Divided We Stand

NRO’s Mark Krikorian flags this statement from Rep. Thaddeus McCotter:

“We ran into the bailout. The bailout touched upon the larger discussion in the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s not the conservatives versus the moderates, that’s the rather cliched way of looking at it. What you really have are globalists versus traditionalists. Globalists tend to view America as an economy, not a country. The traditionalists tend to view it as a country — a very delicate microcosm, a collection of individuals with different hopes, dreams, aspirations.”

I’m bad at predictions, but one possible future among many for the Republican Party is a resurgence of the Duncan Hunter-Tom Tancredo wing. The past several years have exposed three major fault-lines within the conservative movement. The dispute over immigration and the bailout are two prominent examples, but I also think the way blame is being apportioned over the Iraq War – see, for example, this article from the American Spectator – frames the coming debate as one between pointy-headed intellectuals who’ve been consistently wrong (on the occupation’s outcome, the bailout etc.) and the Republican base, who exemplify all that is good and right about American conservatism.

McCotter’s comment about “globalists versus traditionalists” nicely captures this fault line. The party elites – think the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the Obamacons, Peggy Noonan etc. – are cosmopolitan, intellectual, and somewhat removed from the concerns of the base. This, incidentally, was the demographic that provided intellectual justification for the Iraq War and steadfastly supported amnesty for illegal immigrants. At the height of the bailout debate, the party’s elite also embraced government intervention with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

The base, on the other hand, opposed the bailout, opposes amnesty, and now seeks to blame the war’s conduct on Ken Adelman and company. This is rather odd, because the party’s foot-soldiers remain fairly enthusiastic about our prospects in Iraq, but intellectuals are a convenient scapegoat for a movement that is belatedly recognizing that something went wrong over there.

The reason I think Hunter and Tancredo could represent the future of the Republican Party is because their pet issues perfectly encapsulate the divide between a traditionalist base and the party’s “globalist” elites. Tancredo was an anti-immigration hawk who, despite a lack of any discernible electoral success, managed to single-handedly define the primary debate over immigration (the famous line about his opponents’ hard-line positions on amnesty – “They’re trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo” – comes to mind). Protectionism may be heresy to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, but Hunter is a fan, and if movement conservatives become instinctively disdainful of elite intellectualism, the visceral appeal of “buy American” may overwhelm our bi-partisan consensus in favor of reducing trade barriers.

Of course, Hunter and Tancredo weren’t very talented politicians, so I doubt either man’s name will make it on to the Republican ticket in 2012. But a more charismatic alternative – a Mike Huckabee or a Sarah Palin – could easily adopt the “traditionalist versus globalist” narrative and use it to rally the Republican base. Romney, perhaps, will emerge as the White Knight of the Wall Street Journal crowd, but given his history of political opportunism, he may well discover his inner populist sometime next year.

Insofar as a shift towards a “tradionalist” party is a good thing, it will be because politicians like Hunter and Tancredo at least try to grapple with middle class anxiety. As to the merits of their positions, protectionism sounds downright awful, blaming Iraq on a few rogue intellectuals ensures that Republicans will never grapple with the war’s broader strategic failure, and anti-immigrant sentiment often comes across as barely-disguised nativism (though I can’t say I’ve formed a carefully thought-out position on the issue). To me, this Republican dystopia sounds both incredibly distasteful and increasingly likely. We’ll see what happens in 2012, I suppose.

UPDATE: As if on cue, NRO’s Andrew Stuttaford calls McCotter an idiot for opposing the bailout. Stuttaford may be right on the merits of the issue (I have my doubts), but McCotter’s fears of “Bolshevism” undoubtedly sound a lot more persuasive to the Republican base.


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Filed under Conservatism, Presidential Politics

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