CoverStory

A Republican primary primer

Marco Rubio is trying to unite the four different factions of modern American conservatism.

By Daniel McCarthy

There are four major factions in the modern Republican Party, and this first phase of the contest for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination is about rival candidates bidding to lead their respective blocs.

Marco Rubio

Photo by Gage Skidmore

The one that usually comes away with the prize is the pragmatist faction, which arguably has won every nomination since 1988. The pragmatists include the party’s well-heeled elite and many rank-and-file moderates and centre-right voters. They prefer the party to nominate someone who seems “electable,” which in practice means a familiar name — usually a candidate who has run before — with a record in office and public image that do not seem “extreme” to Americans in the ideological middle. In years past, Bob Dole, both George Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney fit this profile, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush appears to fit it well today.

Jeb Bush caught what may prove to be an all-important break in late January, when Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, declined to seek the nomination again. The only prospective challenger Bush now faces for the support of the pragmatic faction is New Jersey governor Chris Christie. But Bush has several advantages over Christie: the familiarity of his name, the extensive roster of Republican operatives and officials who worked for the presidential administrations of his father and brother, and the national fundraising networks those previous Bushes built.

The second major faction of the party is the religious right, and three prospective candidates have expressed interest in becoming its representative in 2016. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the champion of Christian conservatism in 2008; former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum filled that role in 2012. Both appear serious about running again, as does Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who has never held elected office.

Although religious conservatives are a sizable bloc within the Republican Party, they are not a majority in their own right, and their candidates have traditionally fallen short of winning over enough pragmatists or secular conservatives to claim the nomination. It seems improbable that Huckabee or Santorum has grown more popular with other segments the party since their last campaigns, while Carson’s inexperience is disqualifying outside of the faith-based electorate. Recent controversies about same-sex marriage and its impact on religious liberties, however, will ensure that Christian conservatives’ interests get voiced by many contenders in the primaries, regardless of how Santorum, Huckabee, or Carson perform.

The party’s third distinct faction, the Tea Party, is its newest and has its origins in populist anti-government sentiment arising from President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform — the Affordable Care Act — and the bailouts of banks and other large corporations carried out by George W. Bush as well as Obama during the Great Recession. The first two officially declared candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination — Texas senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky senator Rand Paul — are vying to lead this bloc.

Cruz and Paul represent two very different styles within the Tea Party and different sets of policy priorities. Cruz is the most combatively right-wing figure in the Senate today and led conservative efforts in early 2013 to shut down the federal government rather than raise its debt ceiling. Paul is the son of former congressman Ron Paul, who himself ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012, with a libertarian campaign emphasising ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and adopting a much less interventionist foreign policy in general. The younger Paul has presented himself as less dovish than his father, yet still less hawkish than other Republicans. He has also tried to balance right-wing populism — in the form, for example, of calls to end foreign aid and to pass a constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to balance its budget — with outreach to black Americans and younger voters and proposals to reform drug laws and the US prison system.

Another leading contender for the Tea Party’s support has yet to make his intentions official. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s success in curtailing the pension benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions in his state — as well as his success at surviving the recall election subsequently mounted against him by furious Democrats — has made him a folk hero to the grassroots right. Early polls and pundit prognostications have Walker near the top of the party’s rankings.

The fourth Republican faction are, for lack of a more flattering term, the generic conservatives, some of whom prioritise a hawkish foreign policy over either cutting government (the Tea Party’s priority) or fighting the so-called culture war (the religious right’s priority). They are more ideological than the pragmatic faction, but they are less intensely focused on any specific cluster of issues than the religious right or Tea Party. Most of America’s right-wing think tanks and mass media are aligned with this bloc — Fox News, the Heritage Foundation, and talk-radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, for example. This faction is always looking for another Ronald Reagan, which in practice often means a candidate who is just a little more right-wing than the one favored by the pragmatists. Such generic conservative candidates wind up being neither fish nor fowl: not the most “electable” candidate by the pragmatists’ standards but not ideologically outspoken enough for the religious right or Tea Party, either.

Fred Thompson, the former Hollywood actor turned US senator, represented this bloc in 2008, and Texas governor Rick Perry did so in 2012. Both performed poorly in the debates and primary elections. Perry, however, has indicated he will try again in 2016. Although he may avoid embarrassments of the sort that crippled his campaign four years ago — in one debate, he couldn’t remember the third of three federal agencies he wanted to abolish — there is no reason to think he has broadened his appeal among Republican voters. On the contrary, Tea Party figures like Walker, Cruz, and Paul, and even pragmatist heir apparent Jeb Bush, appear to have a better chance of co-opting the generic conservative vote than a generic conservative like Perry has of winning pragmatist or Tea Party votes.

One candidate who stakes his appeal on bridging multiple constituencies is Florida senator Marco Rubio. His pitch to pragmatists is that, as a Hispanic himself, he can make inroads with that ethnic group in a general-election match-up against a white Democrat. To generic conservatives, he presents as a Tea Party figure who is not as abrasive as Cruz or as unorthodox or inexperienced in foreign policy as Paul or Walker. He can appeal to the Tea Party itself as someone who has joined in filibusters and other Senate maneuvers led by Paul and Cruz but who has a better chance than either of them at assembling winning primary and general-election coalitions. That, at least, is how Rubio would like to be seen, and it’s an image that Fox News pundits and other movement-conservative journalists have been happy to promulgate.

Rubio is much touted by neoconservatives in particular — he and Walker were The Weekly Standard’s top-ranked 2016 prospects. Rubio reciprocates the neoconservatives’ affection: ahead of his official campaign launch this week, he released a preview video signalling his theme as “A New American Century,” a conspicuous echo of the name of a neoconservative foreign-policy pressure group active from 1997 to 2006, the Project for the New American Century.

Neoconservatives are foreign-policy hawks with strong commitments to democratisation efforts around the globe, and they are not thick enough on the ground to constitute a popular faction of the Republican Party. But as a media and policy clique they are highly influential. And two possible 2016 contenders seem inclined to run, without much prospect of getting the nomination, just to give voice to neoconservatives’ concerns. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former George W. Bush ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton may enter the race for the chance to debate Rand Paul on foreign policy and keep the rest of the herd in line.

Jeb Bush has led most polls early in 2015, and although polling this early is of dubious value, the party’s historical pattern and the commanding logistical and fundraising resources at Bush’s disposal all suggest he will be the presumptive nominee a year from now. The most plausible upset scenario is one in which the Tea Party and generic conservatives coalesce around an alternative, one who wins more of the religious right’s vote than Bush does. (Chances are Huckabee or Santorum will win more of the religious right’s vote than either Bush or a Tea Party challenger, but the prospect of either of them building a larger coalition is negligible.)

Walker seems to have the clearest path to assembling an anti-Bush coalition. But Paul will have the media profile (thanks to his unusual positions) and campaign resources (built on the scaffolding of his father’s movement) to stay in the race as long as he wishes. Cruz and Rubio are more apt to drag down Walker and Paul than to rise to pole position themselves. If the latter, more viable Tea Party contenders are both in the race come mid-January, they will split the anti-Jeb vote among themselves; if one of them is eliminated, the other might have a chance to deprive the pragmatists of their nominee for the first time in a quarter-century.

The Republican Party changes slowly, and 2016 may be too soon to see the shape of things to come — even after the wars and economic turmoil of the past decade. But the Republicans’ very tendency to nominate familiar faces promises to make the 2016 contest important farther into the future, for the Tea Party runner-up next year may well by the pragmatists’ pick in in the 2020s.