By Elvin Lim
The Republican party has traditionally been the more conservative party not only in terms of values but also in terms of organization reform. Leaders tend to be slower than their Democratic counterparts in reforming the nomination process, and voters tend to be more deferential to the last cycle’s runner-up to the winner.
What changed in the last few years was an concerted effort to democratize the Republican Party, fueled in part by the success of the Democratic nomination contest between Obama and Clinton in generating an enthusiasm gap in 2008. This included expanding proportional representation in nomination contests, and an unprecedented number of debates to the calendar. The result thus far has been chaos, restrained only in part by the overriding imperative to find a candidate who can unseat Obama. Republicans are relearning their earlier intuition that more voices don’t always lead to a coalescing chorus.
The White House understands this. One wonders if the Obama administration’s blunder about a birth-control insurance mandate on religious institutions was so poorly executed that it may actually have been perfectly timed. On the heels of the Catholic candidate Rick Santorum’s trifecta win, the administration decided to announce a controversial mandate requiring that women in religious institutions be entitled to contraception coverage in their health insurance, only to reverse this decision almost immediately. Either this was spectacularly amateur politics, or a high-risk attempt to put social issues back on the Republican primary agenda on the eve of the CPAC conference to aid Romney’s Catholic rivals. Romney ended up winning the CPAC straw poll and thereby entrenching his conservative credentials, but Santorum ended up a close second.
With barely any media attention devoted to the recent victories for gay marriage in California and Washington, the Obama campaign recognizes that the only reliable issue left for social conservatives to fight on is abortion (immigration being a sensitive topic for both parties), and this is possibly why they took the risk of taking it on. Social conservatives, for their part, were very wise to quickly connect the contraception mandate to the anti-Obamacare animus shared by other conservatives, so that God may remain relevant in an election year that will be mostly dedicated to the economy and debates about big government. This ideological fusion is Santorum’s ticket to unseating Romney — at least this is what the White House hopes — because as long as values matter, the conservative alternative to Romney will.
With no closure in sight, the Republican candidates must trudge on to Michigan and Arizona. It will not be until Super Tuesday, when the big delegates counts are at stake, before Romney’s coronation can be confirmed.
Elvin Lim is Associate 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.