By Elvin Lim
In recent weeks, factions within the Republican party have begun jostling for power within the conservative movement. This is the bitter-sweet inevitability of being more than the party in opposition, but also a party recently co-opted into power. Whether the disagreement is between Rick Santorum versus Sarah Palin, or the Family Research Council versus GOProud , or Tea Party members of Congress and moderate Republicans debating the budget, or William Kristol and Glenn Beck on democracy in Egypt, these differences are only going to grow as we head toward Republican primary season.
There are, of course, differences in priorities within the Democratic fold as well. But the source of the president’s incumbency advantage derives from the fact that these differences will not be played out during the primary season. He will likely enjoy the benefit of not being challenged. So when Republican candidates are invariably jostling for advantage, the president can simply go about his business, looking presidential (and raising money.)
The reason why Ronald Reagan’s historical legacy has been revised upwards in recent times is because the children of his revolution know of no better way to hold themselves together. Or put another way, the celebration of Reagan only reveals the dearth of leadership in the conservative movement, which is still looking to the past because they cannot yet see anyone who can take them to victory in the future.
At this time in the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama had already declared his candidacy, alongside a formidable front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
Today, there is a long, lackluster, and uncommitted list of potential candidates on the Republican side (so much so that even Donald Trump managed to steal the show at this year’s CPAC Conference), but no major candidate has taken the plunge. Why? Because whoever takes the first plunge would become the universal target of all those not yet declared, and will suffer the irony that the first-mover advantage becomes the first-victim-of-infighting disadvantage. The more potential candidates predict infighting, the later they will declare, so that they can stay above the fray for as long as they can. No one candidate feels confident enough to pull the three major strands of conservatism — the libertarians, the social conservatives, and the neo-conservatives — together, and this is why Reagan is still the godfather revered.
Watch the lesser known candidates be among the first to declare as they would be able to secure some national media attention when the Reagan Library hosts the first Republican primary debate for the season on May 2, 2011. The better known candidates have more to lose and less to gain by declaring early.
In particular, s/he who waits until the situation in Egypt as well as the budget battle between the President and Congress unfolds would better be able to pivot toward the emerging priorities of the conservative movement. If Egypt transitions into a democracy friendly to US interests, then neo-conservatives of the Kristol variety would have won the argument against the Christian and social conservatives, and the star of a figure like Mike Huckabee would shine less bright. If moderate Republicans succeed in neutering Tea Party demands in the upcoming budget battle, then we would have seen the beginning of the end of the Palinites.
Under conditions of global and economic uncertainty, the fissures within the conservative movement are only going to be exacerbated. As political outsiders, their common opposition to Obama was sufficient in 2010 to bring them success in the congressional elections. As power-sharers in government in 2012, the anti-incumbency narrative will not work as well as a unifying glue. Without a positive synthesis of how they stand together, conservatives will not be able to take on the president in 2012.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.