Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto Wednesday night of a law allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians reveals something important about the divide inside today’s GOP. It’s not only ideological; it’s also vertical.
Brewer faced pressure to sign the bill from below: from the local legislators and activists who passed it. But she ultimately succumbed to pressure from above: from national Republican leaders and their corporate allies, who fear looking complicit with homophobia at a time when homophobia is rapidly becoming a political and economic loser.
To party history nerds, all this should sound vaguely familiar. It resembles what the Democratic Party tried to do after Walter Mondale’s loss in 1984. In the 1970s, party reforms had made the Democratic Party’s process for selecting a presidential nominee far more open, especially to women and minorities. The party bosses who had made Hubert Humphrey the Democratic nominee in 1968 despite his not winning a single presidential primary lost much of their power.
But by 1984, party leaders were convinced that all this grassroots democracy—which had empowered activists on the party’s far left—was making their presidential candidates unelectable. So they counterattacked with reforms aimed at shifting power from the bottom back to the top. The most important of these was the creation of “superdelegates,” Democratic politicians and other party leaders, who were given votes at the party’s nominating convention, which they could cast irrespective of state primary results. (Hillary Clinton, you may remember, tried in 2008 to convince superdelegates to support her even though Barack Obama had won a majority of the delegates selected via primaries and caucuses.)
What GOP leaders are doing today is the equivalent of superdelegates. They’re trying to empower party leaders who want to moderate the party’s image on immigration, gay rights and the role of women while disempowering the local activists who they fear are pushing the party off an ideological cliff. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for the Democrats and it’s unlikely to work for the Republicans now.
America’s political parties have long been weaker than their parliamentary cousins. But it’s especially hard to wield power from above these days, since local candidates and activists control their own fundraising operations and press scrutiny makes it hard for party leaders to bribe or muscle troublemakers in the ways Lyndon Johnson made famous.
These days, a national party that wants to moderate its image can’t roll over its local activists. It must seduce them. That means finding a candidate with enough emotional appeal to the party’s base that they’ll forgive his or her ideological transgressions. That’s what the Democrats found in Bill Clinton. The party’s structural changes between 1984 and 1988 did it little good. What revived Democratic fortunes was a presidential candidate able to signal his centrism to independents and Republicans while also preaching the Democratic gospel passionately enough to win a significant number of white and black liberals. Support from well-funded elites like the Democratic Leadership Council certainly helped Clinton. But ultimately, he had to do it himself.
Republicans can pressure local pols like Brewer not to endorse bigotry. And they can tinker with the presidential primary schedule. But it won’t do them much good until they find a presidential candidate shrewd and charismatic enough to say things the Republican base doesn’t want to hear while still winning its support. The Republican Party may have had such a candidate a few months ago. Now, with Chris Christie struggling merely to hang on as governor, it no longer does.
Which means, although obviously much could still change, it’s more likely 2016 will be the GOP’s 1988 than its 1992.