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The Soul of the Party

The Soul of the Party

By David Shribman - July 3, 2011

LEBANON, N.H. -- Up here in tranquil New Hampshire, where the hills glow peacefully in the summer sunshine, everyone's talking about the war for the soul of the Republican Party.

Hold it, I am thinking. Haven't I witnessed several wars for the soul of the Republican Party?

Six in my lifetime alone, now that I'm counting.

There's no denying that there's a struggle within the Republican Party as it moves toward the first presidential primary here, tentatively (and, given the nature of this campaign, perhaps mischievously) scheduled for next Feb. 14. But the Republicans are holding no lovefest in New Hampshire. Already the party is divided every which way -- between regulars and irregulars, economic conservatives and social conservatives, established politicians and newcomers, Westerners and Easterners, males and females.

The Republicans haven't been at each other's throats this much since ... the last election.

In our historical imagination, the Republicans are the sober, organized, unflappable ones -- the quiet members of Rotary and Kiwanis who do their duty, tend to commerce, stiffen their upper lips at adversity, take everything in stride. They don't raise their voices or raise hackles. They're the party of social order and stability. That's the image. The reality is quite different.

Look back at the last century -- go all the way back to the critical election of 1912, when giants strode the Earth and four of them, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Eugene V. Debs, ran for president -- and you can count nine distinct battles for the soul of the Republican Party. The Democrats, the ones ridiculed as being the disorganized and emotional pugilists in American politics, have had only four such battles, fewer than half their rivals'.

This time the battle for the soul of the Republican Party pits three former governors, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah, against each other -- and against a group of rebels that includes Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Ron Paul of Texas, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and businessman Herman Cain. A measure of the chasm between them: Can you imagine Romney putting Bachmann on his ticket, or the other way around?

But the Republicans had a similar struggle in 2008, when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, only four years after being considered a vice presidential possibility on the Democratic ticket, had almost nothing in common with his Republican rivals, primarily Romney and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

Four elections earlier, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan took on President George H.W. Bush here in New Hampshire, painting Bush as effete and feckless and indicting him for being an apostate from the true Reagan faith. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan spoke openly of a "culture war."

It turns out that Ronald Reagan and Bush played central roles in two other GOP struggles, the one that spanned the 1976 and 1980 elections (main themes: the aggressiveness of modern conservatism and the validity of supply-side economics), and the one in 1988 (main themes: whether and how the Reagan revolution would be extended, and whether and how the demands of religious conservatives should be accommodated).

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David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com)

Copyright 2011, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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