With the South Carolina primary producing a third winner in as many Republican nominating contests, the media can continue its story line that the Republican field is profoundly split. With no Democratic contest going on right now, and the president's approval ratings in the mid-40s once again, the left has moved toward a new narrative. The "schisms" within the GOP, the Los Angeles Times says, presage "at least a month of internal warfare." Divisions within the party are deepening, if you believe the press, and various factions are fighting one another and splintering the party. In fact, according to the New York Times, these days Republicans are "a party searching for an identity in ways not seen since the aftermath of Watergate," with "deep ideological divisions."
Sorry to disappoint, but I don't see it. A cursory review of the GOP candidates' positions on the issues is surprisingly repetitive, especially on the issues of most importance to voters, namely, the economy and the budget deficit. All of the Republican candidates are fiscal conservatives, all want lower federal income taxes, and when it comes to lowering corporate taxes, it's simply a question of who wants to cut by how much. Most support a balanced budget and raising the retirement age. All want to reform Social Security and Medicare. Most favor repealing Dodd-Frank's restrictions on the financial industry, and all want to reduce federal regulations on businesses.
All are pro-life, and all want tougher border security. All are opposed to Obamacare, with most calling for an outright repeal. All except Ron Paul support a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The biggest areas of disagreement seem to be defense and foreign policy, with stances ranging from cutting the defense budget (Paul) to no reductions in the Pentagon budget except for waste (Newt Gingrich) to keeping all U.S. bases open (Rick Santorum) and increasing overseas troop levels and warships (Romney). They have a variety of positions on how to handle Libya, and while the field is split on whether waterboarding is torture, most support keeping the Guantánamo Bay prison open.
Overall, that doesn't sound like "deep ideological divisions" to me. On domestic issues, Republicans are surprisingly unified. Republicans agree on most economic issues, as well as on the other issues most important to voters: the federal deficit and healthcare. It's within the remaining issues—immigration, terrorism, Afghanistan, and gay rights—that any disagreement exists. So on the policies most important to voters, Republican candidates are not divided at all.
Here's where the real differences among the candidates lie: in their personal temperaments, their operating styles, their life experiences, and their approaches to governing. Deborah Anderson, a former teacher, put it to the Washington Post this way after a town hall meeting in Salem, N.H.: "I wish I could take Jon Huntsman's foreign policy experience and put it together with Newt Gingrich's this and Mitt Romney's that and Rick Santorum's that." She's right. Many of us would like to see a candidate with Jon Huntsman's diplomacy, Herman Cain's humor, Mitt Romney's executive experience, Newt Gingrich's debating skill, Rick Perry's fearlessness, and Ron Paul's ... well, how about Ron Paul's appeal to young voters. How great would that be?
We know we won't get all that in one candidate, but we might get it in two of them. Bay Buchanan, a Reagan campaign official in 1980 and sister of Pat Buchanan, a man who knows a thing or two about Republicans with different operating styles, told the Los Angeles Times this week: "You can go back as far as the Reagan days. I mean, we couldn't stand the Bush people. ... And so what did [Reagan do]? He picked [George H.W.] Bush for the vice president." Since I was not on the 1980 Bush campaign, I'll let that one slide.
But the same thing nevertheless happened in 2008, Buchanan said, when John McCain picked conservative Sarah Palin as a running mate. If Romney wins the nomination, she said, he is going to have to reach out to those factions that are not supporting him. Buchanan calls that "Politics 101."
In American politics, factions can eventually become governing coalitions. This year's crop of candidates isn't very far apart ideologically, so the governing coalition isn't going to be very hard to assemble, especially when you think about issues that independent voters care about most. (Politico is reporting that Romney backers are already talking about the need for "party unity.")
The latest Gallup poll shows that a record high 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as independent voters. The winning candidate this fall will be the one who puts together a center-right coalition, one that attracts independent voters. It's no accident that the top three finishers in New Hampshire were the three who won the biggest shares of independent voters: Paul, Romney, and Huntsman.
By continuing to appeal to voters on the right, from Tea Partyers to Ron Paul supporters, who are concerned with reining in the deficit, reducing the national debt, ending "crony capitalism," and cutting back on federal intervention in the economy, Republicans can not only attract right-leaning independent voters but can build a governing coalition for years to come. As Buchanan says, it's Politics 101.
- See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.
- Check out the U.S. News Ballot 2012 blog.
- See a slide show of GOP spouses on the 2012 campaign trail.