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November 21, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-5: McCain opens the Pandora's box

One of Al Gore's biggest sins for which I will never forgive him is his putting into the spotlight the insufferable Joe Lieberman by selecting him as his running mate in 2000. Lieberman has milked his gift of prominence to the maximum so that it is now hard to avoid his smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous presence in the media.

John McCain is likely to suffer similar reproof among large segments of the population for his inflicting of Sarah Palin on the American public. She too has a grating personality, though in her case it is her snide and sneering tone mixed with her ignorant but pugnacious self-assurance that tends to irritate.

But in many ways, McCain's choice of Palin will do a lot more harm to the Republicans that Lieberman did to the Democrats, even though the latter actually campaigned against the Democratic candidate and provided cover for some of the most despicable allegations made against Obama. In the end, Lieberman represents just himself, a voting bloc of one, and will eventually disappear, most likely losing his next senatorial election in 2012.

But Palin does represent a large constituency that will not go away even in the event that she does, and this group has been newly energized by the Palin selection and their claim to power is what is going to cause problems.

McCain belongs more to the old-style conservative Republican wing of the party, does not seem particularly religious or enamored of the religion-based agenda of the social values bloc, and he probably saw that bloc in the subservient role it has traditionally played, which is to mainly turn up on election day. It is very likely that when McCain selected Palin, he saw her as bringing female and outsider and youth and energy credentials to the ticket, nothing more.

I think it is now obvious that the vetting of Palin prior to her selection to be McCain's running mate was cursory to the point of being almost non-existent. I am almost certain that he did not realize that the elevation of Palin would open a Pandora's box of expectations of the social values bloc of his party and did not anticipate the outpouring of religious fervor that would accompany her selection. For the first time, the religious base has had one of them be part of the top leadership. Now that they have got so close to the driver's seat, they are not going to return to the back of the bus. I think they will insist on a true believer as the next leader of the party.

This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the 'real Republicans' are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.

This is why the jockeying for leadership within the Republican party will be interesting to watch, as various candidates try to keep their names in the public eye while at the same time trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.

As is usually the case, the names of candidates from the previous election are being bandied about the most. Mitt Romney is the one who is most nakedly revealing his ambitions. But he is a Mormon and however much he and his church may protest that they are really just another Christian denomination, they are still seen by many Christians as not one of them, a little too out there, more like Scientologists and Wiccans. Furthermore his earlier softer stances on gay rights and a woman's right to choose may make his true-believer credentials suspect. For these reasons, I think that he has a tough road ahead of him to gain the Republican nomination.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was short-listed as a possible vice-presidential candidate, might serve the bill. He seems to have the required positions on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, though he does not seem to flaunt his religion, perhaps because of that famous Minnesota reserve.

But earlier in his career he had softer stands on abortion and stem-cell research and supported anti-discrimination laws against gays. He is also one of the few evangelicals to support actions to combat global warming, and these will hurt him with the true believers.

While Pawlenty should be acceptable to the social values base of the party, it is not clear if he gives out that special frequency signal that only true believers can hear that enables them to identify those who are truly one of them and thus support them enthusiastically.

Another rumored vice-presidential candidate Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is also seen as a possibility for future party leadership. Does he have the required religious cred? He is the son of Indian immigrants and a Catholic convert from Hinduism and describes his conversion in a 1993 article.

He seems to hold orthodox, hard-line conservative Catholic views, which puts his in agreement with the evangelical social values voters on most of the issues dear to them. He is fervently anti-choice, anti-gay rights, and anti-embryonic stem cell research.

His youthful involvement with an exorcism might worry old-style conservative Republicans but will likely strengthen his religious credibility among the true believers, who see such nuttiness as signs of genuine faith, enough to overcome their misgivings about him being a former Hindu and the child of immigrants.

But the real clue as to the problems the Republican party faces lies in their puzzling response to the candidacy of Mike Huckabee.

Next: The Huckabee puzzle

POST SCRIPT: Hopeful signs of overcoming bigotry

Jed Lewis points out something important.

Let us remember when this election is in the history books that it wasn't just that majorities of white voters in states like Iowa and Wisconsin and Oregon supported Barack Obama for President, but it was also black voters in Tennessee who overwhelmingly stood up for Stephen Cohen, a white Jewish congressman who was challenged by Nikki Tinker, a black woman who ran a Jew-baiting primary campaign against him.

Tinker thought that black voters wouldn't support a white Jewish candidate, but they did. She ended up winning only 19% of the vote.

The elections of Barack Obama and Stephen Cohen (who supported each other in their primaries) may not mean that we have overcome. But they do show that we can. And eventually we will.

I really hope that this is a sign of the beginning of the end of stupid and vicious identity politics.

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