If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: The 2012 race for president is Tea Party versus GOP Establishment, with the Tea Party still searching for its candidate and the GOP Establishment slowing gathering under the Romney banner. But after traveling all over the country, speaking at Tea Party events, and interacting with Republicans from coast to coast, I’m beginning to think that this analysis is too simplistic. What if the GOP isn’t divided between tea partiers and cocktail partiers but instead between strategists, activists, and, well, actual primary voters.
First, the strategists. These guys may be no less conservative than the activists, but they often play a different game for a different audience. They’re thinking not about ideological fidelity but instead about winning elections and then governing following victory. Their calculations lead them to sometimes compromise too easily, to play too close to the middle, and to place too much faith in the reasonableness of the opposition, but at the end of the day they’re convinced that their crooked path to conservatism is the best, indeed only, path that works.
Next, the activists. Ideological fidelity matters most, then electability. The activist is convinced that true conservative governance hasn’t worked because it hasn’t been tried, that true conservative principles — preferably united under the banner of an overwhelmingly charismatic candidate — will carry the day, and they are utterly, completely impatient with strategic calculation unless that calculation is about placing conservative values in the most attractive possible package. Susceptible to “One-ism,” the activists sometimes lurch from candidate to candidate, exchanging fanatical support for utter disdain with astounding speed. At the same time, without the activist, the strategist would tend to lose his way, so caught up in “the game” that he forgets that sometimes pure principle can win and that often pure principle must be defended.
Finally, the primary voters. These guys don’t really follow politics that intensely. They’re generally indifferent to — or ignorant of — the daily twists and turns of the campaign and are put off by the fury of ideological argument. They have principles, yes, and they care deeply for the country, but politics aren’t the central focus of their lives, they’re more tolerant of ideological impurity, and they are extremely focused on bottom-line results.
Let’s not forget that any given night the vast majority of even Republican primary voters are not watching Fox News. They either haven’t tuned into talk radio or tuned in only briefly — perhaps catching a few minutes on the way to work. They like the Tea Party, until it annoys them. They like the Establishment, until it bores them. Incompetence and corruption are deal-breakers, but ideology alone rarely is. These are the people who can select Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George Bush, and John McCain, very different politicians, all.
Mitt has most of the strategists, he has few of the activists, and right now he’s looking good with the voters. I want more of the activists (heck, I’m an activist — they’re my brothers and sisters), but with the understanding that there is a long, long way to go, I like where we sit.