The Magazine

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

The Republican establishment needs the grassroots, and vice versa.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By JAY COST
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Jeb Bush’s recent musings on a possible presidential run—and his comments on immigration, rankling many in the Republican grassroots—sparked a familiar clash. Jeb, the establishment’s preferred candidate, some said, could neutralize the fiery GOP base in 2016. Conservatives shot back that Jeb would depress conservative turnout, and his last name would play poorly with the general electorate.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

It’s a constant tension: The base is unhappy with the establishment, and vice versa. But this year, the marriage of convenience between the grassroots of the party and its donor class has emerged so battered from eight years of George W. Bush and five of Barack Obama that some wonder whether this union can or should be saved.

In fact, the divide between the two sides of the GOP goes back a long way. Partly, it reflects a universal truth that James Madison noted in Federalist 10: “[T]he most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” The establishment class of the Republican party holds property that the grassroots simply do not—disposable income high enough to facilitate political giving, sometimes on a vast scale. The grassroots have little spare cash; they have only their votes. 

This economic divide is reinforced by geography and culture, with
the donor class tending to live on the coasts, in or around cities, and the base spread out across the suburbs, small towns, and rural expanses in the Midwest and South. 

Furthermore, the nature of American elections—winner-take-all contests in geographically discrete jurisdictions—effectively precludes the formation of third or fourth parties, as French political scientist Maurice Duverger showed. As a result, many potentially clashing interests end up housed within our “big tent” parties, forcing leaders to find clever ways to keep potential conflicts from overwhelming shared values. 

Consider the Whig party, from which the Republican party was (mostly) formed. It tended to draw supporters from the higher end of the socioeconomic scale in the 1840s and ’50s: the wealthy planters in the South, merchants in New York City and Philadelphia, and the prosperous Yankee middle class. Yet that was not enough for electoral victory, which is why the Whigs nominated generals—William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott—who could appeal to what pundits today call “the heartland.” 

When the Republican party emerged from the pieces of the Whig coalition, it confronted the same dilemma, and Abraham Lincoln—the Midwesterner with a hardscrabble background and a moderate position on slavery—was chosen in part because his appeal was broader than that of Salmon Chase, a Dartmouth graduate and prominent Cincinnati attorney, or William Seward, also a lawyer, and the son of a wealthy landowner in upstate New York.

After the Civil War, the latent conflict between those who cut the checks to fund the party and those who voted for it, cycle after cycle, persisted. This helps explain why the Republicans tended to nominate presidential candidates from the Midwest and vice-presidential candidates from New York: A balanced ticket helped to keep the peace. 

The cultural, social, and economic divisions within the party have been reinforced in the last 80 years by ideological ones. Though founded out of opposition to the spread of slavery, the Republican party was Whiggish in its economic doctrine, making it the era’s “big government” party. The 19th-century GOP sought to use governmental action to promote business development. Thus, Republicans supported high protective tariffs, favored laws allowing for national bank charters, took a broad view of federal powers to suppress state regulation of businesses, and encouraged the secretary of the Treasury to manipulate the currency to retain the gold standard. 

Modern American conservatism developed in opposition to the New Deal, to fight the undeniable sense that laws like the National Industrial Recovery Act were changing the character of the country itself. In its first incarnation, this sentiment was present in both parties; indeed, some of the most prominent early opponents of the New Deal were leading Democrats—John Jakob Raskob, DNC chair in the 1920s, John Davis, 1924 presidential nominee, and Al Smith, 1928 nominee and 1932 runner-up. 

Opposition to the New Deal and later the Great Society eventually migrated to the Republican party, in large part because its base voters from the small towns of the Midwest opposed such government growth. Moreover, manufacturing interests and small businessmen who had been key GOP donors before the New Deal stuck with the party because big government liberalism was bad for the bottom line. In time, they would be joined by Westerners and Southerners who had voted Democratic during the Progressive Era but chafed at the New Deal and Great Society’s drive to centralize power in Washington. 

Facing the liberalism of today’s Democratic party, all factions of the GOP can usually agree on quite a lot. Virtually nobody in the coalition supports the Democrats’ efforts to increase taxes or federal regulations, especially when the beneficiaries are labor unions or the environmentalist left. Yet that unity can mask a historical irony: The rise of the modern left has pushed many of the country’s old political disagreements into the GOP. The skeptics of big government might once have been Democrats in the mold of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, but now they are joined with the heirs of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, who prefer to use the power of government to promote the private economy.

