Thirty years after Ronald Reagan was president, Republicans are still running on a tripartite alliance of social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives. Alas, such candidates run on a myth; that coalition has splintered and what will replace it is far from clear.
We see evangelicals supporting a robust foreign policy, libertarians objecting to the war on terrorism, supply-siders pushing back against penny pinchers, pro-lifers split between pro- and anti-gay rights support.
So what does the GOP do to remain a national party based on a core belief in liberty? One approach would be to become the reform party on entitlements, education, health care, employee unions and even the Pentagon while being agnostic on social issues. Or the party could go fully libertarian, leaving hawks and social conservatives adrift but gaining urban and suburban professionals and social liberals. Another formula would be to embrace pro-life, pro-immigration, strong-on-defense conservatives with a Tory welfare state that loses business conservatives but takes on working class and minority voters.
These arrangements are unlikely to happen in a vacuum but rather emerge as a reflection of the 2016 presidential nominee and the coalition he or she constructs. A clever candidate might embrace some issues while agreeing to a truce on others, or agree to prioritize without vilifying those issues that don't get top billing.
The only certainty is that the candidate who comes forward as a cookie-cutter "three-legged-stool" (strong defense, economic conservative, social traditionalist) conservative is going to wind up running into the same limitations that Mitt Romney did: There are not enough voters who follow those prescriptions to win the White House.
So where does this lead the party? I believe it would sort itself out in the primary, when candidates would construct a parliamentary majority. The candidate who can win both the biggest share of supporters and recruit more to the GOP is the winner, and at the end factions agree to disagree on some items in common cause against an opponent devoted to the welfare state.
Fitting the party to a real candidate rather than forcing the candidate to contort himself to fit a static platform makes a lot of sense. You'll get a more genuine party leader, and the primary would determine where a substantial coalition could be formed. Most important, the process would put a premium on policy.
No candidate would strain to abide by principles he does not hold dear. Special-interest factions lose their sway as candidates build their own coalition.
So 2016 presidential wannabes, shape your own agenda, recruit your own coalition and determine how you are going to fund it. But don't spend any time trying to be all things to all parts of a coalition that for all intents and purposes no long exists.
Excerpted from washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn