Ronald Reagan was the first candidate to seize the Republican presidential nomination with the support of the conservative movement and go on to win the White House. Reagan was also the last. The only other person to accomplish even the first of these feats was Barry Goldwater.
The reason for this became apparent as soon as presidential term limits kicked in at the close of the Reagan years. In 1988, conservatives were divided between Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Pete DuPont, and even Alexander Haig. Other conservatives decided to play it safe by supporting the establishment choices of George Bush and Bob Dole. With movement conservatives either divided or complicit in his nomination, Bush prevailed easily.
Dole would triumph in the next competitive GOP contest. He would win the nomination with some conservative support while the many Republicans to his right were divided among Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes, and Alan Keyes. Even Lamar Alexander got into the act. Buchanan won in the supposedly secular, socially liberal state of New Hampshire. He took 64 percent of the primary voters who care most about abortion. Contrary to public perceptions, most of the Republican statewide elected officials there since the 1990s have been pro-life.
In 2000, Bush the younger beat a candidate to his left, John McCain. But he also left in the dust Forbes, Keyes, and Gary Bauer. Buchanan bolted the party and Dan Quayle didn't even make it to the Iowa caucuses. "I whupped Gary Bauer's ass in 2000," Bush would later recall to a surprised speechwriter drafting the president's remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference. "So take out all this movement stuff. There is no movement."
As arrogant as this may seem, the 43rd president may have a point if things continue along the current trajectory. Republicans keep nominating candidates who create vast unfunded entitlements and grow the federal government once in office. Many of them have little connection to conservative principle even before they receive the nod. Yet few qualified conservatives are in a position to challenge them, leaving the task to talk radio hosts, former members of Congress, and House backbenchers.
This history seems likely to repeat itself after yesterday's New Hampshire primary. Mitt Romney was the winner, with just under 40 percent of the vote. The candidates most capable of mobilizing movement conservatives against him in the South seemed hopeless. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum struggled to win 10 percent of the vote to finish well outside the top three. Rick Perry was at 1 percent, barely clinging to life.
Having lost Iowa, which of these candidates will survive to stop Romney in South Carolina? After the votes are counted in Carolina, who will make their last stand against Mitt in Florida? If Romney wins those states, the man who designed the blueprint for Obamacare and boasted of his independence from Reagan conservatism will be hard to stop.
Richard Viguerie, the "funding father" of the conservative movement, decried the "conservative circular firing squad" in New Hampshire. Newt Gingrich blasted Romney as a "vulture capitalist" and said Ron Paul, the strongest small-government champion left in the race, was out of the mainstream. Paul blasted Gingrich as a "chickenhawk" and went up on the air against Rick Santorum. Santorum dismissed Paul as "disgusting" while Perry boasted that he would ignore the Granite State.
Is this the way to the White House in 2012?
For years, the conservative movement has divided into subsets of conservatism while ambitious establishment Republicans have carved up the spoils for themselves. New Hampshire was just the latest example.
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