Republican Candidates Hard to Put in Boxes

The Republican Party’s establishment-versus-grassroots narrative doesn’t really apply anymore.

Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26 (Gage Skidmore)

Right-wing presidential candidates in the United States typically break down into two categories: those favored by the Republican Party’s “establishment” and those who represent the conservative grassroots.

To the lament of the latter, “establishment” candidates tend to win presidential nominations. When they go on to lose the general election, it feeds the activist narrative that Republicans need to stand firmer on principle and nominate someone who is unambiguously conservative.

This narrative is insulting to candidates who don’t pass the “true conservative” test. Are Republicans unprincipled when they don’t share the party’s most reactionary positions? Surely not.

It is also self-centered; as though all that matters in presidential elections is the strength of the Republican candidate.

Bob Dole, a moderately conservative Republican who was running with a hero of the low-tax, small-government right, Jack Kemp, lost the 1996 election simply because most voters were content with how Bill Clinton was doing. George W. Bush was hardly a stronger candidate yet he won the election four years later against Al Gore because Americans were ready for a change.

The narrative is also plainly wrong this time around. The sixteen Republicans who are seeking their party’s presidential nomination can’t be neatly broken down in two camps.

Pragmatism is a hallmark of “establishment” Republicans and candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich would seem to fit that description. As governors, they have all shown flexibility at times, unlike purists such as Texas senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker. But so has former Texas governor Rick Perry and he isn’t usually considered part of the establishment.

Of course, it’s easier for a Republican to compromise in a red state like Texas than it is in New Jersey, a state that reelected Barack Obama in 2012 by an eighteen-point margin. But it seems much is also about tone.

Bush isn’t really far less conservative than most other candidates; he just isn’t very loud about his principles. Christie and Kasich are — to the point that they sometimes seem rude.

Donald Trump, a property tycoon and billionaire, simply is rude. Yet he appeals to a very different segment of the electorate than Bush, Christie and Kasich do.

Social issues are another traditional diving line. Establishment Republicans are not supposed to care very much about abortion or gay rights. Their priority, to the despair of social conservatives, is business.

Among the 2016 candidates, there are culture warriors like Cruz, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Perry and former senator Rick Santorum. Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, is also emphasizing social issues in his (lackluster) campaign. Bush and fellow Floridian Marco Rubio sound more conciliatory about gay rights, even though they oppose marriage equality. They all reject looser abortion laws or stricter gun control.

There really isn’t much daylight between the candidates on these issues. The only difference is that some like to talk about them while others realize they are divisive and perhaps not helpful in winning back the presidency.

There are real differences on economic and foreign policy.

Huckabee and Kasich deviate from the party line when they express skepticism about free trade. Santorum and Walker are trying to tap into the suspicions of some blue-collar voters that big companies are ripping them off. This resembles the Democratic Party narrative of the economy benefiting the few and not the many and it is an impression that probably helps explain Trump’s sudden rise in the early polls.

Bush, Rubio and Perry advocate a conventional Republican foreign policy: high defense spending, limited diplomacy. Christie and Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator, represent the neoconservative wing of the party. Paul, on the other hand, is noninterventionist. Huckabee, despite making hawkish noises in the past, similarly seems to appeal to voters who are tired of more than a decade of war.

Perhaps the more important dividing line this time around is between those candidates who are confident about the future of the country and those who are reminiscing about the past.

Bush, Paul and Rubio are talking mostly about what they are for and seem comfortable in an America that is becoming more multiracial and a world that is globalized.

Most of the other candidates talk about what they are against and are appealing to voters who feel they are losing the country they grew up in. Christie and Perry are somewhat in the middle in this respect.

This, not the old establishment-versus-grasroots narrative, could decide who wins the nomination. If Republicans are ready to enter the twenty-first century, they can nominate Bush or Rubio (or Christie or Perry, if they retool their campaigns accordingly). If Republicans are fearful, expect one of the other candidates to win the primaries — and probably lose the general election.