After months of tedium and mindless chest-thumping, the race for the Republican presidential nomination finally got interesting over the last couple of weeks. And the way it did so highlights the fundamental rift threatening the future of the GOP: the divide between the party's corporate/anti-tax wing, which includes the people who write the checks, and its social conservative wing, which includes the people who get bodies to the polls. It's the plutocrats versus the theocrats, and at the moment it's hard to tell who's going to win.
Try to imagine the combination of pain and dread now covering the Mitt Romney campaign like a wet wool blanket. After all the work, after all the enthusiastic pandering, after outspending his opponents by millions, after the months in which he was the only candidate airing ads in Iowa, his support there turned out to be a mile wide and an inch deep. At the first opportunity, the social conservatives whose feet he had kissed with such commitment wandered away from his gleaming campaign and over to that smooth-talking preacher setting up folding chairs in his bare-bones storefront.
It now looks as if a lot of Iowa conservatives were leaning to Romney because they felt that they didn't have much choice. Sure he's a phony, they thought, but what other options do we have? The somnambulant character actor? The cross-dressing New Yorker? As someone recently said, at least Romney was pretending to believe the right things.
But once the media began lavishing attention and praise on Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and televangelist finally became a viable candidate in social conservatives’ eyes, and they quickly switched allegiance. Huckabee may not know much about policy, and he may not have any foreign-policy experience, but he's one of their own.
And the plutocrats had such high hopes for Romney, who is truly one of their own: to the American aristocracy born (his father was a corporate CEO and Michigan governor) and with a successful career in business, Romney gives the sense that he plans out his breakfast with a Powerpoint presentation. ("Today's waffles will proactively impact forward-oriented goal actualization while incentivizing value-added synergisms. And there will be syrup.")
The plutocrats couldn't care less whether Romney's recent conversion to hard-right social conservatism was sincere. He can blather on all he wants about activist judges and border fences; what's important to them is the tax code, whether the National Labor Relations Board keeps its Bush-era affection for union-busting, and whether agencies like OSHA and the FDA remain regulatory panda bears, lolling about in the grass munching bamboo without worrying their little heads about the safety of workers and consumers. When it comes to these matters, the plutocrats know Romney is their guy.
But they don't quite trust Huckabee, who, as Sarah Posner has noted, has shown troubling flashes of sympathy for ordinary people and had a mixed record in Arkansas, both raising and cutting taxes at various times. Perhaps in order to appear more of an anti-tax fundamentalist, Huckabee is advocating eliminating all current federal taxes in favor of a national sales tax, an idea so ludicrous no one bothers to debate it.
But as of yet, Huckabee has not pledged allegiance to the de rigueur Republican tax fantasy that cutting taxes ultimately leads to an increase in revenues. Rudy Giuliani has climbed aboard this express train to Stupidville, saying in a recent television ad, "I know that reducing taxes produces more revenues. Democrats don't know that, they don't believe that."
Fortunately for Rudy and the other Republican candidates, most news organizations are too cowardly to simply point out when they're not telling the truth. When the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz attempted an adwatch of the spot (and remember, the purpose of these things is supposed to be pointing out the ad's false claims), he wrote that the idea of tax cuts increasing revenue is "a matter of fierce dispute among economists." I suppose it is, in much the same way the idea that Adam and Eve galloped through the Garden of Eden on the backs of dinosaurs is a matter of fierce dispute among paleontologists. As Time magazine recently noted, "If there's one thing that economists agree on, it's that these claims [that tax cuts increase revenues] are false. We're not talking just ivory-tower lefties. Virtually every economics Ph.D. who has worked in a prominent role in the Bush Administration acknowledges that the tax cuts enacted during the past six years have not paid for themselves--and were never intended to."
But as all eyes turn to Iowa, where Giuliani is barely bothering to compete, the answer to the question of whether the GOP's social conservatives will unite around one candidate may have been answered. In a Mason-Dixon poll of Iowa voters released last weekend, Huckabee leads Romney by 12 points overall, a stunning change in and of itself. But he leads by 23 points among those who attend church every week, and by an enormous 34 points among those who identify as born again Christians. The recent revelations that make most people suspect that Huckabee is something of a Neanderthal -- his suggestion that God is responsible for his rise in the polls, his not-so-ancient contemplation of quarantining AIDS patients, and his statement that homosexuality is "an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle" -- will probably win him even more support.
These voters are less than entirely pleased with what they've gotten from all their hard work over the last few elections. Every two years, they're promised that if they work their little hearts out, they'll finally get those constitutional amendments banning abortion and putting the gays in their place. But even George W. Bush, who worked harder to convince the religious right that he was their man more than any GOP nominee ever has, didn't power up the time machine and take us all back to the bliss of the 1950s. But he worked hard for those tax cuts -- you bet your life he did. The plutocrats got showered with riches, and the theocrats got lines from hymns dropped into speeches. As Bush himself famously said, "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- can't get fooled again."
That may be overstating things a bit -- Bush has come through for the religious right in two important ways (Justices Roberts and Alito). But this year, there is no leading GOP candidate who can appeal to both of the party's wings the way Bush did. The one who might -- Fred Thompson -- has been so dull as a campaigner that the real mystery at his appearances is whether the candidate or the audience will nod off to sleep first. But given Huckabee's rise and the possibility that the race will come down to a choice between him on one side and either Romney or Giuliani on the other, either the plutocrats or the theocrats will emerge from this primary season disappointed and dispirited.
This may be the most consequential difference between the battles the two parties are waging. Yes, the Democratic candidates are drawing more heavily from distinct groups, but the lines are nowhere near as clear. John Edwards has strong labor support – but so does Hillary Clinton. Clinton is the candidate of the Democratic establishment – but Obama has plenty of backers in that establishment as well. Once a nominee is chosen, the Democratic factions will rally around him or her without much grumbling.
Not so on the Republican side. This primary battle is a symptom, not a cause, of a crumbling conservative coalition. They may yet put themselves back together, but chances are it will happen after a crushing defeat next November.