Considering how hot the conflict burned between these two forces when they were in different parties—the elections of 1800 and 1832 were particularly vitriolic—it is little wonder that today’s Republican establishment and its voting base can seem to hate each other more than they do the Democrats. Yet both sides must confront a stark reality: The American left is so strong today that neither half of the Republican party can do without
the other. The GOP has poached most of the conservative voters of the Democratic party. Those who remain committed to the liberal program are so numerous that the Democrats’ share of the vote is unlikely to fall below 45 percent, barring realignment. A united GOP, similarly, can count on about 45 percent support, meaning that politics today hinges on winning the support of that disengaged and unaffiliated middle 10 percent of the country. 

Again, this is reminiscent of post-Civil War politics. Back then, the Republican party stood a chance only if it mounted its fullest effort, uniting the grassroots with the establishment. Every Republican voter in Indiana, Ohio, and upstate New York was needed, when the margin of victory could come down to less than 1,000 votes. Equally, every Republican donor had to give all he could to help the GOP buy off the purchasable votes in the Midwest and New York City. As Pennsylvania boss Matt Quay once put it, all the fat had to be fried out of the pan. Whatever grievances the two sides might have against each other had to be resolved at the convention, for the fall campaign required a united front, lest the “Democracy” get its hands on the government.

Today, little has changed: The key state in the electoral contest is still Ohio. The base in the suburbs, small towns, and countryside needs to turn out to match Democratic turnout in the big cities, and the donors need to pony up the scratch to persuade the undecided via the airwaves that they need to vote. Anything less than a full effort by everybody means defeat.

Unfortunately, something less than a full effort occurred in the last two presidential cycles. No one in the party seemed particularly enthusiastic about John McCain’s candidacy. Turnout was down, and Barack Obama far outspent him. In 2012, the donor class seemed to come back for Mitt Romney, but vital sectors of the core Republican vote sat on their hands. A repeat of either scenario in 2016 will greatly aid the Democrats in the historically difficult quest to win the White House for the third time in a row.

Republicans on both sides of the intraparty divide, then, would do well to remember that they agree on quite a lot. It is one thing to have an intraparty fight about the role of government, but it is all academic if the Democrats have the power to enact Obamacare and pass untold fortunes off to green-energy cronies like Solyndra. 

In the 19th century, the national convention was the place where the divide could be bridged. The requirement for a majority vote, and the absence of a “unit rule” privileging party machines in big states, meant that the party as a whole had to reach a consensus choice. This helps explain why so many presidents from this era came from Ohio. Today’s Republican nomination process lacks this institutional rationality. It is, instead, a mad scramble for delegates, and would-be nominees have an incentive to divide Republicans.

Lacking institutional mechanisms to force consensus, Republicans themselves will have to choose it, given the reality that the establishment and the grassroots cannot thrive without each other. As they mull the alternatives, all participants in the nomination process must ask themselves three questions: (1) Can this candidate win the support of the unaffiliated voters who decide general elections? (2) Is the establishment of the party comfortable enough with this nominee to put forth all the money it can? And (3) are the grassroots excited enough about this nominee to show up in November?

The candidates for whom all three answers are “yes” are the “fusion” candidates who belong at the top of any Republican’s list. Most of the successful Republican nominees from Lincoln to the second Bush were such candidates, able to bridge the socioeconomic and ideological divides within their party. Such candidates unite the party by emphasizing the issues that excite both sides, ignoring those that are divisive, projecting a disposition that makes everybody feel welcome, and highlighting a personal background with which all factions can identify.

For some, this will feel like a letdown. It is more emotionally satisfying to channel Theodore Roosevelt prior to the GOP convention in 1912 declaiming, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” But TR’s breakaway Bull Moose party was short-lived, the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, won in 1912, and TR was back in the Republican fold by 1916. That is how it usually goes: Disagreements within a coalition are rarely resolved, only papered over, usually by the personal charm and political skill of the nominee. 

The smart play, then, is always the same: Find the guy who can make both sides reasonably happy and nominate him.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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