Republicans Need To Build Their Coalition, Not Destroy It

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One might think that Republicans would understand that political power in America is all about building coalitions. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by creating a coalition of anti-slavery Northerners and the remnants of the Whig party. Abolitionists, merchants, and the emerging urban middle class combined to create a party which ran the U.S. government most of the time from 1861 until 1913. Moralists and economic pragmatists joined together to win political power and use it effectively. The coalition split in 1912, when Republican Teddy Roosevelt ran against Republican President William Taft, thereby handing the presidency to Woodrow Wilson.

Fast forward one hundred years. Republicans today are in as much disarray as in 1912. How did they get here?

Republicans were largely out of power between FDR’s landslide victory in 1932 and 1980, because Democrats had built their own powerful coalition of Northern liberals from large cities and Southern conservatives. But then Republicans figured out how to build another coalition. It started with the conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. making common cause with Barry Goldwater’s losing campaign in 1964, survived Richard Nixon’s zigzagging and disastrous ending, and came to fruition in the person of Ronald Reagan.

The coalition was made up of economic conservatives and libertarians, patriots who believed America needed a strong foreign policy and military to defeat the “evil empire,” and social conservatives who focused on strong families, the sanctity of life, and traditional standards of right and wrong.

What were the demographics of this coalition which held together (with a few miscues) from 1981 through 2008?  Men, married women, the white working class (Reagan Democrats), and the middle class outside the coastal states. In fact, the coalition was so broad that President Reagan won 49 states in 1984; Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota.

To win, Republicans need voters who care about three crucial groups of issues, which do not necessarily overlap:  a strong economy with robust GDP growth and job creation (smaller government and less regulation); a foreign policy and effective military which projects American power to aid our friends and confound our enemies; and traditional moral values dealing with marriage, intact families, and life, which are vital to healthy communities.

In short, economic conservatives, patriots, and social conservatives!  When these three groups of voters split or fall out, Republicans lose. And to exercise power effectively and hold it at the polls, Republicans within these three groups need to compromise and work together.

This is not rocket science. What is wrong with Republicans in Washington now? Are they so anti-Trump that they want to see their party fail? Are they more interested in grandstanding for the folks back home than accomplishing Republican goals? Are they narcissists like John McCain whose DNA leads him to feel fulfilled only when acting in opposition (to the enemy or his own party)?  (Imagine voting against your own party in the health care debate in the Senate only to receive accolades and hugs from your Democratic opponents.) Are some senators more attached to the Freedom Caucus than their own party? Are key senators so focused on standing for the Presidency in the 2020 elections that they refuse to work within an effective coalition?

Democrats in Washington enforce strict party discipline. It is extremely rare to see a Democratic legislator vote against his or her own party. There are serious consequences for doing so. Not so in the Republican Party! Republicans need to utilize the three-line whip system which is used in the U.K. parliamentary system. A three-line whip is a strict instruction from party leaders that those elected to office in their party must attend and vote with the party. A breach of the three-line whip directive has serious consequences, including preferences in committee assignments and even withdrawal of party support and funds in the next election.

The Republican Party in Washington is pathetic. It is a joke — except that squandering this great opportunity to unwind the eight-year debacle of the Obama administration is more tragic than comic. Republicans need to strengthen the coalition which has given them both houses of Congress and the White House – not fritter it away! The current Republican coalition can maintain power and use it effectively for a long time, if only Republicans in Washington can learn the precious virtue of unity.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3.25 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wellesley, Massachusetts. This column represents his personal views and does not represent the views of the firm. Read other articles by him here.