No one will recall the two weeks leading up to Labor Day 2019 as a turning point in the country’s political history. Vacationers left their lakeside retreats or ended their seashore holidays; parents bought school supplies or moved nervous first-year college students into freshly scrubbed dormitories. Washington was preoccupied with the risible distraction provided by the notion of buying Greenland. The markets fell, then recovered, then fell again. It was, after all, summertime, and for much of the nation it was a splendid, serene summer.
But four disparate events, each with its own gyroscope, were indications of minute but perhaps telling changes in the tectonic balance of the Republican Party, which for its 165-year history has been in the process of one transition or another. In truth, few parties in the world have had so many identities: from anti-slavery insurgency and engine of big government to vanguard of big business and captive of special interests. Then from progressive rebellion and trust-busting insurrection to disciple of normalcy and apostle of isolationism. And, within living memory, from devotion to austerity and devout faith in free trade to massive deficits and protectionism — and from Dwight Eisenhower contempt for using the media to Donald J. Trump mastery of social media.
For a party that for much of its life, and through most of its identities, has cultivated a reputation as a steady-state political entity, its real identity is one of constant change — from agent of change to bulwark against change and then to agent of change once more. The tumult and upheaval of the past several years is less a departure from its traditions than an extension of them:
First of the mini tremors of late summer 2019 was a poll from a Republican firm indicating that three-fourths of suburban women favor stricter gun control. This is the group for which the Republicans absolutely, positively, must make inroads if Trump is to win a second term. It is also the group that helped the Democrats take the House in 2018. These findings, from suburbs in Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, are deeply disturbing to Republican political professionals.
The second temblor was a Los Angeles Times poll that suggested Trump’s populist impulses trouble and perhaps actually alienate a sizable minority of Republicans. About a quarter of GOP voters surveyed said they wish the party would move in a “more traditionally conservative” direction. To be sure, more indicated they supported Trump’s populist impulses than opposed them, but a party where a quarter of its adherents are uneasy with its current guiding philosophy is not on sound footing once its current president departs the scene.
The third development will have no practical effect on the coming presidential election but nonetheless is an indication of divisions within the party. There is no chance that former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois will provide an obstacle to Trump’s glide to renomination, but his candidacy stands as a symbol of the grave doubts that conservatives harbor about the ideological direction of the party.
Indeed, hardly anyone will notice when Walsh takes on the president from the Tea Party right. (Hardly anyone noticed Rep. John Ashbrook’s “no-left turns” 1972 challenge of Richard Nixon.) Hardly anyone has noticed that former Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts is taking on Trump from the silk-stocking right. (Hardly anyone saw his tweet last week that Trump “is a clear and present danger — to our country, to the globe.”)
Incumbent presidents seldom get these kinds of irritations. But note this: Though former Nixon and Reagan aide Patrick J. Buchanan, an agent provocateur par excellence, never had a chance of preventing the renomination of George H.W. Bush in 1992, his pitchforks-and-populism presidential campaign sent social-conservative cultural warriors to the barricades and had an enormous impact on the Republican Party; it is incontrovertible that today’s GOP more resembles Buchanan’s conception of politics than Bush’s.
The fourth element was the report that the federal budget deficit was on its way to reaching a record trillion-dollar level for fiscal 2020, which begins on Oct. 1. It wasn’t that long ago that liberal and conservative Republicans alike — Sens. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and Phil Gramm of Texas, who agreed on almost nothing but fiscal responsibility — worked together to narrow the deficit rather than widen it. There are no screams of GOP protest about the deficit, and the only yelps about it issue from the Democrats, who have almost no credibility as austerity advocates.
“Republicans traditionally cared about deficits,” said Valerie A. Ramey, an economist at the University of California at San Diego. “The idea hasn’t gone out of fashion worldwide. But it has gone out of fashion in the modern Republican Party.”
Together these elements illuminate new strains in a party that delivered its presidential nomination to a onetime Democratic supporter of abortion rights whose personal comportment bore no resemblance to the austere if not severe profiles of its postwar presidents: disciplined (Eisenhower, the very model of a military man); introverted (Nixon, shy and brooding); faithful (Gerald R. Ford, devoted to his wife and to conventional politics); ideologically coherent (Ronald Reagan, after a youthful romance with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal); selfless (George H.W. Bush, with an ideology that amounted to little more than service); and self-consciously sober (George W. Bush, after years of near-addiction to alcohol).
The party’s recent failed nominees were a soldier (Bob Dole, nearly mortally injured on an Italian hillside in the waning days of World War II); a Navy aviator (John McCain, imprisoned in solitary confinement during Vietnam); and a Mormon bishop and stake president (Mitt Romney, who neither drank nor swore and personified family values).
The cultural battle that Buchanan prompted in his 1992 challenge to Bush often was called a war for the soul of the Republican Party. The Democrats, of course, have their own internal schisms and struggles — and their own war for their party’s cultural soul. But that dispute will be settled, at least until November 2020, through the Democratic presidential nomination process now underway. The struggle inside the GOP will go on as long as Trump holds the White House — and, given his formidable presence as America’s chief executive, may continue long after he has left the presidency.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.