The past couple of weeks haven’t been good ones for Republicans.
Several prominent possibilities for the party’s presidential nomination took a pass, leaving the GOP with a primary field that will boil down to Mitt Romney and whoever can consolidate opposition to him. Congressmen who hosted town hall meetings met a frosty reception from large segments of the public, particularly seniors upset with the Paul Ryan budget and its plan for Medicare. Such rumbles of discontent led to the loss of an upstate New York Congressional seat that had been in Republican control since the 1960s.
But the really worrisome news for the Grand Old Party passed with barely a ripple. In case you missed it, a Gallup poll released earlier in May found that 52 percent of Republicans would like a third political party.
Most media treated it like nothing special. After all, 52 percent of all voters said the same thing. But think about that for a moment. About 30 percent of all registered voters belong to neither major party, and a majority of those independents naturally want a third party – they’ve already declined membership in the big two. Meanwhile, despite their legendary fractiousness, only 33 percent of Democrats answered in the affirmative.
The pollsters used the results to argue that a third-party candidate is likely to join the 2012 race. Given the dissatisfaction of so many GOP voters, it’s likely to be either a Republican or someone who will appeal mostly to conservatives – the poll also found that the third-party sentiment reached 60 percent among Tea Party sympathizers.
Maybe they’re right, but I see that as the least of the party’s problems indicated by the polling. Obama will be hard to defeat in any case, third-party candidate or not. The bigger stumbling block is far more basic: I don’t see how a political party can survive very long with half its members wishing they were somewhere else.
As any Delaware Republican could testify, the fault lines between hard-core conservatives and more moderate Chamber of Commerce types have been visible for years. They never threatened to fracture the party before. Why now?
Give credit, or blame, to the Tea Parties. Though the movement began under a banner of fiscal conservatism, it has grown to encompass social issues as well, along with the party’s middle- and working-class populists who have long chafed at corporate control of the GOP’s agenda and want a better seat at the table.
Every movement has its schisms – try counting all the Christian denominations that have sprung up since Reformation if you don’t believe me. But they usually end with an aggrieved, uncompromising minority leaving and founding a new organization. That won’t happen here, because America’s winner-take-all political system has never been able to support three parties. The Republicans will have to fight it out among themselves until a winner emerges.
Which is why the poll is a problem. If two-thirds wanted a new party, they wouldn’t need one – they’d already control the existing party. If only one-third wanted an alternative, well, good luck with that – see if the Democrats will give you a hearing.
But a 50-50 split – or, worse for the GOP establishment, a 52-48 deficit – means that half of those involved think the current relationship isn’t working and, apparently, isn’t worth fixing. You don’t have to be marriage counselor to figure out what happens under those circumstances.
It’s possible, of course, that the Tea Party’s popularity will wane, especially if 2012 brings Democratic victories beyond Obama’s. At least one major affiliated group, Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, has declared its mission to stop Mitt Romney, the GOP’s frontrunner-by-default; if Obama wins, such efforts could be seen as destructive to the party’s chances at presidential electoral success. Similarly, if Tea Party favorites like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell keep throwing elections to Demcrats by alienating swing voters, the GOP’s almost-certain capture of the Senate could be endangered and its lead in the House could be whittled down. If such calamity ensues in November 2012, the party’s establishment leaders might stop catering to the activists, effectively ending the rebellion.
If, on the other hand, the Tea Party emerges victorious, I can imagine the sort of Republicans who now make up the majority of the party in New Castle County holding their noses and looking for opportunities among the Democrats. Jack Markell’s election and continuing popularity despite tough political decisions shows that Democrats, at least in Delaware, are unburdened by ideological purity in picking candidates. The protests of Markell and his aides aside, many features of his proposals seem lifted straight from the moderate Republican handbook. A candidate needn’t have Markell’s deep Democratic roots to boost the same agenda.
Whichever way the split resolves, the staunch conservatives who are steering the party through Congress these days seem to have sowed the seeds of their own destruction. If they take over the party, they’ll find that public opinion polls are not the easily dismissed fiction so many believe them to be. The “true” conservatism such firebrands espouse has never approached 50 percent approval, and never will. They will win elections mainly in conservative states and areas, while virtually disappearing elsewhere.
If they don’t, they’ll be right back to where they’ve always been – marginalize on the sidelines, booing both teams on the field.