Every few years the commentariat becomes fixated on the great American conservative "crack-up." These bouts of panic tend to coincide with lame-duck presidencies and low poll numbers, but epidemics can break out at any time. When they do, conservatives holler (a la the Six Million Dollar Man), "We can't hold it, she's breaking up!" Liberals yell, "Whoopee!"
We're in just such a moment now. Every few weeks, a new book rolls out decrying George W. Bush's apostasy from the One True Faith (variously defined). Suddenly, conservative writers have found op-ed pages more welcoming as they lament the unraveling of this, the implosion of that, and the betrayal of the other thing.
Gleeful liberals and conservative Chicken Littles are misreading the data. Liberals, as is their wont, are letting their schadenfreude get the better of them. They see libertarians banging their spoons on their highchairs, Christian "zealots" pounding their Bibles, and Republican moderates shaking their New York Times with a harrumph over their whole-grain breakfasts, and gloat: "Aha, the conservative coalition is falling apart!" The trouble is that fighting like cats and dogs is what winning political coalitions do. There is a center-right political majority in American politics and there has been since Ronald Reagan. This "red-state coalition" would not exist if the electorate tilted left.
Bill Clinton, human weather vane that he was, understood this implicitly, which is why he campaigned as a free trader, welfare reformer, Sister Souljah critic, pro-death penalty Southern Democrat. His wife understands this too, which is why she keeps trying to move to Bush's right on immigration and the Iraq war.
Majority coalitions have big internal arguments for the same reason that pirates fight over buried treasure after they find it and not when they're still looking for it: They have something to fight over. They have to govern, which means pleasing some constituencies and infuriating others. The FDR coalition had segregationists and black freedom fighters, socialist Jews and western populists all working under the same big Democratic tent. With lots of infighting, this coalition lasted for two generations. The two Republicans who won the presidency during this era - Nixon and Eisenhower - were liberal Republicans who promised to do what the Democrats were doing, but more efficiently.
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