WASHINGTON — 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).
Indeed, a Zogby Analytics poll this month showed Mr. Paul far ahead of the pack, with 20 percent, followed by two establishment candidates, Mr. Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, each with 13 percent. Such early polls are mere appetizers, with plenty of palate cleansers coming to the political table before the presidential campaign begins after this fall’s midterm elections.
Right now, political strength is assessed in unreliable measures of amplitude and frequency, which may be why Mr. Paul scores so well. The senator is the son of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a onetime Post-Gazette delivery boy who ran for president twice and gained a small but loyal cadre of followers attracted to his libertarian views and his willingness to attack conventional views on central banking and foreign policy.
The presence of Mr. 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.
But tensions broke into the open in 1964 with the emergence of Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and, despite their electoral success in the last third of the 20th century, the Republicans experienced serious schisms or threats to the established order at least four other times: in 1976, 1980, 1988 and 1992.
Ronald Reagan was at the heart of three of these struggles — in 1964, when his late-campaign speech on behalf of Goldwater gave new hope to conservatives amid certain disaster; in 1976, when his challenge to President Gerald Ford went all the way to the Kansas City convention and was capped by an impromptu speech in which he described the Democrats as campaigning on “a reissue … of the thing we have been hearing from them for the last 40 years”; and in 1980, when he prevailed against a panoply of establishment candidates, including George H. W. Bush.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The Republicans confronted serious ideological struggles even after Mr. Reagan’s administration for the first time in a generation established conservatism as an attractive rival to New Deal-style liberalism.
In 1988, the struggle was between the traditionalist and evangelical wings of the party. At the New Orleans convention, the Rev. Pat Robertson addressed the session and spoke of “our solemn resolve that the children of this country will once again be allowed to pray to God in the classrooms of America.” A week earlier, the Georgia Republican chairman compared religious conservatives to “the people who brought you the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition.”
Four years later, the party was still at war with itself, with blood feuds between those favoring tax cuts and rivals favoring spending cuts; and between those who advocated libertarian tolerance of gay rights and abortion and rivals arguing for religious-based opposition to both of them. In the background were swirling controversies between isolationists and internationalists, and between protectionists and free traders.
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.
One shorthand for American conservatism involves the notion of limited government and free markets, ideas identified in modern times with economist Milton Friedman. Another shorthand for classical conservatism involves skepticism of change, a notion traced to the 18th century Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke. In an age when New Deal liberalism dominated American life, a desire for limited government and a skepticism of change were in a fateful philosophical collision.
The conflict became inflamed in an age when, for the first time in generations, American politics was shaped by ideologically aligned parties, one liberal and the other conservative.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).