Who Can Tame the Far Right?

One thing you have to give George W. Bush: he tamed the far right, with his language of “compassionate conservatism,” his support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, especially Hispanics; and his outreach to Muslims after 9/11, in which he emphasized that America was not at war with Islam. He did not appeal to bigotry.

Today’s Republicans, at least those most likely to vote in primaries, do not share Bush’s moderate approach. They are highly suspicious of the words “compassionate conservatism”; oppose “amnesty” for “illegals”; and they seem to think that most Muslims are a danger and a security threat to America.

Is this faction tame-able? Can they be lured back into the mainstream political circle? Or will they go the way of the Know-Nothings after the 1856 election, and take the Republican Party with them?

Looking back at previous factional struggles:

1- Reconciliation of Wallace Dixiecrats. In reaction against laws outlawing racial segregation, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran as a third party candidate in 1968, garnering 13.5% of the vote. His candidacy represented a break-up of the old Democratic coalition. After the election, Wallace Dixiecrats were lured back into the mainstream, first, by Republicans who developed a (somewhat racist) Southern Strategy. Wallace himself ran strong in Democratic primaries in 1972 until he was shot in May while campaigning in the Maryland primary. Then, 1973-76, Democrats lured the Wallace faction, first by Edward Kennedy traveling to Alabama to express empathy over the assassination attempt on Wallace, both of them appearing on Richard Nixon’s enemies list and victims of Nixon “dirty tricks.” Democrats sought to enlist Wallace and his supporters in the effort to impeach Richard Nixon for Watergate-related crimes, and viewed him as a “Democrat in good standing,” despite his racist agitations.

Then in 1976, Jimmy Carter appealed to Wallace supporters’ Southern pride and working class populism. Wallace himself denounced his segregationist past, as did some of his supporters. In 1980, Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in Mississippi and sought, rather successfully, to transform the old Wallace Dixiecrats into a “Reagan Democrat” coalition.

2- H. Ross Perot and the Reform Party. In 1992, Perot’s Reform Party garnered nearly 19% of the vote, and could possibly have won the election if Perot’s behavior weren’t so erratic. After the election, Bill Clinton and Al Gore made a big deal of incorporating business principles and an entrepreneurial spirit into their reinventing government effort. When the deficit declined significantly as a percentage of GDP, Perot’s raison d’etre declined, and the Reform Party won slightly less than nine percent of the vote. By year 2000, Perot and the Reform Party were hopelessly divided.

3- Ralph Nader and Green Party Democrats. They cost Al Gore the 2000 election in Florida. But by 2004, most had returned to the Democratic fold, and by 2008 were strong supporters of Obama. Presumably most support Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primaries of 2016. In a close election, if they don’t vote for the Democratic nominee, it could still make a difference.






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