Is a Split in the GOP Inevitable?

Deal W. Hudson
October 31, 2008

As I write this, Sen. John McCain is edging closer to Sen. Barack Obama in the national polls. Whether this will translate into enough votes to win battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio is still a long shot. But whatever happens on November 4, a major shake-up in the GOP is a certainty.

Dana Milbank’s column describing Gov. Sarah Palin’s appearance in Leesburg, Virginia, provides more evidence for the widening split in the GOP. Citing a CNN report, Milbank quotes a McCain adviser calling Palin a “diva” who “takes no advice from anyone and does not have any relationships of trust with any of us, her family or anyone else. Also, she is playing for her own future and sees herself as the next leader of the party.”

These comments from an unnamed adviser in the McCain campaign about Palin not having any “relationship with us” are disappointing, but not surprising. McCain’s game plan was always to win over the moderates and undecideds, and not to let loose the energy of GOP ground troops to spread excitement about the ticket.

The bright light of Palin’s comet seemed out of sync with the course set by McCain’s advisers. The “she” who doesn’t have a “relationship of trust” with “us” is very telling, with its Godfather overtones about someone who is “not family.” It also reflects the inability of the McCain campaign to connect with the 30,000,000 religious conservative voters on their own terms.

The choice of Governor Palin as the vice-presidential candidate was brilliant, but it was obvious from the start that the campaign did not really understand why it was brilliant, or how to exploit Palin’s primary asset: she appeals to social and religious conservatives hungry for a values message in the face of a challenge from the extreme cultural left.

Palin understood from the beginning that this election was about the culture wars with a capital “C,” and for this, she has been accused of being a “whack job” and “going rogue” by another unnamed McCain adviser. But religious conservatives supporting the GOP ticket haven’t seen Palin’s campaign as being disconnected from McCain’s; in their view, Palin complemented McCain and gave the campaign a message that had been missing, or had been unnecessarily soft-pedaled.

While Palin made religious conservatives comfortable with McCain, the leaks coming out of the McCain camp about Palin betray their discomfort with religious conservatives. Furthermore, they portend a power struggle within the party between the religious conservatives and party “moderates.”

The base of the party will not accept anything less than leadership committed to social issues and someone who will embrace, rather than tolerate, their presence. Without that leadership, these voters who have been the backbone of the GOP since the early 1980s will look for other avenues to fight the culture wars over the protection of life and the family.

Palin, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Gov. Mitt Romney, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) are the most likely candidates to vie for that leadership role in the future. Ideally, they will find a way to work together during Obama’s first term to attempt damage control and rebuild the Reagan coalition, in spite of the announcement of its demise.

Romney’s advantage is his economic savvy, while the bona fides of his social conservatism are earning greater acceptance. Huckabee speaks with the language of Zion but has achieved a broader appeal because of his populism. Known for his commitment to principle, Pence unites the best of social and economic conservatism in a coherent vision. Palin has star appeal and is willing to address what grassroots conservatives fear most about the future of America.

The GOP leaders who control the RNC would do well to study the Palin phenomenon. They need to create a relationship with those who stood and cheered the night the Alaska governor was nominated.

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