Foreshadows of the great Republican schism of ’08 | NevadaAppeal.com

Foreshadows of the great Republican schism of ’08

Kirk Caraway
Internet editor

Pandering to interest groups has been an age-old problem for both major political parties in this country as they seek to build their majorities.

And it’s a problem that comes back to bite those who seek to gain from the practice.

The Democrats still are trying to dig themselves out of the hole created by paying attention to a wide range of interest groups – from abortion to the environment – while ignoring their core constituents.

Understand that forming partnerships with different groups when their interests converge is a basic part of politics. The problems start when the pandering becomes so massive that those groups hijack the agenda of the party, and they get worse as the party core tries to take back the reins.

That battle for control is being played out right now with the presidential candidacy of Mike Huckabee.

Christian conservatives have been the most important interest group for the Republican Party since the rise of Ronald Reagan. Every Republican presidential candidate since is expected to pay homage to this group’s issues, if they want to win. During the last campaign, George W. Bush’s political architect Karl Rove focused almost exclusively on this group, hoping that they would turn out in such high numbers and vote so consistently Republican that they would carry the day. And they did.

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But then along comes Huckabee. He isn’t just pandering to the religious right. He’s a charter member, a Baptist preacher from the Bible Belt. His sudden rise in the polls has given Christian voters something to smile about.

At the same time, the party bigwigs are having fits about Huckabee.

Here’s what Rush Limbaugh had to say: “Huckabee’s radical candidacy broadly repudiates core Republican policies such as free trade, low taxes, the essential legitimacy of America’s corporate entities and the market system allocating wealth and opportunity.” That’s pretty harsh, even for Limbaugh.

As his numbers kept rising, then the knives really came out and conservative pundits started criticizing Huckabee for being “overtly religious,” something that never bothered them before about any GOP candidate.

Then came the Huckabee Christmas ad with the supposed subliminal white cross in the background. Fox News pundits jumped all over this, many of the same ones who praised John McCain’s Christmas ad that had a real image of a cross.

These attacks are the fracture lines starting to split the religious and economic conservatives.

A smaller version of this was spelled out in the book “What’s the matter with Kansas?” by Thomas Frank, which described how the Republican Party in that state split between the “Mods” and “Cons.” As the religious conservatives took over the party structure, the moderates were forced out and many jumped to the Democrats. Since that book was published, Kansas is in the second term of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who has taken advantage of the split in this decidedly conservative state. She has been joined this term by a state attorney general and lieutenant governor who both switched parties to run as Democrats.

You can bet that the GOP establishment doesn’t want to see a replay of Kansas happening on the national level, which helps explain the attacks on Huckabee. But if they attack too hard, they risk alienating the Christian voters come November.

But who else is there? Giuliani is falling fast, as stories about his less-than-Christian-perfect personal life begin to overshadow all of his shameless promoting of 9/11. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism scares the religious conservatives, and his flip-flops worry everyone else. John McCain is on the wrong side of the immigration debate for the GOP, and his flirtation with being John Kerry’s running mate in 2004 didn’t win him any allies. Fred Thompson is putting audiences to sleep, and the rest of the field is a grab bag of fringe candidates.

Without any clear alternative to unite the party, this could be the election that fractures the GOP. Add in a possible independent run by Ron Paul, and you can hear the earthquake starting.

I keep hearing from Republicans I know who are upset at the lackluster field of candidates on their side. When these folks start openly contemplating voting for a Democrat, you know the times are a changing.

• Kirk Caraway’s weekly columns appear in newspapers in Nevada, California and Colorado. He also writes a blog on national issues at http://kirkcaraway.com.