Blog No. 31 GOP in the Desert: Looking for a Lawrence of Arabia

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) took place in Maryland last week, producing little heat and less light. Although some speakers acknowledged the need for the Republican Party to broaden its base, or to focus more on winning elections and less on ideology, concrete examples of either were in short supply. Given the sponsorship of the event, it is perhaps not surprising that stale pieties from the conservative canon were the carte du jour.

A more interesting picture of the Republican Party emerged from a February 25 article in The National Interest by Henry Olsen, “The Four Faces of the Republican Party.”  Based on a detailed analysis of primary elections in the past several years, Mr. Olsen refuted the notion that the fate of the Republican Party will lie in a contest between the Tea Party and the “establishment.” Rather, according to Olsen, there are four major factions within the Republican Party. The largest faction, and the one most likely to yield the Party’s nominee, is “slightly conservative.” Mr. Olsen’s essay was sufficiently cogent that it has already been summarized in full columns by two major pundits: Dan Balz in The Washington Post and Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Because it provides a useful counterpoint to CPAC, it deserves some further mention here.

CPAC 2014                                                                                                                                           did not attend the CPAC and must rely on press reports of the proceedings. According to those reports, however, the troublesome subjects of tax reform and entitlements reform did not come up for discussion and immigration received only glancing attention. Nor were there proposals for dealing with income inequality or economic mobility or improving education. Paul Ryan told his audience that the media had exaggerated the existence of a divide within the party and that disagreements were over tactics rather than policy. On the other hand, Dana Milbank, writing in The Washington Post, saw a free-for-all, citing the fact that the ballot for the CPAC reportedly included the names of some 26 potential Presidential contenders. The assessments of both Ryan and Milbank may be questionable. The absence of public debate over policy differences is evidence not so much of unity but a reluctance to expose a lack of unity. Still, a proliferation of candidates probably indicated little more than the absence of a convincing front-runner.

The closest that CPAC seems to have come to a debate was sparked by the inimitable Ted Cruz arguing for a purer (or more strident) form of conservatism. Cruz  took a crack at the Party’s past nominees: “All of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney — now look, those are good men, they’re decent men, but when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”  The following day, McCain responded:

He can say what he wants to about me; he can say anything he wants to about Mitt…. Mitt can take it. But when he throws Bob Dole in there, I wonder if he thinks that Bob Dole stood for principle on a hilltop in Italy when he was so gravely wounded and left part of his body there fighting for our country. Bob Dole is such a man of honor and principle and integrity. I hope Ted Cruz will apologize to Bob Dole because that’s crossed a line that to me leaves the realm of politics and discourse we should have in America.

A copy of the CPAC ballot is not readily available on the internet, but reports indicated that among the most prominently mentioned “potential candidates,” all but two were in attendance.  While Scott Walker and Jeb Bush declined invitations, those who came and addressed the participants included Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Paul Ryan. All of the speakers were received warmly, but in the end CPAC anointed Rand Paul as its darling, a move fraught with insignificance.

As Politico had wryly noted:

Since the tradition began in 1976, the straw poll has been conducted four times in midterm election years when an incumbent Republican president was not seeking re-election. The winners of those straw polls were Jack Kemp in 1986, Steve Forbes in 1998, George Allen in 2006 and Ron Paul in 2010.

None of them became serious threats to win the GOP presidential nomination two years after their CPAC triumphs, and Allen did not even run.

One reason for the limited value of the CPAC coronation may be the atypical demographics of the gathering.   As noted by Ed Rogers in The Washington Post:

Forty-two percent of the approximately 2,500 attendees were students, and 46 percent were between 18-25 years of age. So the group was not particularly representative of Republican or even conservative voters as a whole. The crowd this year was also decidedly libertarian, as evidenced by the 41 percent of attendees who said they believe “marijuana should be legalized for recreational and medical use.” The young student profile of the CPAC crowd makes it easy to suggest that CPAC says something about the future of the Republican party. But, in fact, a lot of the attendees were College Republicans, who are traditionally an angrier, more libertarian shard of the party. College Republicans are not necessarily representative of things to come.

Rand Paul gained 31% of the vote and was followed by Cruz 11%, Ben Carson 9%, Christie 8%, Walker 7%, Santorum 7%, Rubio 6%. Cruz might have been a bit abashed that his histrionics in the Senate had not produced more of a following, but he is not a man who abashes easily. Christie, on the other hand, may have taken his 8% as some indication that he had been successful in putting at least some distance between himself and the fiasco of Bridgegate.

In short, one will have to look elsewhere to cast an early eye on the Republican scramble for 2016.  Henry Olsen’s essay in The National Interest is not a bad starting place.

The Four Faces of the Republican Party

Henry Olsen’s analysis is detailed and nuanced and no brief summary can do it justice. Nevertheless, the high points are the four factions he described and the candidates he suggests who might be primarily identified with each:

Somewhat Conservative 35-40%      Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker

Moderate to Liberal 25-30%              John Kasich

Very conservative, evangelical 20%  Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee

Very conservative, secular 5-10%     Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz

That summary is an oversimplification as all candidates will attempt to appeal across faction lines and will succeed to varying degrees. For example, as Olsen observed:

Senator Rand Paul’s focus on civil liberties and limiting overseas military actions would hold some appeal for GOP moderates and liberals, as would Senator Marco Rubio’s occasional forays into antipoverty efforts. Rubio’s backing of immigration reform is of interest to somewhat conservative donors, and his authoring of federal antiabortion legislation creates some support among the socially conservative wing.

