Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mitt Romney and the Late Regime Politics of the Republican Party


Mitt Romney's announcement that he is likely to run for president would make some sense if Romney is correct that he is best able to unite an increasingly divided and factionalized party. This goal becomes increasingly important the later one goes in a political regime. But at this point in history it may be possible that no one, not even Romney, can manage his increasingly fractious party.

The Reagan regime that has dominated American politics for the last thirty five years appears to be in its last days. Factionalism and radicalism within the party have increased; different parts of the coalition are pulling in different directions. We can see this in the various appeals of people like Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush. Meanwhile the base of the coalition is shrinking for complicated reasons, only some of which are demographic.

In late regime politics, party leaders often turn to politicians who hold out the hope of uniting the various factions; in the process these politicians may attempt to revive the coalition by giving it a new direction that can still be broadly acceptable to as much of the party as possible.
Surveying the current field of likely candidates, Romney clearly believes that none of them can adequately perform these functions. They are either too untested in national politics (Carson, Walker), too divisive (Cruz), too identified with their particular branch of the party (Paul, Huckabee, Santorum), or too out of touch with the base (Bush, Christie).

Jeb Bush, however, is the most interesting case.  Romney clearly understands that, other than Romney himself, Bush currently has the best claim to unite the various factions of the Republican Party. Bush is also testing new directions for the party through his slogan of a "right to rise." Moreover, through his early entry into the field, Bush has effectively forced Romney's hand. If Romney does not act now, Bush will grab much of his financial and political support. Romney also correctly sees that the path to victory is most likely to Bush's right-- or rather, he correctly sees that he must paint Bush as too moderate to be broadly acceptable to the various factions of the party.

The question for Romney-- and for all of the candidates-- is how best to navigate the problems of late regime politics. There are three possibilities.

The first possibility is to hope that the economy will get worse and that demographic trends will swing the Republicans' way. The best example of this scenario is William McKinley, who took advantage of the changing balance between agricultural and urban workers to extend Republican dominance for another thirty five years until the Great Depression. McKinley had the advantage that his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, took the blame for the terrible economy caused by the Panic of 1893. And the election of 1896 isn't really an example of Republicans standing pat and hoping for the best-- the issues that the two parties fought over began to change from those that dominated the post-Civil War period.

As of January of 2015 there is little reason that economic calamity plus demographic change will prove to be the magic formula for Republicans in 2016. The economy seems to be picking up (although, there still might be a new recession in the next year and a half). Moreover, the Republican base appears to be shrinking, not growing, as a result of demographic changes.

The two other strategies are, roughly speaking, the politics of coalition management or the politics of renewal.  That is, the candidate can either try to keep the existing coalition together and hope that the public trusts it more than the other party, or the candidate can seek to expand the coalition by striking out in a new direction.  In both cases Republicans will have the advantage that Democrats have held the White House for two terms and the public will want something new.

Both of these approaches might work, but each can lead to what Steve Skowronek has called the politics of disjunction-- in which the coalition falls apart-- and this would spell the end of the Reagan regime.

Historical examples are not altogether promising. Candidates like Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover offered the possibility of renewal by adopting themes from the opposition party. The Southern Baptist pro-life Carter was more conservative than many Democrats; Hoover was a widely admired manager from the progressive wing of the Republican party. Hoover and Carter also offered themselves as experts who would manage the unruly factions of their party; we can also view antebellum Jacksonian Democrats like James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce as (unsuccessful) coalition managers.

To be sure, the strategies of coalition management and renewal are not hopeless: James Polk successfully kept the unruly elements of the Jacksonian coalition together, and Theodore Roosevelt managed to inject a progressive agenda into the Republican Party in the early twentieth century.  Everything depends on the vigor of the underlying regime.  The problem for Republicans is that the current regime seems both old and increasingly weakened by continuous in-fighting.

Looking at the current Republican field, we can see multiple possibilities. Several candidates offer to renew the Republican coalition by changing its direction. Rand Paul offers reshaping the Republican Party as a distinctively libertarian party. Ted Cruz could reform the Republican coalition on the model of the Tea Party.  And Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum offer yet another possible reformation-- as a populist party of the Christian Right. Paul's approach in particular is intriguing because he would take many liberal ideas about civil liberties and foreign policy and combine them with traditional conservative ideas about regulation and government spending.  Huckabee and Santorum might borrow ideas from liberal economic policies while maintaining a robust social conservatism. Only Cruz seems to be uninterested in borrowing from the political opposition in any way. His strategy appears to be one of ideological purification. This is unlikely to be successful, if only because it reduces the coalition rather than seeking to attracting new members.

Romney (and Bush) appear to offer the other strategy: a careful management of the party's differing factions. Romney offers himself as a competent manager who can turn enterprises around, and who is also broadly acceptable to the different elements of the party.  Judging purely by what we have seen so far, Bush probably will find this task more difficult than Romney, but no one should discount his adaptability.

In 2012 I wrote that if the Republicans won the election, the new president would have real difficulties keeping the coalition together, and we would likely see Skowronek's politics of disjunction.  That is also my prediction for 2016, especially if Romney or Bush wins the nomination.

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