GOP Fault Lines Expose Ideological Divides

There is a diversity of views in the Republican field for president that is wide, even wild. Host Scott Simon talks with Ross Douthat, a conservative author and New York Times columnist, about the ideological divides in the Republican Party, as apparent in the GOP presidential race.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And as we've heard, there's a diversity of views in the Republican field for president that's wide, even wild. They range from Libertarians who want to legalize drugs and let Iran develop nuclear weapons to evangelical Christians supporting Roman Catholics because of their social agenda, to mainline pro-business Republicans being compared to vultures by fellow Republicans. What's at the heart of this struggle for the party? Ross Douthat, conservative writer and columnist for the New York Times joins us in our studios. Welcome.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: What do you make of this wide split in views in a party that used to be known for falling in line?

DOUTHAT: Well, what's interesting is that two things are going on simultaneously. On the one hand, you have exactly the kind of split you've described, where you have a, you know, a candidate, Ron Paul, who is sort of the embodiment of the Libertarian faction within the Republican Party. You have a candidate, Rick Santorum, who's done everything in his power to make himself the embodiment of social conservatism, both evangelical and Catholic. And you have other candidates, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, before she quit the race, who were making a play for that same demographic.

And then you have Mitt Romney, who is the embodiment, you know, sort of the kind of classic northeastern moderate Republican figure. So you have this kind of diversity. Then at the same though, one of the interesting things about this year is that on substance, with the exception of Ron Paul, in certain ways there's less diversity then there's been in years past because Romney, while, you know, he has this moderate record going back to Massachusetts and so on, has basically taken the sort of party line position on just about every issue.

The striking thing about the field in a way is the divisions you see are almost more identity politics than they are policy. You could call it demographic cleavages. I think that's the best way to look at it.

SIMON: Brooks Brothers versus Wal-Mart?

DOUTHAT: Brooks Brothers versus — right, Sam's Club or something.

SIMON: What do you make of the moment, maybe in American history, that you have two candidates winning the votes of many social conservatives who happen to be Roman Catholic?

DOUTHAT: What you see there with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich is the culmination of basically a trend that's been 30 years in the making, ever since - well, especially ever since Roe v. Wade in the early 1970s, but since sort of the idea of cultural wars in general first came on the American scene. And what's happened over that period is that evangelicals and Roman Catholics have spent so much time working together on particularly political issues, but also, you know, the sort of political alliance has led to sort of personal alliances and so it's become very natural for religious conservatives of either communion to feel comfortable supporting a member of the other communion. And also the presence of a Mormon in the presidential field I think also tends to sort of highlight what evangelicals and Catholics have in common theologically, because whatever the differences that divide evangelicals from Rome, they're much smaller than the theological differences that divide both groups from Salt Lake City, you might say.

SIMON: If Governor Romney is nominated and whether he's elected president or not, do some of these identity battles for the soul of the party you've been talking about go away?

DOUTHAT: Well, I think they go away in the six months in which Romney and Barack Obama share the national stage. But my...

SIMON: But what about next year? What about when the dust settles?

DOUTHAT: Well, when the dust settles, I think this is Romney's big weakness as president, is that even if he wins the nomination, as I think he will, even he beats Barack Obama, he will enter the White House with a level of sort of personal mistrust among people who are his core supporters. So for the first six months to a year of his administration, I think a lot of grassroots conservatives will sort of be looking for an opportunity to say we told you so, this guy is a sellout, he's cutting deals with Democrats, you know, we need to find a primary challenger and so on. So Romney, once in office, will have to walk I think a very fine tightrope. So, yeah, I think that these battles are very likely to recur after November.

SIMON: Ross Douthat, columnist for The New York Times. Thanks so much.

DOUTHAT: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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