Some readers will be surprised, as we were, at  the percentage of voters described as moderate to liberal. Anticipating that surprise, Olsen expanded on the point:

[Moderate to liberal voters] are especially strong in early voting states such as New Hampshire (where they have comprised between 45 and 49 percent of the GOP electorate between 1996 and 2012), Florida and Michigan. They are, however, surprisingly numerous even in the Deep South, the most conservative portion of the country. Moderates or liberals have comprised between 31 and 39 percent of the South Carolina electorate since 1996, outnumbering or roughly equaling very conservative voters in each of those years.

In Olsen’s view, a Tea Party candidate is not a likely finalist. Rather, he believes the more likely outcome is a three-way contest between a somewhat conservative center, moderate secularists and conservative evangelicals. Nevertheless, he concludes with an interesting analogy.

PAST NEED not be prologue, however. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence decides to go back into a hellish desert to rescue a straggler. His close aide, Sherif Ali, tells him not to bother, that the straggler’s fate is foreordained. “It is written,” Ali tells the Englishman. “Nothing is written,” Lawrence angrily yells back. He then goes into the desert and returns with his man.

Lawrence could conquer the desert and its heat through his will, but he could not will the desert away. GOP aspirants would do well to emulate Lawrence’s will and resourcefulness, but they too cannot will away their surroundings. Whichever candidate from whichever faction emerges, he or she will have done so by understanding the four species of GOP voters and using their wiles and the calendar to their advantage. For truly, as Ali said of Lawrence, for some men nothing is written until they write it.

 Whether the GOP has a Lawrence of Arabia remains to be seen.

BLOG 31 lawrence-of-arabia-006Jeb Bush

Although Jeb Bush was not at CPAC, he cannot have been far from the minds of many who were. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll released on March 5 showed that Bush had more support among Republicans than other potential candidates. Fifteen per cent of Republicans said they would definitely vote for Bush, sixty-one per cent said they would consider voting for him, and eighteen per cent said they would not vote for him. (By comparison, twelve per cent would definitely vote for Rand Paul, fifty-five per cent said they would consider voting for him, and seventeen per cent said they would not vote for him.)

The same poll, however, contained a surprising and puzzling negative. When the poll was expanded to include Democrats and Independents, there were more voters who said they would definitely not vote for Bush (forty-eight per cent) than there were for any other possible candidate except Mitt Romney (forty-nine per cent).  It is puzzling because Bush’s generally moderate position on the issues ought to be more acceptable to Democrats and Independents than those of other Republicans. The only plausible explanation is that the Democrat and Independent pollees were not that familiar with Bush and were heavily influenced by their view of his brother, George W. Bush (and possibly resentment of a “Bush Dynasty”).

If Bush decides to become a candidate, he and his views will quickly become better known, and it is likely that his high negative among Democrats and Independents will be substantially reduced. Should that fail to happen, however, it would obviously erode his support among Republicans. regards Jeb Bush as the most promising of the presently identified potential Republican candidates and is hopeful that he will decide to run. Nevertheless, proud as we are of being a RINOs, we would not want to burden Bush with being tagged as one.  Accordingly, we RINOs and our friends should perhaps keep this “pre-endorsement” to ourselves.

7 thoughts on “Blog No. 31 GOP in the Desert: Looking for a Lawrence of Arabia

  • “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it. Mark Twain.
    Does this country deserve better than another Bush or Clinton?

  • I see Jeb Bush as the only really viable GOP candidate. Perhaps his biggest liability is that he is George W. Bush’s brother and will be seen by many as gravely tainted. While Jeb Bush can be held responsible for many things, he cannot be held responsible for that.

    On the Democrat side we have Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, two shopworn candidates. One engenders great enthusiasm among her base but failed to win her party’s nomination. The other looks like a Democrat version of Harold Stassen.

    We all are in the trackless wastes of the desert in this one.

  • Excellent analysis of the Olsen article providing a much more nuanced view of the Republicans. Thanks, also, for the insights on CPAC, especially the demographics – a revelation which helps explain the popularity of the Pauls. McCain’s response to Cruze’s careless depiction of Bob Dole was moving and might cause someone less egotistical than Cruze to lose a bit of sleep. Yes, Jeb Bush could possibly become our Lawrence and bears watching. As usual, this blog provided unique insights not available elsewhere…keep up the good work!

  • Politicians all! Perhaps we would do well to realize that fact and it’s grave implications. Where is our democracy truly headed? I certainly do not have the answer but the whole bunch makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that is good and we all should be uncomfortable??

  • so as a lawyer, tell me how ted cruz qualifies as a presidential candidate – born in another country whose father, while not kenyan, was a citizen of still another country.

    • The clear consensus seems to be that he is a natural born citizen by virtue of the fact that his mother was an American citizen. While I have not personally studied the question (and have no plans to), that sounds right to me.

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