Political Hay

The GOP’s Civil “Civil War”

It has an august recent history.  

By 11.9.09

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I have been thoroughly amused by all this talk about a "civil war" within the Republican Party, supposedly due to divisive "conservative" factions who, going rogue, are disturbing the Newtonian equilibrium of "mainstream" party regulars. What balderdash.

The present tension between conservative, moderate and liberal branches of the GOP, not to mention the differing relative priorities of the components of the Reaganite triad of economic, national security, and social conservatives, is at least as old as the struggle between the old Taft and Eisenhower struggle, and even more relevant to today's discussion, Ronald Regan's challenge to Gerald Ford, then a sitting president, albeit by appointment of the departing, defeated Richard Nixon. Reagan then followed up his defeat with a victory over George Bush, Senior, in 1980, another classic contest between conservative "insurgents" and mainstream, blue-blood Republicans.

As a young politico in St. Louis in 1976, serving as a kind of pro bono legal counsel for the major Reagan fundraiser in Missouri, the late William McBride Love, I was active in the caucus process in which Reagan challenged President Ford in the Show Me State.

What was novel in those primary caucuses was the recruitment of formerly Democratic Baptists and Catholics, primarily motivated by the 1973 Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion for all nine months of pregnancy in every state of the union, and the mobilization of existing conservative constituencies -- Cold Warriors, Second Amendment advocates, free-marketeers and the like. Some of these people would eventually make up the as yet unheralded cohort, "Reagan Democrats." These would coalesce with the older, long-standing conservative factions into the tripartite Reagan coalition.

Reagan barely lost the primary to Gerald Ford, who went on to run a very close but losing campaign to the feckless Jimmy Carter. However, the Great Communicator lived to fight another day, defeating George H. W. Bush in the 1980 presidential primary.

It should be recalled that both the 1976 and 1980 Republican primaries were hard-fought, bare-knuckled battles to the death, metaphorically speaking of course. Yet, recall that Reagan did choose Bush for his vice-presidential candidate. Eventually, the Bush campaign manager, James Baker, became his chief of staff.

Looking at the smashing Republican victory here in my adopted Commonwealth of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, the new Governor-Elect, won a campaign focusing on the most pressing issues du jour, jobs and economic growth. Moreover, he is a military man and solid social conservative. There is not single person in either the right-to-life or pro-family movements who doubts McDonnell's credentials on these matters. The man prudently addressed the overwhelming concerns of the majority of Virginians while remaining grounded in the other two constituencies of the conservative coalition. It seems to have been a winning combination.

So we have all seen this picture of "civil war" within the herd of pachyderms before. With the benefit of hindsight, none of these kerfuffles have permanently damaged the party. In fact, these political struggles appear, in retrospect, to be quite civil.

Most of the prattling about division in the Republican ranks comes from those who wish the GOP only harm or actually favor one faction over another, i.e., the center-left over the center-right. Their views should be severely discounted.

Moreover, the fact that one set of issues or one leg of the three-legged stool of the conservative coalition might be under- or over-emphasized in any given time or place or jurisdiction is entirely defensible on prudential grounds. Democrats do it every day depending on whether they are running in west Texas, San Francisco, Montana or Missouri.

The best thing the Republican Party can do is to follow my Grandfather's advice: Age quod agis ("Do what you're doing")!

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.