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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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.

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