Two key primaries into the race, the Republican Party has more questions than answers. Does John McCain's New Hampshire win mean national security dominates the issue roster? Have voters have forgotten about McCain's shove-it-down-your-throat amnesty bill for illegal aliens, a bill on which establishment Washington got handed its head by popular opinion?
Does Mike Huckabee's win in Iowa mean that moral issues, to the contrary, will carry the race? Will Ron Paul continue to raise more money than votes? And where is that money coming from? Other than Paul and Duncan Hunter, no one in the contest decisively represents limited government conservatism, the essence of Ronald Reagan's message.
Rudy Giuliani keeps making and broadcasting commercials about American greatness, but he hasn't won anything yet. He has apparently gambled all on the Super Tuesday primaries on February 5. Fred Thompson has great ideas and a surfeit of charisma, but would apparently rather blog from home than speak on the stump or shake hands in diners.
Meanwhile, the two winners so far lie far to the left of Republican orthodoxy on global warming. Mike Huckabee favors a national no-smoking law. John McCain would happily stomp all over the First Amendment.
Mitt Romney, who talks about management competence in government and cutting costs and taxes, put mandated health insurance in place in Massachusetts -- and the penalty for not having that insurance will reportedly run up above $900.
What's going on here?
THE GOP IS UNDERGOING a process of creative destruction, of complete re-definition. Look, the mid-demographic voter in terms of age is about 40, born in 1968. That voter came of age in 1986, at the end of the Reagan era. He has no sense of the Carter failure, of the transformative nature of Reaganism. In the economy, he has never known anything but the Reagan recovery.
He saw the Berlin Wall fall when he was 19 -- has never really known the Iron Curtain or the Cold War. The Red Army? Just some cool costume threads for parties. No memory of standing armies of 100 or more divisions facing off over Europe. Watergate might as well be the Teapot Dome scandal, and Vietnam lies as remote from his regard -- in every respect: the war, the protest -- as the Spanish-American War.
Reagan's coalition, Reagan's message, which defined and established a body of voters that combined Nixon's "silent majority" with Goldwater's movement conservatives, that began to turn the solid South from Democrat to Republican, that brought the Christian right into politics -- that's all history. We're in a new world now, and both parties have to find a new definition.
But Republicans need it more. The McGovern rules of 1972 have set the Democratic agenda in concrete. The Republicans, by contrast, haven't been defined, truly defined, since the second term Reagan landslide of 1984.
Since then, the GOP has been running on fumes. For the new mid-age voter, a Republican President has always been named Bush.
EVERY KEY REPUBLICAN idea started with a certain champion. "The government is the problem, not the solution" -- that's Reagan. Jerry Falwell contributed the concern for the issues we may call the "moral cluster" -- the homosexual agenda and abortion. The apparatchik attack that nationalized liberal shortcomings came from Newt Gingrich. National security and a strong military started with Goldwater. Big tax cuts to boost the economy came from Reagan, in office -- those tax cuts worked, and they're still working.
Today, illegal immigration figures in the mix. It did not 25 years ago. And the moral cluster has expanded to include embryonic stem cell research. Global warming wasn't even on the political map for Republicans in the Reagan era. And "national security" now has a face, in the war against Islamofascism. Defense is no abstraction anymore.
As for guns, the right to bear arms has scarcely come up so far.
Not one of today's Republican candidates corresponds even roughly to Goldwater, Gingrich, Falwell, or Reagan -- and note that the last effective man in that quartet had his triumph in 1994. The crackup of the conservative coalition? In the Reaganite sense, that coalition has been gone for a long time.
FOR THE FIRST time in decades, the GOP has fielded a strong roster of candidates, at least four of them with a real chance to win the nomination. The party hasn't shrugged up somebody like Bob Dole. The nominee hasn't been settled early. No party machine has anointed anyone.
The party has dealt out a thorough mix of issues and people, with issues and people matching up in entirely new ways. And no one has any idea yet who -- or what -- will predominate.
To make the picture more complicated, emotional perceptions enter in. I once heard someone say, back in the nineties, "I like Bill Clinton because he really cares about me." And he meant it! Like this man, many voters are very stupid, and many voters cast stupid votes. They all count.
So not only are Republicans choosing a candidate based on what that candidate really believes and really can and will do, they're choosing a candidate based on what that candidate is perceived to be. For an extra layer of complication, add media bias in portraying those candidates.
On top of all that, we live in a media-hyped age where only the quickest and most effective of perceptual tags seems to get through: Holy Mike Huckabeee, roguish Rudy Giuliani, lazy Fred Thompson, manic John McCain, perfect Mitt Romney. See what I mean?
Mixed up though it is, this campaign is a good thing, not a bad one. It has just gotten interesting. It is going to stay interesting for a long time and, if we're lucky, we'll emerge from it with a newly defined and newly invigorated Republican Party. If we're unlucky, the country will nominate some image monger with nothing real to say.
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