Outside editorial: Divided it stands

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008

This editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

For all the hand-wringing among Democrats about the tough choices the party's voters are facing in their selection of a presidential nominee, it's nothing compared to the troubles Republicans are creating for themselves this year. On that side of the aisle, three contests, including this week's primary in Michigan, have yielded three very different winners, with no sign of a uniter anywhere on the horizon.

In one sense, the current campaigns reflect an unmistakable shift that occurred in American politics during the late 20th century. Once it was the Democrats whose big tent accommodated uncomfortable allies: Southern segregationists and civil rights leaders, defense hawks and doves, conservative construction unions and liberal service labor groups, earthy populists and refined academics. All of that made for fractious politics and often produced nominees who won the party's backing by bringing out one element of its base while antagonizing another. It also often doomed the nominee in the general election (think George McGovern).

Today, for all their differences, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards emerge from a generally cohesive base. They embrace civil rights and want to bring an end to the Iraq war; they see a role for the government in combating poverty and protecting the environment. They represent, in short, a political party.

Then there are the Republicans. It is inconceivable to imagine Mike Huckabee's followers - those willing to back a candidate who's unsure about evolution - switching to Rudolph W. Giuliani, who's been through a couple of divorces and mildly supports abortion rights. It's equally hard to see supporters of John McCain, who has made a principled defense of immigration reform, jumping to Mitt Romney, whose demagogic attacks on illegal immigrants are part of his effort to convince conservatives he's with them despite a record as governor of Massachusetts that suggests otherwise.

The Republican Party's conflicting constituencies - chamber of commerce moderates and religious conservatives, those threatened by illegal immigration and those who are moved by the humanity of those same immigrants, libertarians who want the scope of government reduced and zealots who want government to ban abortion and regulate marriage - are tearing its field apart in 2008. Democrats may be fretting - they do have a tendency to worry - but it is Republicans who now command a party without focus or cohering principles.

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