Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.
Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”
Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader.
Even when it began in the 1850s as an ideological anti-slavery breakaway group, the Republican Party favored more “available” nominees. The first Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, was most famous as “The Pathfinder.” In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the compromise candidate, defeating the zealots Salmon P. Chase and William Henry Seward. Lincoln’s strategy was “to give no offence to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” He even made his acceptance letter “sufficiently brief to do no harm.”
There has been a more substance-oriented counter-tradition, epitomized by Grover Cleveland’s challenge, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?” But the need to appeal broadly to America’s diverse electorate has usually prevailed. American voters’ weakness for popular icons over articulate ideologues ultimately frustrated even Henry Clay, the conscience of the Whig Party. As the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who had never even voted for president before, conquered his party in 1848, Clay, well aware that Americans loved turning soldiers into presidents, moaned, “I have thought that I might yet be able to capture or to slay a Mexican.”
In the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan delivered his best lines as a culture warrior, including the grand slam — “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah” – while governing California, not while he was running for president. Reagan won in 1980 by moving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, which had triggered the Democratic landslide of 1964.
Reagan’s conservatism with a smiley face emphasized economic issues. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1981, conservatives were complaining that Reagan’s Cabinet was too moderate. Their cry — “Let Reagan be Reagan” — demanded a more ideological and confrontational “corely convicted” leadership. But in compromising and popularizing, Reagan was being Reagan.
Nevertheless, conservatives revered Reagan because they never doubted his essential conservative identity. In Puritan terms, Reagan had a “covenant of grace” with conservatives, not a “covenant of works.” His salvation came from sharing core beliefs not engaging in particular acts.
Since Reagan, conservative ideologues like Santorum have inspired voters, disrupted primaries, enraged Democrats, alienated independents, but lost. In 1988, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson surged in Iowa, then faltered. In 1992, Pat Buchanan was only popular enough to hurt President Bush, not to win. This pattern has held, with flareups of varying incandescence from Alan Keyes to Gary Bauer to Mike Huckabee. George W. Bush did not run as the conservative ideologue many saw when he governed but as the Romneyesque “compassionate conservative” whom many on the right at first mistrusted.
Winning candidates need a broad national reach. The appeal of the culture warrior is far more limited than the Tea Party crowd claims. If Americans actually embraced Rick Santorum’s worldview, the rates of premarital sex, abortion, births to single mothers, divorce, and same-sex relationships would be much lower, especially in the “red states.” But these are not “blue state” phenomena or liberal Democratic behaviors.
Most Americans are not ready to jettison traditional moral strictures even as many live non-traditional lives. Especially in this election, with no particularly pressing social or cultural issue demanding the attention of voters, Santorum’s sanctimony functioned as a form of identity politics, telegraphing membership in a self-selected club of the “virtuous,” while churning divisive emotions.
Romney should be wary because culture warriors can sabotage presidential campaigns. When, at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Pat Buchanan declared a “religious war,” a “cultural war,” a war “for the soul of America,” it was President Bush who suffered. Karl Rove blamed the 2000 electoral deadlock on millions of evangelical voters who stayed home because harsh conservative attacks on George W. Bush made them doubt his ideological purity.
Romney also has to worry because when smartphones and Facebook make everyone a reporter and modern journalists can shamelessly eavesdrop at Palm Beach fundraisers, it gets harder to reconcile primary-driven genuflection toward the right with more moderate inclinations. Both Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats will resurrect his most extreme statements as he veers toward the center. But in recalibrating, he will be behaving like most nominees. As one Republican Party founder, the passionate, wild-bearded Gideon Welles, advised his ambitious friend Franklin Pierce in 1852, when Welles was an anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrat: “Be the candidate of all.”
In 1984, Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, offered a recipe for victory that was more apple pie than red meat: “Crime, Education, Economics – Unity.” Reagan understood that Americans had complex feelings about many issues. He knew that a presidential campaign was not a Christian camp meeting. His covenant of grace gave the conservatives a popular victory they never would have achieved otherwise. And it taught Republicans (and Democrats) that even in primary season, winning the center and the swing voter remains the candidate’s central mission; political purity is useless if you lose.