It’s been a long time in coming. For years the Republicans have depended on evangelical voters to assure them control of the White House and at least a fighting representation in both houses of Congress. Sooner or later their most reliable, most motivated constituency would want more than just verbal assurances of support or even votes on issues of importance—abortion, gays in the military, and so forth. Eventually evangelicals would want a president of their own.
The best metaphor is that of the blacks in the Democratic party. For years, nay, for decades, they have been its most reliable constituency, essential to winning states rich in electoral votes in presidential races. Of course the Democrats haven’t always won these elections, mainly because they have fielded charmless candidates like Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, or John Kerry. But they wouldn’t have come as close as did, particularly in 2000 and 2004, if it weren’t for that reliable Afro-American vote.
This was precisely what led Jesse Jackson to seek the Democratic nomination in 1984. Given the peculiarities of our primary politics, this wasn’t as outlandish a proposition as it might seem in retrospect. Although he didn’t win the Iowa caucuses, Jackson did go on to win primaries in South Carolina, Louisiana (where most white Democrats failed to go to the polls, since they were planning to vote for President Reagan anyway) and Michigan (where less than two percent of the registered Democrats actually bothered to vote—one can easily discern which two percent it was). The next big contest was in New York State. In the runup to that event great was the panic in establishment Democratic ranks. What if Jackson won New York? Could they deny him the nomination? Fortunately for the party this eventuality never materialized, although this didn’t stop Jackson from insisting that as the winner of the second largest basket of primary delegates he should at least be the vice presidential nominee. The Democrats wouldn’t go for this either. They wanted votes from Jackson supporters, but they knew perfectly well that the reverend’s presence on the ticket would be political suicide. Black voters had no choice but to go back to being what they’ve always been—a major but not defining constituency of the Democratic party. What makes the Obama phenomenon particularly intriguing is that, although technically black, he is certainly not a “black candidate” in the sense in which Jackson was. Indeed, at this writing Hillary Clinton is still the first choice of most African-American voters.
With Mike Huckabee’s victory in Iowa, however, the Republican party is now entering what might be called its Jesse Jackson moment. If Huckabee goes on to win more primaries he will have a reasonable claim to the nomination. He may, of course, lose New Hampshire, New York, California and Michigan. But let’s suppose that he manages to win enough primaries in the southern and border states to make the results in those three states irrelevant. It’s all a question of numbers. In spite of itself, the party might end up with him as its nominee, and with it, heading down the shortest road to disaster since the Goldwater debacle of 1964.
Make no mistake about it: an electoral defeat of these dimensions would represent a major watershed in the history of the Republican party. It would be faced with only two possible roads forward. One is to become the party of the religious right, a sectarian agglomeration somewhat like the small ethnic parties in inter-war Europe, perhaps capable of holding some governorships and seats in Congress but never again competitive in a presidential election. The other would be to cut itself free from the religious right and seek to appeal to the wide and growing tranche of independent voters who are socially liberal but economically conservative. In that case the Republican party would gradually resemble some of the “liberal” (that is, conservative) parties who periodically win national elections in Western Europe or Canada. These parties are friendly to market-based solutions to economic problems—that is, they are broadly libertarian.
Think this is impossible? Think again. The business of politicians is first and foremost to get elected, not to preach sermons. A Huckabee nomination would not merely assure a Democratic presidential victory but gains in both houses and a Supreme Court packed with justices somewhat resembling Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But the news is worse than that: even a Huckabee victory in the race to the White House (as difficult as it may be to imagine at this point) would also toll the death knell of the Republican party as we have known it. Indeed, as recent opposition research has hown, none of the candidates is as far from the legacy of Ronald Reagan—either in domestic or foreign policy--as the former governor of Arkansas.
As Mark Steyn has properly stated it, the choice between Huckabee and some Democrat would be a choice between the Religious Left and the Secular Left. Evangelicals—many of them my neighbors and friends--need to take note. The peril is great and it is near.
I think a similar situation existed in Canada not too long ago. The brand-new Conservative Party of Canada was an often uneasy amalgam of social conservatives from the old Reform Party and Red Tories from the Progressive Conservatives. Social issues like abortion & gay marriage threatened to split the party, and Liberals screamed that Stephen Harper had a hidden [read evangelical Christian] agenda.
Harper, successfully I think, stared down the controversy and has largely succeeded in taking these issues off the table. Social conservatives are not happy & are threatening to desert the CPC, but I think the strategy is sound in the long term. The primary purpose of a political party is to get elected & form a government - the alternative leads to political oblivion.
RELATED: The California State Republican party - compare & contrast (ht - Independent Gay Forum):
[There's been] a change in the image of the California Republican Party and a change in the kind of candidate it nominates. A generation ago, it was a pragmatic, broad-based party that emphasized issues such as taxes and spending of concern to the broad middle of the electorate (and even to many on either side). It was a conservative party when conservative was defined largely in economic terms—low taxes, efficient public services, and limited government. Today, it is an ideological, narrowly based party that defines its conservatism by social and cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage that are of only secondary concern to most Californians. Moreover, most Californians take more liberal views on such issues than do California Republican activists. The middle of the road in California runs through the economically conservative but socially tolerant quadrant of the ideological space.