The Demise of the Reagan Coalition?

John McCain’s emergence as the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination has some pundits wondering whether the vaunted Reagan coalition has collapsed. McCain – a maverick senator unafraid to confront the Republican establishment on any number of issues, including campaign finance reform, tax cuts and, somewhat ironically, the war in Iraq – has been accused of driving wedges between the “three legs” of the Reagan alliance: economic, social and national security conservatives.

McCain is particularly unpopular (for a Republican) among social conservatives and evangelical Christians, a constituency with which he has had a long and tumultuous relationship. For example, during his 2000 presidential campaign McCain “singled out … evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “corrupting influences on religion and politics” and said parts of the religious right were divisive and even un-American.”

During his current White House run McCain has tried a different approach. Perhaps more appreciative of its political clout, McCain has tried to court the religious right by touting his conservative credentials (his voting record, by most standards, is similar to Rick Santorum’s) and by making promises to appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court.  Unfortunately, these efforts have been largely fruitless. In Tuesday’s Florida primary McCain placed third among evangelicals, getting only 28% of their vote.

Several Christian leaders have emphasized that a McCain candidacy would result in either a dramatic drop in voter participation among evangelicals or a realignment of evangelicals behind a third party candidate, a nightmare scenario for a Republican Party struggling in the polls. As James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, noted last January, “[s]peaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances.”

Commentators have characterized this issue in dramatic strokes as an existential battle for the ideological soul of the American right. Rush Limbaugh, for example, declared recently that McCain “is not the choice of conservatives, as opposed to the choice of the Republican establishment — and that distinction is key … the Republican establishment, which has long sought to rid the party of conservative influence since Reagan, is feeling a victory today [following the Florida primary] as well as our friends in the media. But both are just far-fetched and wrong … and so, just as I predicted, the base has fractured.”

Roger Simon of Politico.com, during an appearance on Face the Nation on January 20th, made a similar argument: “the old Ronald Reagan coalition of fiscal conservatives, foreign policy conservatives, and social conservatives has shattered.”

Unfortunately, these sorts of comments are typical of the mainstream media: they obscure and simplify what is in fact an extremely nuanced and complex issue. Indeed, suggesting that McCain would somehow expunge the legacy of Reagan-era conservatism from the Republican Party and in so doing rend the GOP apart is to assume a unified Reagan coalition existed at all, or, if it did, that it has remained a cohesive political entity since the fortieth president left the Oval Office nearly two decades ago. As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily the case.

A simple Google search reveals that angst about the future of the Reagan coalition surfaced as early as August, 1988, in an article by Robert Novak published in National Review. In it, Novak describes a “panic among Republicans and conservatives, who see disaster looming in the first presidential election after Reagan.” Novak also wonders if “[Reagan] is just another Eisenhower, warmly avuncular but lacking a legacy to steer the American Right away from oblivion?” Although ultimately optimistic about Reagan’s legacy, Novak’s commentary nevertheless reveals a less than unified Republican party.

Similar doubts emerged following the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. In fact, so demoralizing was the Democratic victory that some pundits were, according to Professor Rozell of George Mason University, “certain that the conservative movement was dead.” Only the momentous success of the Republican Revolution restored faith among Republicans in their potential to dominate American electoral politics.

More recently, on the eve of the 2006 Congressional elections when it was apparent Democrats would elect a majority to the House and likely the Senate, blogger Taegan Goddard blamed President Bush for destroying the Reagan Coalition: “It took thirty years to build the Reagan coalition. It has taken George W. Bush just two years to destroy it. Polls taken by Reuters/Zogby International on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections confirm this analysis.”

Apparently, the Republican Party suffers from an almost debilitating sense of self doubt whenever it is confronted by the possibility of failure. This is perhaps a by-product of its tremendous success over the last two and a half decades. Or, it could be symptomatic of the challenges facing any big tent political party. After all, trying to co-ordinate a diverse group of political actors each with their own, often competing, goals – certainly an apt description of the Reagan coalition – can be a difficult task (the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party discovered this first hand in the early 1990s).

For this reason, to suggest that McCain’s spat with the religious right is tantamount to the end of the Reagan coalition is to repeat a refrain that has been sung at every important juncture in the history of the modern Republican Party. Although a McCain candidacy may lead to an important realignment within the party, it will certainly not shatter it.

I suspect that come election time should evangelical Christians be asked to choose between John McCain and any Democratic candidate they will be more than willing to vote for the Arizona senator. If not, the shock of both a Democratic presidency and a Democratic Congress will surely rejuvenate the GOP and make reconciliation more palatable.

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