After what seemed an eternity of debates, the New Hampshire primary has whirred into life. Like a great creaky old grandfather clock striking the hour -- a reminder not only of passing time but that the grand old thing still has life in it.
The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and therefore target-in-chief, Mitt Romney, was back on rocky New England soil, still trying out the catch phrases that presidential candidates use as a substitute for thought. ("Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" "Hope and Change!") His latest theme? He's engaged in a battle for "the soul of America."
The candidate might first take the precaution of winning the battle for the soul of his always divided party, which is split -- as usual -- between its true believers and pragmatic movers-and-shakers, its rhetoricians and its doers.
Once again the party's wavy rank and uneven file, individualists all, must choose between seeking refuge in some nice quiet corner where they can confirm each other's pet theories, or venturing out in the real world where compromises must be made if anything else is to be.
The best diagnosis of this familiar Republican dilemma came from a rumpled old ex-communist named Whittaker Chambers. (Ex-communists make the best champions of freedom, for they know the enemy intimately, having been one.) An old party man, Whittaker Chambers knew his new one would have to adapt or die. Or, as he put it in a letter to a feisty young whippersnapper named William F. Buckley Jr. at the time, which shortly after the Republicans had lost the midterm elections of 1958:
"If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in, and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people ... the Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."
Guess which of the Republican presidential candidates is playing the all too familiar role of Old Man in Dark Shop this year. It doesn't take much guessing. For he lives in his own narrow world, in which isolationism is a practical foreign policy and the gold standard the solution to our financial crisis.
Earnest commentators on television have been heard expressing surprise that Ron Paul, whose ideas are even older than he is, should be attracting so many young supporters.
Of course he is. They haven't heard all this stuff before, let alone lived through it. Splendid Isolation is still a bright new idea to them, untarnished by the painful lessons of history. They never knew a time when there was no Federal Reserve and the country had to depend on periodic Panics to right the economic ship -- and a J.P. Morgan to get the country out of them.
To these young naifs, Ron Paul is an innovative thinker who, hesto presto, makes all things clear in a blinding, simplistic flash. To them, his dotty ramblings come as utter revelation.
Dr. Paul is the political version of Malcolm Gladwell, he of "The Tipping Point," "Blink," "The Outliers" and such instant explanations of everything. The good doctor's mix of populism and general irritation strikes his young fans as integrity. And he does have the courage to say things that people who don't think much think. He's kind of an idealist in his own country-doctor way, even if the ideals are about as new as William Jennings Bryan's.
But to those seeing their first presidential campaign and rodeo, the old man's oddments of cloth are raiments of glory. At last everything is clear! Even if they've seldom been so distorted.
It's an old story for Republicans -- a pageant replayed almost every four years, and there's always the Ron Paul/Pat Buchanan/Barry Goldwater/Robert A. Taft role waiting to be filled with various degrees of talent or intelligence.
Sen. Taft was probably the most intelligent leader of the U.S. Senate in his time or maybe any time, but intelligence is not the same as vision, or even an appreciation of reality. Talk about deja vu: In his semi-victory, semi-concession, all-isolationist speech after the Iowa caucuses, Dr. Paul evoked the memory of Sen. Taft's opposition to the NATO treaty, one of the most successful alliances against aggression in modern history.
Once again, the Republican Party must choose between fantasy and reality, between its two competing wings and worldviews -- or find an exceptional leader, a Reagan or Eisenhower, who can somehow bring them together and go on to victory.
Republicans tend to find themselves regularly divided ideologically, Democrats geographically. Which is why the battle of ideas in American politics tends to be played out at Republican national conventions, while regional and ethnic divisions are worked out, or not, at Democratic ones.
For the GOP, this is a replay of Taft vs. Eisenhower in 1952, with the party divided between old loyalties and the new possibility of actually winning a presidential election. After a bitter fight between the isolationist and internationalist wings of the party that year, the two protagonists, who didn't actually disagree much on domestic issues, made their peace at Morningside Heights overlooking Columbia University. And the road to victory was cleared.
How? Ike accepted what he'd long accepted anyway -- the need to cut federal budget deficits and fight what was then called "creeping socialism," and is now known as the Entitlement Society. In return, Sen. Taft agreed to accept reality. He soon became Ike's best friend (everybody liked Ike) and, until his untimely death a short time later, he served as one of the most effective majority leaders in the Senate's history. The two leaders shared a common dedication to what was truly important: golf.
That's showbiz: Give 'em a happy ending every time. In this country, it's known as consensus. And it still plays well. Despite the current unpleasantness in the Republican race, mainly Newt Gingrich, it won't surprise when it becomes the late unpleasantness by the last night of the Republicans' national convention, when all the defeated candidates (well, maybe not the irreconcilable Newt or Dr. Paul) form a chorus line behind the party's nominee.
Who knows, the party might even nominate the current anti-Romney, Rick Santorum, as Mr. Romney's running mate. It would be a balanced ticket once again: Main Street and Wall Street, populist and tycoon, blue collar and white, great defender of life and a politician whose eyes were opened on the road to Damascus, or in this case Tampa Bay.