From the Center
For several decades in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, successful Republicans relied on an often uneasy but usually workable coalition that brought economic, foreign policy, and social conservatives together into the broad GOP tent. Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush used this partnership as the foundation for their political support, balancing the needs of each of those three communities to achieve their respective election and policy objectives.
But as the party became increasingly reliant on working class voters for its majorities, the tensions that had always existed between the three factions are getting harder to ignore. Voters who make less money tend to have different economic priorities than wealthier individuals, and so the influx of blue collar social conservatives into GOP ranks led to internal party debates on issues such as trade and taxes that have been core elements of party ideology for generations.
Given their new audience, Republican strategists have quickly learned the political benefits of bashing corporate America. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ ongoing fight with the Walt Disney Company is the most visible example of this trend, but GOP leaders are just as eager to publicly battle with Silicon Valley and other corporate titans. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a stalwart Republican ally for most of modern history, is now on the outs with the party’s congressional leadership. Republicans are still more likely to line up with business on most regulatory and tax issues, but the cultural differences between Wall Street and MAGA warriors are becoming harder to ignore.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, a similar fissure has emerged in GOP ranks between the ascendant social conservatives and the party’s long-time national security hawks. Donald Trump’s unique relationship with Vladimir Putin and even more unusual entanglements with Ukraine’s leadership exposed a long-simmering rift that has allowed a pre-Reagan isolationism to re-emerge in Republican ranks. It wasn’t long before DeSantis was minimizing the war as a “territorial dispute”. By last week, roughly one third of GOP House members voted to restrict U.S. financial support for Ukraine. This past weekend, former Vice President Mike Pence was booed by a group of Iowa conservatives for his backing of the war effort.
For the newly-emergent Republican cohort that is suspicious of tradition party dogma on economic and security issues, the most important discussion is about cultural conservatism. It became apparent during last week’s congressional debate over military spending debate exactly how dominant the party’s social conservatives have become and how much their agenda has obscured other GOP policy priorities. House Republicans made it clear that they were willing to allow the annual defense authorization bill to be defeated if it did not include provisions on a series of socially conservative matters such as abortion, gender transition policy and racial diversity training. The legislation passed narrowly, but its path forward is murky. There was no doubt that the GOP’s top goal was social policy rather than national security.
For those who would argue that the two issue areas are not mutually exclusive, it may be instructive to observe U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who has spent the last several months blocking promotions for high-ranking military officers until the armed services reverse their policy of offering financial support and personal leave time for service members seeking abortions. A growing number of current and retired military leaders are warning that leaving these high-ranking posts vacant will cause severe consequences for the nation’s military readiness. Most of Tuberville’s colleagues are pro-life, but have kept a safe political distance from the controversy.
A three-legged Republican Party might have found a way to strike a balance between these two brands of conservatism. But today’s GOP seems to have decided that national security is less consequential than achieving their social and cultural goals.
Every political party and every political leader has the right to prioritize the issues that they believe are most important. And there is a sizable plurality in this country that believes that abortion is wrong. But public support for abortion rights has grown swiftly in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, and Republicans now find themselves highlighting an issue that will cost them votes next year at the expense of issues that could work to their benefit. The end result is a political stool that, while relying heavily on just one of those original three legs, is becoming increasingly wobbly.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).