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Republican choices only get harder
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Republicans have made a choice, and it's the last easy one they will have for the next 23 months. They will hold their national political convention in Cleveland.
The last time they went to Cleveland, the Republicans faced a small insurgency. The establishment candidate was Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas, an oil millionaire who was genial and wry and, as a pillar of the Topeka business community, not much of a threatening figure to anybody. The insurgent was Sen. William Borah of Idaho, an isolationist and colorful progressive known more for what he opposed than for what he favored and probably too old to pose a real challenge; he was born only two months after the end of the Civil War. Landon prevailed by a large margin -- and then lost to Franklin Roosevelt by an even larger margin.
This next Republican nomination struggle won't be nearly as tranquil. In fact, for more than a third of a century the Republican Party -- commonly, but erroneously, regarded as a party at social rest -- has been a cauldron of political unrest. This election will represent the sixth time in the last half-century that the GOP presidential contest will widely, and accurately, be described as a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party.
This cycle's struggle is more complex than most, with insurgent candidates arguably dominating establishment figures in weight (Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, both serious intellectual figures) and decibel level (though both must compete in volume with some formidable characters, including Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and possibly Rick Perry of Texas, a bombastic figure except at debates, when his silence was deadly in 2012).
The presence of Bush in the mix all but assures that 2016 will be another of the struggles-for-the-soul that so delight the mainstream media, complicate Republican presidential campaigns and, at times, endanger GOP nominees. Democrats had such struggles in the years between 1968 and 1992, when the world's oldest political party was barred from the presidency except for the unhappy Jimmy Carter interregnum but, since the ascendancy of Bill Clinton, the Democrats' struggles have been more about personalities than about politics.
This has not been the case in the Republican Party, which had a small identity crisis in the early 1950s -- resolved by the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, who dispatched Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio -- and then enjoyed a dozen years of tranquility.
The American political mystery of our time is why the party of social stability is so often a portrait of instability.
The reason may lie in the definition of conservatism itself, in the history of the 20th century, whose political struggles still shape American civic life, and in the structure of 21st-century politics.
The Democrats no longer have a vibrant conservative wing and the Republicans have virtually no liberal wing at all. But the Republicans still have the remnants of an establishment, and its personification in 2016 may be Jeb Bush. That's why the Cleveland convention may be no repeat of 1936, a year the Republicans in any case do not want to relive.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.