TPM Reader BC has sparked a lively conversation by questioning the “GOP in Disarray” meme. Now TPM Reader JB responds …
To your correspondent’s point, Republicans have in our modern history been more dependent on strong-looking leaders than have Democrats.
For generations, there was a pretty obvious reason for this: Republicans were members of the smaller of our two parties. Not only that, but a whole region of the country — the South — had large numbers of voters who would only vote for a Republican if the negative value of his party identification was outweighed by his personal qualities. Small wonder that the first Republican to recover the White House after the GOP’s collapse in the Hoover period happened to be the country’s greatest war hero.
You’d think this would all be ancient history, but it isn’t. The most active, passionate Republican partisans have never stopped thinking of themselves as an embattled minority. In an historical irony, the party’s dominance in most states of the old Confederacy has reinforced this tendency; so has its support from a majority of evangelical Protestants. Both Southerners and evangelicals ( for different reasons) often tend to think of themselves in the same way.
To embattled minorities, division is fatal and a strong-looking leader — someone seen as upholding the minority’s values while (ideally) having broader appeal — is highly desirable. Obviously, this is not a phenomenon unique to the Republican Party. Just look at African-American political history. But this sense of being at a disadvantage in electoral politics produces in many Republicans an elevated sensitivity to, and discomfort with, dissension among Republican voters and elected officials.
The media has picked up on this. Though it is not wrong to do so, it is prone to exaggerate the real disagreements on policy substance within the GOP. This is still, in most respects, George W. Bush’s party: its last two Presidential nominees ran on Bush’s platform, no nationally prominent Republican today has a record of having clashed with Bush’s administration on any of its major priorities, and nearly every Republican in Congress holds with the bargain Bush made with the party’s base of large donors twelve years ago — low taxes in exchange for lavish financial support of the party’s costly electioneering infrastructure.
Now, it may be that the media’s exaggeration of Republican differences — all the lurid language of a GOP “civil war” and so forth — is not wrong, just premature. I don’t know. Historical precedent suggests that the Republican Party may need several election cycles to recover the trust among the general public it lost while Bush was President, pretty much irrespective of anything Republicans in Congress or elsewhere do now. Party unity, seen as less essential when a party sees itself as dominant, may also look less important to a party convinced that its chances of gaining power are very small. We’ll see.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.