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New York Times Room for Debate


Factions Have a Role to Play

January 05, 2012

By Daniel DiSalvo

That the Republican Party is divided over its presidential nominee shouldn’t be all that surprising. America’s “big tent” parties are prone to factionalism because of the nature of our electoral system. Indeed, factions within the parties — think of Progressive Republicans in 1912, Southern Democrats at mid-century, and New Democrats in the 1990s — have often been as important in American political history as the parties themselves.

One way to look at the divisions within today’s Republican Party is to see them as based on ideological differences between neoconservatives, traditionalists, libertarians and the religious right. Each of these schools of thought points to different policy stands and leads voters to look for different traits in a presidential candidate. But differences at the level of political philosophy can be papered over by much agreement on practical particulars. It is really a matter of the degree of a candidate’s conservatism, which has been the central issue in the G.O.P. nomination contest so far.

Another way to look at the party is to see it as really divided in two — with a rump libertarian element personified by Ron Paul. On one side is a large “moderate” faction. It seeks a candidate who is prudent, has a sound temperament, and can win the general election. As Henry Olsen has argued in National Affairs, it is G.O.P. voters who see themselves as moderate conservatives who have been the core supporters of every Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater. They tend to favor the candidate deemed “next in line.” This group has mainly supported Mitt Romney as “conservative enough.”

On the other side is a more conservative element, recently given popular expression by the Tea Party. To little avail, this slice of the party has bounced from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Newt Gingrich and now to Rick Santorum, always in search of a viable candidate who is more conservative than Romney.

In spite of all this division, the best glue for any party is the opposing party. Many Republicans today may be unsure who they are for, but they are certain who they are against: Barack Obama. That sentiment is probably sufficient to unite the G.O.P. behind the eventual nominee. Ultimately, winner-take-all elections and the Electoral College are powerful forces that sustain our two-party system, factions and all.

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