Commentary: Presidential primary battle showcases GOP divide

By John Krull
The Statehouse File

John Krull, executive editor, The Statehouse File

INDIANAPOLIS – The headlines over Easter weekend said it all: “GOP super-delegates say it’s over; Romney’s the nominee.”

That news came hard on the heels of some high-level endorsements for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Two Bushes, former President George H.W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both recently gave Romney their stamps of approval – and urged the Republican Party to line up behind him.

The Bushes were but the heaviest in a string of GOP heavyweights – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Rep. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan – who have tried to put an end to the GOP presidential primary demolition derby.

Romney’s two most plausible opponents – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich – have argued that a heated and prolonged contest for the nomination will be good for the party, just as the epic battle between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was for Democrats four years ago.

Republican leaders aren’t buying Santorum’s and Gingrich’s arguments.

And they’re right not to.

The slugfest between Obama and Clinton was a struggle to determine who could best embody the Democratic Party’s values. The philosophic differences separating the two candidates were somewhere between nil and non-existent.

Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Photos by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

This war of attrition that Romney, Santorum and Gingrich have waged has been something else entirely – a death match about what the bedrock principles should be for the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

As such, it threatens to break apart the winning coalition that Ronald Reagan put together more than 30 years ago – a coalition that has made the GOP the dominant party in American politics ever since.

The foundation of that coalition was the uneasy marriage of two big constituencies – pro-business economic conservatives and traditional values social conservatives.

The marriage was uneasy because the two constituencies follow different stars. Economic conservatives revere the market and its forces. Social conservatives adhere to the conscience and traditional values.

Markets, by definition, have no conscience. There are, after all, markets for things that are illegal, such as drugs, child pornography and murder.

Markets also are itchy for the new – which is why social conservatives constantly feel threatened by mass-market cultural forces.

“We keep winning elections,” one social conservative complained to me 20 years ago, “so why is Madonna still popular? Why can’t we win the culture war?”

The answer is that whenever the GOP faced a decision about what constituency to reward – the business community or social conservatives – the business community got its tax cuts and the social agenda got shelved.

Only a supremely gifted political leader like Reagan could have put a coalition such as this together – and, to some degree, kept it together for so long. Only the fact that both constituencies revere Reagan and his memory has held this marriage together for this long.

What the Republican Party’s leaders are worried about is that a divorce is in the offing – a divorce that would be disastrous for the GOP.

Romney is the candidate of the business community, Santorum the candidate for social conservatives and Gingrich – well, he’s the candidate for whatever faction will help him the most at the moment.

Republicans can’t win with only one of these constituencies.

The party’s leaders are afraid that the domestic dispute that has been the Republican primary season will drive a permanent wedge between economic conservatives and social conservatives – and that wedge will reduce the GOP to permanent minority party status.

They have reason to worry.

Here in Indiana, we have seen incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock wage the same war in microcosm that Romney and Santorum have fought across the country.

We have seen the same bitter arguments about which candidate is the better Republican or the true conservative. We have seen the same nasty attack ads. We have seen same divisions in Republican ranks.

So far, there’s only one person in the state who seems to be enjoying this fight.

And that is U.S. Rep. Joe Donelly – the Democrat that either Lugar or Mourdock will face in the fall.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehousefile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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