Ever since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has moved steadily to the right. Yet in Tampa this week, for the seventh consecutive time, Republicans nominated a mainstream presidential candidate after rejecting movement conservatives.
No one would confuse Willard Mitt Romney with a populist or movement conservative; he oozes establishment. So did the other presidential nominees since Reagan – both Presidents Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain.
Like those predecessors, Romney calculated the formula for winning the nomination, said Jack Pitney, an academic authority on the Republican Party: “Just conservative enough to get moderate traditionalists and a chunk of movement conservatives.”
That, he recalled, was the model George H.W. Bush inaugurated in 1988. In fact, Pitney said, “Romney reminds me a lot of that President Bush, minus the war heroism.”
Is this formula permanent or is it ephemeral?
Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota, believes it may be more deeply ingrained. “Reagan believed in a mixed system, conservative but with an appreciation of the safety net, a coherent governing philosophy,” he said. “What most Americans want is an activist, limited government.”
Not so, said Richard Viguerie, one of the oldest veterans of the right-wing movement. “This is the last time the establishment will have operational control of a convention,” the 78-year-old activist proclaimed.
The establishment Republicans generally hold more moderate views – some having grown up in the party, others coming from business, and with a general appreciation of an “activist, limited government.” Movement conservatives are motivated by ideology, sometimes small-government economics, other times the religious social agenda.
From Washington, D.C., to the state capitals to the local level, the movement conservatives are in the ascendancy. For years, the Republican base was divided; it’s now dominated by the movement types.
A comparison of Reagan’s last year in office to today illustrates the dramatic change. Then, more than one-third of Senate Republicans were either genuine liberals such as Mark Hatfield, Lowell Weicker and Arlen Specter or moderates such as Bill Cohen, Bob Packwood and Nancy Kassebaum. With the retirement of Olympia Snowe of Maine, there’ll be no more than two or three moderate Republicans in the Senate next year.
A quarter-century ago there were dozens of moderate Republicans in the House. Today there are very few House Republicans who break with conservative orthodoxy.
The changes are equally dramatic at the state and local levels. Moderate Republican governors are relics. In Kansas this month the right wing, led by the state’s conservative governor, drummed a number of the Bob Dole-type centrist Republicans out of the party.
Yet movement conservatives have never been able to rally behind a single strong contender in the race for the presidential nomination. Some of their leading lights – Pat Robertson, Patrick Buchanan and Steve Forbes – all aroused passions in part of the base. None possessed broad appeal.
The one who might have come the closest was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the runner-up to McCain in 2008. But he decided not to run in 2012. Thus, Romney faced the weakest primary field in modern memory.
More than a few movement conservatives who want to defeat President Obama see the Promised Land ahead, win or lose in November. They believe ideologically driven younger Republicans will replace the party’s congressional leaders and will be positioned to nominate one of their own the next time.