The GOP Conundrum

by Michael Sean Winters

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This week, some commentators, among them Sarah Palin, have characterized the GOP race at this stage as having a “flavor of the month” quality to it. The metaphor is not exact. It implies either that the whole campaign is essentially a marketing campaign and/or that the GOP primary electorate is so enormously fickle, that they cannot stay with any single candidate for more than a month and need to move on to someone else. But, that is not the real issue and so the metaphor does not enlighten so much as it beclouds.

The GOP primary electorate is not so much fickle as it is extraordinarily committed to a set of ideas about public policy from which they permit no deviation. Opposition to any and all tax increases? Check. Opposition to any form of compassion or justice for undocumented workers? Check. Support for right-to-work laws? Check. Opposition to climate change legislation? Check. Support for any and all Israeli policies? Check. These issues have been hammered so consistently on Fox News and at Tea Party gatherings, they have acquired canonical status in today’s Republican party. Every night of the week, Sean Hannity not only defends these ideas, but he dismisses those who do not share them as unpatriotic, or dullards, or conspirators against freedom.

So, when Republican voters did not know much about Texas Gov. Rick Perry, they assumed he supported them on all of their core issues. He zoomed to the front of the pack, easily overtaking former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney who has been on every side of every important issue. In addition to being a flip-flopper, Romney suffers from the fact that his health care reform served as a model of President Obama’s health care reform, and no issue gets the GOP electorate more riled than Obamacare. The GOP has a nightmare: Romney secures the nomination, goes to his first debate with the president, only to have Obama say right at the very beginning, “Let me start, Governor Romney, by thanking you for paving the way on health care. The basic approach you adopted in Massachusetts became the basic approach we adopted for our reform and, honestly, I don’t think we could have done it without you.” When Perry announced, he was the new un-Romney and voters swooned.

But, then voters learned that Perry was squishy on immigration. First, he thinks it is a little daft to build a fence along the border knowing that a fence will do little to stem the tide of increased illegal immigration. Why? There is an old joke: You build a ten foot fence, I make a twelve foot ladder. As well, many undocumented workers enter the country legally but overstay their visas. So, Perry is right on the merits and could make that case intelligently if he had not also signed a Texas version of the DREAM Act, which permits Texas residents to attend Texas colleges and universities at in-state rates regardless of their immigration status, provided they are seeking citizenship. I confess I do not understand why Perry has not focused on that latter requirement. These students were brought here by their parents: They had no say in the matter. But, now that they do have some control over their own lives, if they attest, by sworn affidavit, that they are pursuing citizenship, and they actually reside in the state, why shouldn’t they get in-state tuition? This, of course, is virtual heresy to GOP primary voters. All those years of dog whistles about race within the GOP are coming back to haunt Perry.

The same problem awaits the campaign of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie should he choose to get into the race. Christie is a stunningly good politician. Unlike Romney, he never comes across as smooth or slick. Unlike Perry, he is articulate and clearly bright. And, most importantly, he beat an incumbent governor in a large blue state to win. But, upon closer inspection, it will be difficult to see how Christie can be embraced by the hard right. He has said that concerns about the introduction of Sharia law into the United States are “crazy.” He is correct, of course, but as I reported yesterday, a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that two-thirds of Republicans think Islamic values and American values are incompatible. And, more recently, Gov. Christie opined that God made gays gay so he has a hard time understanding how being gay can be a sin. Not sure how that would go down in South Carolina.

The GOP’s problem is not a “flavor of the month” problem. Their problem is that to win the fervent support of GOP primary voters, candidates have to go so far to the right, they become unelectable in November. It is a nice problem.

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