|George W. Bush left office with a public approval rating under 30 percent. Less than 30 percent of Americans currently describe themselves as Republicans. The amalgam of evangelical Christians, hardcore gun-rights fanatics, anti-tax, anti-immigrant and anti-choice voters who make up the base of the Republican Party amount to less than 30 percent of the overall electorate. |
These numbers reflect the present state of affairs for the GOP: they are a party controlled by their base, the same group of Americans whose support for Bush never wavered, and who still call themselves Republican despite the serial debacles of the last decade. These are the voters who listen to Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity and Beck, who watch Fox News to the exclusion of every other network, who think evolution is a fraud because dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible, and who believe President Obama is a secret Islamic terrorist communist Jew with a bum birth certificate.
These voters have spent the last 30 years being the single most reliable voting bloc in the entire electorate, and this has come to present a potentially lethal problem for the Republican Party in general, and for their future electoral prospects specifically. For a long time, the loyalty of their voter base propelled the GOP into a position of complete dominance - if live, man-eating jaguars rained from the sky on election day, the GOP base would still turn out en masse to pull the handle for every candidate on the ballot with an "R" after their name, a fact that made the difference in a half-dozen midterms and at least two presidential elections.
That loyalty made the GOP base the most muscular part of the party, but it is that very strength which is now tearing the party to pieces. Consider the lesson that was provided during the 2008 Republican Party primary season. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee became the darling of the GOP base, earning roughly 50 percent of the GOP base vote in virtually every Red-state primary. The other, more broadly popular GOP candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, needed those votes to prevail, but were forced to fight for the base-voter scraps left by Huckabee. This lack of base-voter support was what ultimately doomed their campaigns.
Huckabee was not widely supported by any voter bloc beyond the GOP base, and therefore had no real chance of securing the Republican nomination, but his popularity with the base gave artificial life to his campaign and sucked the air out of the others. Huckabee stayed in the race just long enough to cripple Giuliani and Romney before fading away himself, and in the end, John McCain wound up winning the nomination pretty much by default.
The problem for McCain in the 2008 general election is the same one currently affecting the Republican Party at large: he could not win without the support of the GOP base, but the core beliefs of that base were so out of touch with mainstream America that McCain likewise could not win if he catered to them. He was forced to flee his previous positions on immigration, climate change, taxes and campaign finance reform to satisfy base voters who already roundly despised him because of his positions on immigration, climate change, taxes and campaign finance reform, and this ultimately deranged his whole campaign. Picking Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate was yet another sop to base voters, and is now widely believed to have been the last nail in his electoral coffin.
Seven months later, the GOP is still turning itself inside out over the dilemma posed by the strength and influence of their wholly-out-of-touch base. A wide swath of high-ranking Republicans, especially in the Senate, are trapped between the hard knowledge that catering to their base is a guaranteed recipe for defeat and disgrace, and the cold fact that their base is the only group left in America willing to call themselves Republican. They can't win with them, can't win without them, and this paradox has become where the lines of a full-fledged Republican Party civil war have been drawn.
The question of who is joining which side was made clear Friday in an event at the Rock Church in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee held court for three hours during a lecture titled "Rediscovering God in America," during which they "urged Christians to get involved in politics to preserve the presence of religion in American life," according to a report by the Virginian-Pilot. "They and other speakers warned about the continuing availability of abortion, the spread of gay rights, and attempts to remove religion from American public life and school history books."
"I am not a citizen of the world," said Gingrich during the lecture. "I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator. I think this is one of the most critical moments in American history. We are living in a period where we are surrounded by paganism."
"Huckabee told the audience he was disturbed to hear President Barack Obama say during his speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday that one nation shouldn't be exalted over another," continued the Virginian-Pilot report. "'The notion that we are just one of many among equals is nonsense,' Huckabee said. The United States is a 'blessed' nation, he said, calling American revolutionaries' defeat of the British empire 'a miracle from God's hand.' The same kind of miracle, he said, led California voters to approve Proposition 8, which overturned a state law legalizing same-sex marriages."
This is the kind of talk GOP base voters lap up, and is also the kind of talk that has left the Republican Party with less than 30 percent support nationwide. Both Gingrich and Huckabee are believed to be seriously considering a run for the White House in 2012. Even at this early date, both appear to be angling for the support of GOP base voters, as evidenced by their remarks in Virginia last week. If they keep talking like they did on Friday, like as not that support will be there for them, but they very well could live to regret it. GOP base support wins primaries but not much else these days, and every time someone caters to that base, another hole gets ripped in the fabric of the Republican Party.
In other words, a whole lot of Faustian chickens are coming home to roost in the GOP's crumbling coop. The party courted those base voters, championed them, pandered to them and ultimately empowered them. Now, that power is subsuming the party, and for the time being, there is no end in sight.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.
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