I’m no political junkie, and I certainly don’t support the sham that is our two-party system, but I have a history teacher’s instinct to try to fit today’s events with the past.
That being said, last night’s Iowa Caucus represents the basic tension in the Republican Party. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney finished essentially tied. Santorum, a Roman Catholic, got the votes from the social conservatives, the most mobilized part of the party. Mitt got a smattering of everyone else, from the fiscal conservatives to pragmatists who see Mitt as the best chance against Obama. It is really the Republican tension represented in the father and son Bush presidents.
This has been the choice Republican voters have been faced with since the early 90s. George Bush Senior, who seems like FDR when compared with his son, always warned against the “lunatics” getting control of the party. By “lunatics”, he was referring to the Evangelicals who were becoming a growing and more vocal presence during his time. After Bush left, the Evangelicals voted in more and more members of Congress until they had the votes to impeach Clinton by the middle of his second term.
Then George Bush Junior came along. In what seems like a total repudiation of his father, Bush pandered to the “lunatic” section. He played up his born again Christianity and Faith-Based Initiatives. He was owned by Wall Street, just like Obama, but his voting base was the Evangelicals. Santorum might be able to pull off something similar.
On the other hand, Mitt Romney represents the George Bush Senior wing, the old establishment Republicans. It is the party of Bob Dole and John McCain, the two losing Republican candidates since the 90s (outside of Bush Senior himself, of course). Dole and McCain did not energize the Evangelicals. McCain’s big concession to the Evangelicals was Sarah Palin, and that was against his will. Mitt energizes them just as much. No surprise then that John McCain is going to endorse Mitt today.
Bush Junior represents the winning formula for any Republican candidate, if such a formula exists anymore for the Republican Party. It entails energizing the Evangelicals because they will vote in droves. Any Republican candidate would be crazy not to take advantage of the very well-organized churches of the south and southwest, who act as organizing committees for Republican candidates that pander to them.
Rick Santorum has that quality. His speech last night was filled with nuggets meant to please the Evangelicals. At the same time, he talked about the working man and bringing back manufacturing, invoking the imagery of the Pennsylvania coal mines and steel mills. This could be a Bush 2.0, combining a Southern social conservative’s twang with a northeastern factory hand’s earthiness. I guess you can call it the Antonin Scalia appeal, if he has any.
It also represents a sort of uneasy peace that has been reached between America’s religious groups, who lately have tended to come together around socially conservative candidates (like Mike Huckabee in last year’s Iowa Caucus). Santorum has the potential to galvanize a large chunk of them after Ron Paul drops out, along with a larger circle of working class whites. Combine that with the usual fiscal conservatives who vote Republican and Santorum might be have a workable strategy. The only alternative for the Republicans is another Dole or McCain, which would be choosing a candidate because they’re a good operator who could win in a general election.
So I suppose I will be watching the primaries to see if George Bush Junior’s (Rick Santorum) or George Bush Senior’s (Mitt Romney) ghost gets resurrected. Then in the general election we will see if either of these, or a combination of the two, can beat Obama.
Ok, that was not such a quick thought, but I am a history teacher.