When the Republican National Convention finally gets underway today here in Tampa, it will renew a civil war that’s been raging — off and on — for more than a century.
Once again, the party’s establishment will be pitted against its more aggressively ideological elements. This time, the clash will be brief. The establishment will prevail. But it would be a mistake to read this an omen for the future. The next era of conservative politics is just as likely to be dominated by the insurgents.
This latest round of disputes will seem minor and be little noticed by the public at large.
The powers that be — the national party officers and inner circle of Mitt Romney’s campaign — will win swift approval of the convention rules, the delegate credentials, the party platform and even the nomination of Romney himself.
They will do it all before primetime coverage begins later in the evening. They have the votes and they control the clock.
But what the insurgents have in their favor is their fervor. If they cannot stop the agenda this time, they will slow it down and call attention to the moment.
They object to a new rule that would allow future nominees to strike potentially objectionable names from the delegate lists at future conventions. There are other irritants as well. And, of course, there are those who devoutly wish this convention were nominating Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum, or even Paul Ryan — rather than Romney.
Some of the Paul people -– highly visible around Tampa in recent days — occupied the convention floor on Monday after the opening session was recessed in deference to Tropical Storm Isaac. They raised a racket of their own and posed defiantly for photographers until convention authorities announced the floor was being closed “for cleaning.”
At this convention, dissenters and discontents can cause a murmur but they cannot disrupt the flow. The mainstream of 2012 wants to walk through the convention business items without breaking stride. They want to project a united front against President Obama and they don’t want a contentious convention clouding the prospects of their ticket.
This emphasis on party unity will prevail for the same reason Romney prevailed in the primary season — no single challenger had enough resources to stop the man from Massachusetts. Here in Tampa, no single candidate has nearly enough supporters to mount an effective resistance.
But if they are losing the battle, the insurgents sense they are winning the larger war. Like the Tea Party that rose and ruled in 2010, the elements of the GOP dissatisfied with Romney are busily redefining the party’s future.
Not so long ago, the Republican family feud pitted the Eastern establishment (often pilloried as Eastern liberals or moderates) against “Western” conservatives who dominated the party from Ohio to the Pacific.
The split was the party’s historic Achilles heel. The classic instance came exactly 100 years ago, when former President Theodore Roosevelt of New York sought to dislodge his own successor, incumbent President William Howard Taft of Ohio, as the Republican nominee in 1912. When he failed, Roosevelt launched a third party candidacy that split the GOP and allowed Woodrow Wilson to become the second of just two Democrats elected president between the 1850s and the 1930s.
Forty years later, that bitter memory was revisited by Taft’s son, Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. The conservative favorite of that era, Taft was eclipsed by war hero Dwight Eisenhower, the candidate of the establishment, at the convention of 1952.
Since then, however, the trend has favored the Westerners and an ever-more-stringent version of conservative ideology. In 1964, they nominated Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona known for his uncompromising stands and style. Goldwater lost badly to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson that fall, but his nomination signaled the rise of a new order and foreshadowed a national realignment.
Goldwater’s sunbelt orientation would inform the successful campaigns of Californians Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan from 1968 through 1988 and reorient the party’s compass for another 20 years thereafter.
The spirit of the Goldwater thrust was largely restored by the congressional elections of 2010. And while no one presidential candidate was able to capitalize on it in 2012, the longing for someone in the Goldwater-Reagan mold was a constant in the latest round of Republican primaries.
Romney and his crew may have the GOP under new management, but that sense of longing has not gone away. And when a rump caucus of delegates raises even a token protest on the floor of this convention, it speaks volumes about where the party is likely to go from here.