“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
One hundred and fifty-seven years ago, the first Republican president of the United States uttered those words to a crowd of nearly one thousand delegates at the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois.
Today, those words sum up the fate of the political party that president did so much to build and shape. The Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt and Reagan is being torn asunder. Open ridicule from those who tend to refuse party labels, instead calling themselves “conservative,” is heaped upon Republican leaders in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. The conservative media, as they have long been wont to do, have shaped Republican opinion against their party, and are laughing all the way to the bank. Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant and Henry Raymond have been replaced by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Mark Levin. The anger, vitriol and hate is poured forth not at our opponents in the Democracy (as those in Lincoln’s era referred to what Limbaugh and Levin derisively call the Democrat Party), but at our own leaders.
We now find ourselves in the midst of a great choosing, with over a dozen candidates vying to be the banner carrier of the Party of Lincoln. In the lead is a man who is no Republican. Following closely behind, nipping at his heels, is the Stephen Douglas of the GOP – a little giant from Texas whose debating ability is second only to his hubris. Those who would normally be looked to for leadership are derided and figuratively spat upon. Despite having one of the widest and deepest benches of solid candidates since 1860, we remain no closer to choosing a candidate, and the Party remains fragmented and fighting with one another.
Lincoln stated in his “House Divided” speech that he did not predict the Union could remain permanently half free and half slave. It would have to become either all one, or all the other. He was right.
Today, we face a similar fate for the GOP – there simply does not appear to be any middle ground between the various factions of the Party. Those in the Tea Party and their abettors in the conservative media seem adamantly opposed to any form of compromise that does not give them entirely what they desire, whether it is the impossible or simply the ill-advised. Those in the libertarian wing openly flaunt their unwillingness to stand by the Party when it does things they disagree with, going so far as to run and support third party candidates that have cost Republicans victories, most recently in the 2013 gubenatorial race here in Virginia. The establishment continues its long-held style of incremental victories, winning small battles as they come. Yet even in those victories, they are hampered by poor decisions – like pandering to nativists and promising things they know they cannot achieve – and an inability to articulate why their version of governing is the correct one for the times.
The result is a GOP more fractured than many have seen in generations. Not since the 1976 election, with Ford carrying the banner of the establishment, Rockefeller the liberal flag, and Reagan the conservatives, has the GOP been as split as we are today. And nobody has to remind us what happened in 1976 – the Democrats nominated one of the weakest Presidents in the modern era – and won.
2016 is a pivotal year – not simply because it represents the first open Presidential race in eight years. Elections come and go, and every candidate views this election as the most important in history, but today’s GOP is at a crossroads. The importance of this election truly cannot be understated. The future – some may even say the existence – of our party is at stake We can either choose to mend fences, stop fighting with one another and move forward solidly behind a nominee who can unite the Party and win in November, or we can see a repeat of 1976 and allow Hillary Clinton the office she has so openly slavered for her entire adult life.
There are no easy solutions. Some will not be happy until every Republican elected leader fails. The fickleness of some in our party today knows no bounds. Conservative and grassroots hero Trey Gowdy went from being a lauded titan for taking on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to being accused of high treason for calling Marco Rubio a conservative – losing all he had gained in less than a day. Those who are the greatest heroes to some also happen to be the least effective in governing. And those who can govern and pass bills are invariably attacked and demands are made for their political heads.
As Lincoln said in the first sentence of his “House Divided” speech, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
Unfortunately, there are few in the Republican Party today who can answer any of those questions. It is hard to say where we are – some would say we are in a good position, controlling the House and Senate and a majority of the governorships of the several states, where others would claim that we are nowhere because our leadership in many of those places are faux-conservatives who do nothing but Barack Obama’s bidding. Whither we are tending is an even more difficult question. There are those, like me, who claim that we are living in a golden age and America’s best days remain ahead of us, while there are others who claim America has so fallen from where she used to be that we need to make her great, again. As a result, the questions of what to do and how to do it remain as elusive as a nominee for President appears to be today.
No one today can say for sure what 2016 will bring. It could be the start of a new era for the GOP, or it could see the party finally fall apart. We could win in November and end the Clinton dynasty, or we could perpetuate it. We could nominate the first populist since Theodore Roosevelt and watch as we lose the House and Senate at the same time. Or we could nominate a compromise candidate and come up short, as we did in 2008 and 2012.
Hard to see, the future is. Some might say it is clouded by the dark side, but they probably have just seen that new movie a few too many times. In the end, the future remains what we make of it.
Regardless of where you stand, we must all recognize Lincoln’s biblical allusion remains as true today as it did when Mark first puts those words to paper. Whatever happens, the current state of the GOP must be mended. If not, this party will not long endure.