Campaign exposes deep rifts in GOP coalition

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2008 

Former President Ronald Reagan.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The house that Ronald Reagan built is in danger of collapsing.

The coalition of fiscal conservatives, national security conservatives, anti-tax activists and social conservatives that rallied behind Reagan in 1980 and has defined the Republican Party ever since is coming apart at the seams heading into the 2008 election.

All the men running for the party's presidential nomination invoke Reagan's name repeatedly. But all of them offend at least one wing of the party enough that they'd find it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to pull the disparate elements of the old coalition together.

"It's gone," said Ed Rollins, who worked on Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign and now chairs the campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"The Reagan coalition is pretty much gone," added Karen Spencer, a Republican strategist in California who watched the Reagan phenomenon firsthand when her father served as Reagan's chief political strategist. "It's been 28 years. Maybe it is time for a change."

What happened?

Times changed, of course.

Fighting terrorism has created divisions where confronting the Soviet Union and rebuilding the U.S. military unified the party.

Cutting taxes still elates anti-tax conservatives, as it did in Reagan's day, but runaway spending by the modern party has outraged small-government conservatives.

And the much more religious tone of the party — Reagan was private about his faith — threatens to open a breach between social conservatives and country club conservatives.

Huckabee also thinks the party's in danger of losing the working-class Americans so drawn to Reagan — the blue-collar, ethnic, often Catholic "Reagan Democrats" voters who turned against the socially permissive Democratic Party of the 1970s and embraced Reagan in the 1980s.

"The Reagan coalition has certainly not seen those same middle-class, working-class Republicans feeling a part of the Republican Party as they should," Huckabee said at a debate in South Carolina last week.

Further threatening the coalition is the field of candidates now running for Reagan's old job.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona? Vietnam War hero, first to urge sending more troops to Iraq when that wasn't popular in the party, crusader against government spending.

He has the stature to make a strong argument for the old coalition. But he's criticized Bush tactics against suspected terrorists as torture, sided with the president in wanting to let illegal immigrants stay and earn citizenship and pushed a campaign-finance plan that curbed political speech.

A lot of loyal Republicans think he's anything but Republican, and the party's influential echo chamber on talk radio hates him.

Huckabee? A Baptist preacher who talks about his faith, he's excited social conservatives.

But he raised taxes as governor, wanted to let the children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas schools earn the same college aid as Arkansas-born children and called Bush's foreign policy "arrogant."

He turns off less religious Republicans — he got 6 percent of the non-evangelical vote in New Hampshire's Republican primary. He divides anti-tax advocates — the Club for Growth is against him; Americans for Tax Reform are OK with him. And talk radio big shots such as Rush Limbaugh think he's a liberal in preacher's clothes.

"Liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies," said rival Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator. "That's not the model of the Reagan coalition, that's the model of the Democratic Party."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney? He's the most aggressive in courting the Reagan coalition, promising low taxes and small government, a strong national defense and newfound opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

But social conservatives are suspicious of his recent conversions on abortion and gay marriage — he supported the rights to both in the 1990s. To some people, that leaves Romney with one foot in each camp, but grounded in neither.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani? He cleaned up New York, reduced crime and cut taxes. He also showed calm and nerve when his city was attacked.

But he supports abortion rights, gay marriage and gun control, he's been married three times, and his private life falls short of Christian conservative ideals. Social conservatives such as Dr. James Dobson, the head of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, say they'd bolt from the party if Giuliani is nominated.

There is, of course, the possibility of a new coalition.

McCain, for example, might pull in independents who've been leaning more toward the Democrats during the Bush years. A primary win next week in Michigan with a strong independent vote, for example, could suggest a better chance of the Republicans winning a state they've been losing.

Giuliani could replace some of the social conservatives he'd lose with suburban moderates, putting states such as Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in play for his party.

Ultimately, though, the fate of the Reagan coalition — or any strong Republican coalition — might lie in the other party.

It's important to remember that the rise of the Reagan coalition wasn't just an embrace of him, but a repudiation of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, as well as the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party.

So, too, today's Republicans might swallow their objections to McCain, Huckabee or Giuliani if the Democrats nominate a candidate that leaves many people looking for an alternative.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is some Republicans' choice for a Democratic candidate.

Said GOP pollster Whit Ayres: "When it comes to Republicans, Hillary Clinton is a unifier, not a divider."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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