Will Republican Party Go the Way of Whigs?

In 1831, Henry Clay formed a new political party which he dubbed the Whigs. It was founded on the principles of state sovereignty and a strong, yet small, limited, national government. They were the conservatives of their era and over the next 20 years elected four presidents and exercised major control of both Houses of Congress. Its membership included great American figures such as Zachary Taylor, Daniel Webster and a relatively obscure Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

The future looked bright for the Whigs until the issue of slavery threatened to tear the country asunder. As the nation divided, so did the Whigs – Southern Whigs were slave owners; Northern Whigs were industrial gurus who opposed slavery.

Failing to fully appreciate the ominous fractures appearing in their party, the Whigs embarked on a fruitless quest to reach compromise, both politically (by nominating bland, boring presidential candidates) and legislatively (by supporting such controversial laws as the Fugitive Slave Act and the Missouri Compromise). By 1854, the Whig Party had irrevocably split – the Northern Whigs joined the new upstart Republican Party and the Southern Whigs joined the Democrats. By 1860, a scant six years later, the ascendant Republican Party had elected Abraham Lincoln as president.

Ancient history? Maybe not.

Let’s consider: At the national level, present day Republicans have lost four of the last six presidential elections and recently challenged Barack Obama with moderate Republican establishment candidates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney who failed to engender much excitement among the party base or the American people as a whole. Contrast this with the landslide of the off-year-election of 2010 in which the Republicans, fueled by Tea Party enthusiasm, restored Republicans as a national party, captured control of the House, gained seats in the Senate, and showed great strength in statehouse elections nationwide.

Many of us saw the ideological lines being drawn. Establishment Republicans versus Tea Party Republicans.

The Republican establishment appears wedded to a political philosophy which some describe as Democrat-lite. And the Tea Party loyalists appear just as committed to a kind of Conservative-Libertarianism. Neither faction seems inclined toward rapprochement.

Let’s take a glimpse at a segment of the front lines of this struggle:

In Kentucky, Matt Bevin, a 46-year-old investment executive with Tea Party support, is challenging the venerable Minority Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, for his seat in 2014. Mr. Bevin has criticized the Republican leader for “surrender” in the recent deal with Democrats that ended the government shut-down. McConnell is fighting back by enlisting support from Tea Party darlings, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, showing how complicated this political combat can be.

In South Carolina, three Republican candidates, all seeking Tea Party support, are challenging Lindsay Graham for his Senate seat. Senator Graham has often aligned himself with John McCain in criticizing the Tea Party caucus in Congress, McCain going so far as to label some Tea Party loyalists as “wacko birds!”

Attempting to create a counter-balance to the Tea Party attempts to oust moderate Republicans, Karl Rove, “The Architect” of George W. Bush’s successful elections, has formed The Conservative Victory Project, a spin-off from Rove’s Crossroads groups. It is a PAC which Rove describes as a funding mechanism to aid “conservatives who can win.” Tea Party backers, however, see the move as a none-too-veiled attempt on the part of the Republican establishment to marginalize, if not outright purge the Republican Party of the Tea Party movement. “This is a little bit like gang warfare right now,” said Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, a conservative non-profit group.

Many fear that the resulting clash of two well-funded factions of the Republican Party in primaries around the nation would drain resources, produce weakened nominees and set back the GOP’s chances to retake the Senate and protect its House majority.

Such an internecine struggle in the off-year elections in 2014 might cause the final rift between the moderate Establishment wing of the GOP and its Tea Party conservative wing. Many see such a schism as inevitable, however, since the two party wings appear divided over so many issues such as fiscal reform, immigration, foreign policy and even the extent of government’s role in our economy.

The American people seem disgusted with both parties at the present. The inability of the parties to deal with the recent government shutdown has even spurred renewed interest in a third party. A Gallup Poll run amid the recent government log-jam revealed that 60 percent of Americans say that both the Democrat and Republican parties do a poor job of representing the American people and a third major party is needed. That is the highest percentage Gallup has measured in the 10-year history of this question. And since polls also consistently show that more Americans identify themselves as conservative rather than liberal, it appears likely that any third party which would emerge would lean to the right.

Will the Grand Old Party go the way of the Whigs? Can its differences be reconciled? We will have to see. But one thing is certain; 2014 will be a very, very interesting year to watch!

Guest columnist Bonenberger is an attorney who lives and practices in Wheeling.