The existence of the Republican Party has been marked by five incarnations in its century and a half, peaking early with its first president and the country’s greatest, Abraham Lincoln. The second Republican age culminated at the outset of the last century with Theodore Roosevelt; the third age with Dwight Eisenhower; the fourth with Ronald Reagan—whose harbingers were Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon—and whose coda was George H. W. Bush. The fifth that ultimately would coalesce around the presidency of Bush’s son was inaugurated by Newton Leroy Gingrich of Georgia, and not even W. has better represented the party’s style and substance these past 20 years.
The solution of any geometric problem begins with an assumption, and the assumption in this week’s political geometry is that the Supreme Court will overturn the Affordable Care Act that first opponents, then the rest of us, have come to call Obamacare. This may or may not come to pass. Judicial history is rife with Supreme Court oral arguments that seem to go one way only for the decision to go another. The great irony of Obamacare, of course, is that its most controversial provision, and the thing about it that has rallied conservatives against it, was itself a conservative article of faith for the past two decades right up to the moment that Barack Obama embraced it; and the thing about it that has rallied conservatives against it is the notion—originally advanced as a response to Clintoncare by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and then championed until as recently as three years ago by Republicans, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former speaker Newt Gingrich—that the government could and should compel individuals to take responsibility for buying their own health insurance. The right liked this idea precisely because it put the financial onus of health care on individuals rather than where President Bill Clinton believed it belonged: on the businesses that employ individuals.
If the 2012 Republican nomination race effectively has dwindled to two, what’s striking is how the Tea Party has vanished from the competition. Having virtually taken over the Republican Party two years ago, jettisoning in the process garden-variety right-wingers in order to nominate former witches, now the Tea Party is hard-pressed to identify which dog in the current hunt is theirs. Social conservative Ron Santorum and East Coast establishment Mitt Romney both are throwbacks to earlier Republican incarnations: Santorum is damned by his Senate record of earmarks and government spending, and on the issue of health-care reform that helped galvanize the Tea Party’s existence, Romney is the original sinner. Meanwhile, the two candidates closest to speaking for the Tea Party position, Congressman Ron Paul and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, are ghosts who have not gotten the message they’re dead.
The more things change in the Republican race, the more they stay the same. Punditry had it that Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses would be conclusive, because punditry yearns for the conclusive when it can’t have the purely chaotic. “The beginning of the end,” was the result that commentators anticipated, by which they meant the final collapse of the final anti-Romney incarnation—as precipitated by Rick Santorum’s stall in Michigan last week—and Romney’s consolidation of the nomination. Forty-eight hours later, nothing is different at all. Romney is still the front-runner and the only candidate whose ultimate victory is fathomable, even as more and more he appears the weakest nominee of either party since the 1980s.