the winner.
It is for this reason that this year’s Republican primary is as important as ever. The Republican voters will not likely be deciding the next president of the United States. What they will be deciding is whether the Republican Party remains the “family values” party which advocates limited government, until it comes into conflict with our “traditions,” or whether it will more consistently embrace the principles of small government.
If the Republican Party remains committed to its social “traditions,” a coin will no longer be necessary to determine the winner of the general election. As the younger generation gets older, and the older generation literally dies off, the appeal of social conservatism becomes more and more unattractive to average American voters. And because every candidate has to first win his/her primary, the Republicans will increasingly get candidates who are unattractive to average voters. As a result, the Democrat will consistently win by virtue of not being the Republican. But, if the Republican Party elects a presidential candidate who is openly opposed to some right-wing pet issues, the party may just re-open its tent and continue being relevant in our political process.