SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 19, 2013

Shribman: Pragmatic vs. ideological

David M. Shribman
The Salem News

---- — CHATHAM, N.H. — The Baldface Brook Trail runs through here. The Chandler Gorge Trail runs through here. The Slippery Brook Trail runs through here. The campaign trail to the White House runs through here.

On the surface right now, in our glorious, sunny midsummer passage, not much politically is running through New Hampshire. The other day former Gov. Mitt Romney spoke to a Republican fundraiser in Wolfeboro, on Lake Winnipesaukee. The event was more a matter of celebrity than significance. A few days from now, Sen. Ted Cruz will be the big guest at Knollwood Farm in Dublin (population 1,597) in the southwestern part of the state. That’s an occasion of a different meaning.

The visit of Cruz is far more significant than might seem on the surface. The Texas Republican is one of the leading dispensers of a strong brew of tea in Washington, a popular figure on the right, renowned for his refusal to cut his views to the fashions of the capital establishment. Born in Canada, he may be ineligible for the presidency, much to the regret of his most ardent admirers. But his outlook — specifically his conviction that Republicans prevail in presidential contests only when they nominate candidates who lean discernibly to the right rather than flop around in the middle — is at the center of the most important struggle in American politics today.

Since the end of World War II, a group of political scientists and some commentators have argued that the Republican Party is composed of two sub-parties, a presidential party and a congressional party. This theory, often identified with David B. Truman, a Columbia professor who became the last male president of Mount Holyoke College, holds that the political figures who predominate in GOP presidential campaigns are different from those who pursue their efforts mainly on Capitol Hill — and that there is an inherent struggle between them.

More than a half century ago, this split took its form in differences between figures such as Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on the one hand and Republicans such as Sens. Robert Taft of Ohio and Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota on the other. The former were internationalists and played to a broad audience, the latter isolationists (or, in Mundt’s case, strong anti-communists) who played to local constituencies. The first accepted the principles of the New Deal; the second never gave up the notion of repealing it.

Once again the Republican Party seems to consist of two such groups, with some of the same characteristics of the dueling factions of the early 1950s, particularly on foreign affairs and on Obamacare, which House Republicans have voted 40 times to eliminate — a gesture post-war congressional Republicans might have undertaken against New Deal programs had they the House majorities today’s Republicans possess.

In the contemporary reckoning, the presidential Republicans include such figures as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and maybe Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, all potential White House candidates, plus two Ohioans who have not indicated presidential aspirations, Gov. John R. Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman. And to prove that Taft was not alone in being both a congressional Republican and a (three-time) presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, two White House aspirants, seem to fall into the congressional category.

The party itself seems to eschew the pragmatism associated with presidential Republicans. A summertime Marist College Institute for Public Opinion survey found that Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP preferred, by a margin of more than 2-to-1, a nominee with conservative views over one who can win. Some 70 percent of three groups of voters not traditionally associated with the Republican coalition favor the conservative-principle notion: voters under 45, voters earning less than $50,000, and female voters.

Much of the summer has been consumed with fighting among these GOP factions, the most inflammatory battle being the war of words — reflecting a war on worldviews — between Christie and Paul. Christie urged Republicans to abandon what he calls “these esoteric, intellectual debates.” Paul, an especially skilled practitioner of such debates, was critical of Christie’s open hands — his “gimme” attitude — on aid from Washington in the wake of last fall’s devastating hurricane.

This dispute can be distilled to whether the GOP should be practical or strictly ideological — and a Pew Research Center poll underlined how different are the supporters of both men, with 70 percent of tea-partiers viewing Paul favorably but only 47 percent viewing Christie the same way.

There is another important division that soon will come into play: a debate over whether the party’s 2014 House strategy, implicitly encouraging Republicans to play the conservative card in their home districts — which tend to be homogeneous and right-leaning — can be applied to the 2016 race. Presidential Republicans worry that such a strategy will undermine the party’s White House hopes.

That’s because the critical elements of the electorate will be different in 2016 than in 2014. The GOP likely will retain possession of the House next year and has a small chance of taking over the Senate, which would cheer Republicans starved for victory after a disappointing political experience last November. Then the Republicans will hold their nomination fight in 2016 among primary voters who will be substantially the same as the 2012 primary electorate.

But that won’t change the national electoral picture, which will be even less white in 2016 than it was in 2012. The Republicans are engaged in a philosophic fight when their real battle is demographic. Right now former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would defeat any of the leading Republican presidential contenders, according to the Marist poll. Her margin is smallest against Christie (six percentage points) and Bush (eight points), with Paul and Rubio falling 12 points behind.

The hiking trails that wind through Evans Notch hereabouts are long. They are also well-traveled. In those ways they are like the campaign trail. But Republicans, bitter after two losses to Barack Obama, are not eager to trek the same trail again. At this early stage, they are still deciding which way to go, and as a poet who once lived in this state said, that will make all the difference.

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North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.