It's the season for pandering to the base, which is as good a time as any to ask whether the glorious, fascinating mess that is today's Republican Party can ever unify enough to win back the White House—or whether unity is something they should even be after. Because it may well be that a fractured, contentious GOP is the only kind that can prevail next November.
You probably missed it, but over the weekend nearly all the Republican presidential candidates (with the notable exception of Jeb Bush) hotfooted it back to Iowa to participate in the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Forum, where they testified to the depths of their love for the Lord and their hatred for His enemies, particularly Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The entreaties to this band of the base—important in primaries everywhere, but critically so in Iowa, where 57 percent of the attendees at the Republican caucuses in 2012 identified as born-again or evangelical Christian—are a good reminder of the internal and external challenges the candidates face.
According to multiple reports, the biggest ovations were given to two candidates who are almost certainly not going win the primaries: Bobby Jindal, who has already made clear that he wants to be the most sectarian candidate in the race, and Carly Fiorina, whose pitch many of the assembled probably hadn't heard before. But Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, was enthusiastically received as well. Walker's message, the New York Times reported, "is that in an unusually fractured Republican field, with 10 or more candidates potentially on the ballot in the Iowa caucuses next year, he is best positioned to unite the party."
And he may well be, since he is liked by everyone from evangelicals to Tea Partiers to the plutocrats waiting to anoint the candidates with a shower of cash. The problem is that if you haven't ticked off some faction of the Republican Party, you've probably put yourself in a dangerous place for the general election.
Think about where Republican candidates have gotten in trouble within their party. Jeb Bush has been attacked for talking about undocumented immigrants with compassion, and Marco Rubio alienated many by seeking comprehensive immigration reform. Rand Paul ruffled feathers by questioning whether a return to Cheneyite foreign adventurism is really in America's interests. Ted Cruz got criticized for attending a fundraiser at the home of two gay supporters. Rick Santorum (yes, he's back) raised eyebrows by advocating an increase in the minimum wage.
What do all these little dissents and blasphemies have in common? In every case, the thing that the candidate did to upset Republican primary voters would make him more attractive to voters who aren't Republicans—and the Republican nominee will need a healthy chunk of them to win. So the candidate who can unify the Republican Party may by definition be the one who will start the general election at a disadvantage.
Not that any candidate wants significant portions of his party disgruntled and disillusioned after a bitter primary campaign. But by next summer, unifying the party with real enthusiasm from all sides will probably mean proposing tax cuts for the wealthy, last-ditch opposition to marriage equality, an interventionist foreign policy, a crackdown on immigration, and doing nothing on climate change (among other things)—and doing so with the zeal of the true believer. That's not a program likely to win many converts who aren't already committed to the conservative cause.
The response that most Republicans are gravitating toward (which has been expressed most forcefully by Cruz and Walker) is that this isn't really a problem at all, because capturing independent votes isn't about lining up with them on issues, it's about having confidence in your conservatism. It's the kind of advice you can find in a hundred self-help books: Keep your chin up and your chest out, walk in like you own the room, give everyone a firm handshake and a hearty clap on the back, and they'll be drawn to your powerful electoral charisma, with success inevitably to follow.
This argument has obvious appeal. It says that winning is about attitude, and requires no compromise on the things you (or the primary voters) find important; even if an independent voter disagrees with you, they'll be so impressed by your firm gaze that they'll rally to your side. And there's some truth to it, at least insofar as voters don't just tally up a checklist of issues and determine which candidate they agree with more.
The irony is that winning the primary is in significant part about issues. Primary voters are paying attention, and with so many candidates to choose from, they've got plenty of opportunities to eliminate some based on even one area of disagreement. Stray from what they want to hear, and you can be punished—and it won't do much good to say that a year from now, independent voters might find precisely that heresy appealing.
So anyone who could be a uniter will also be a divider: Unite the party and you'll put up a wall between yourself and the general electorate. In the right circumstances and from the right candidate, that wall might be low enough to leap over. But it might be better to leave behind at least a few bruised feelings and ideological doubts.