The desertion of a leading Social Conservative in Florida from the Thompson Campaign to the Huckabee camp starkly demonstrates the meltdown of the once powerful Reagan Coalition. It was composed of two of the largest constituencies of the Republican Party that emerged from the confusion of the 60's and the malaise of the 70's - two decades more about the "me" generation and personal gratification than about the principles on which this nation was founded.
The modern Conservative Movement really found it's genesis in 1964 with the ascendency of Barry Goldwater as the Republican Presidential nominee. This wing of the party was hawkish in regards to foreign policy, and willing to confront the Communist threat directly if necessary. They also believed in less government control over the economy, in limited government, less beauracracy, less regulation, lower taxes and spending. This single constituency of the party, however, could not produce a Republican majority in Congress, nor could it get a true Conservative into the White House.
Enter Jerry Falwell. Actually, it was not just Jerry and his Moral Majority founded in 1979, but others like Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, Charles Stanley, etc. who emerged as leaders trying to motivate Christians -- evangelicals, fundalmentalists, pentecostals and charismatics -- to re-engage in the political process. Most Christians in those camps had deserted public politics in the 1920's following the Scopes Monkey Trial and the ascendence of separatist fundamentalism as the most influential movement in the American Church.
Ronald Reagan, who left the Democrat party in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater for President, was the first man to galvanize these two different constituencies as a winning government coalition. Barry Goldwater could not win, and Nixon was not strictly speaking a "Conservative" with the exception of his foreign policy. When Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1976, the coalition had not coalesced around his leadership yet. Many within the "Religious Right," as the second constituency would come to be known, were still not convinced that they should be engaged in the "dirty business" of politics. After four years of Jimmy Carter -- the devastating effects of economic policy failures and recession, the victories of Communism in their quest to conquer the world, the humiliation of our impotence both militarily and diplomatically at the hands of the Iranians -- Republicans from both the Economic/Governmental Conservative wing and the Religious Right wing were beyond ready to work together for common interests and goals. In 1980, it paid off with a Reagan landslide.
In Reagan's terms, the Republicans managed to run the Senate for 6 years, but never captured the House. This made the accomplishment of several goals impossible, though Reagan brought about the greatest era of economic growth and expansion -- as well as strength and patriotism -- since at least WW II. For instance, Reagan restored a 600 ship Navy, turned the tide against the Soviets, and helped reclaim nations once lost to Communist agression. He was never able to balance the budget however, because though he created the greatest tax cuts since the creation of the tax system which doubled revenue over 8 years, the Congress failed to keep their promise not to spend more than the treasury took in. Reagan is often blamed for the deficits of the 80's, but they were primarily the doing of the Democrat House. Reagan only failed to stand up to them by being willing to veto their spending and shut down the government to enforce budget cuts.
Bush 41 undid several of the things Reagan accomplished, increasing taxes which produced a recession, and increasing spending in agreement with the Democrat Congress. While he maintained the US image of military strength as evidenced by the victory in the Gulf war in 1991, he allowed the massive downsizing of the military in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. While the "peace dividend" was nice, it was an illusory peace which caused the US to drop its gaurd. The trend to gut our military continued during the Clinton years, and set the country up for the current conflict with Islamofascism. IN a real way, the "success" of the Clinton years economically were the combination of several factors that worked together, and were largely the product of a Republican Congress, which came into power in 1995 -- mostly the result of their return to the principles of Ronald Reagan -- not "bipartisanship" and capitulation to liberalism.
The 90's were characterized by the Tech boom, the monetary policy of plenty of cash and low interest rates to go around, the fiscal restraint of the Republican Congress, the drastically cut military budget, and the risk Clinton took by refinancing the national debt with short term bonds -- a bet that, had interest rates actually increased in the 3-5 years terms, would have bankrupted the nation. Instead, the rates declined, and the deficit began to do the same. These elements balanced the budget by 1999 -- something Clinton could never have done had he not gotten lucky and had a Reaganesque Congress that forced his hand.
When the Republican Congress began to fail in living by the principles of Reagan, they began to lose political traction. Though they failed to stand up to Clinton at several key points in the 1990's -- particularly when Clinton shut down the Government in 1995 to KEEP liberal spending and social programs in place, and when they FAILED to impeach and remove him from office in accordance with the Constitution in 1998/99 -- the Republicans decline really came in the wake of 9/11 and the 2002 elections. Republicans seemed to believe they were entrenched in power, and they began to use that excuse to spend money -- like the Democrats had. They used the pain of the country after 9/11 and the pride of their political dominance to delude themselves into believing that Conservatives would desert their principles to keep their "power," or else to persuade liberals that they could spend on social programs and earmarks just as well as the Democrats. In 2006, the Republicans discovered they were WRONG.
Which brings us to the present, sorry state of the Republican party. Many of the "party regulars," the "country club" Republicans who had never bought into Conservatism ala Reagan (think Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, Arlen Spectre, etc...) are quite content to remain a permanent minority -- as they had been from the 1950's to the 1980's. Many of the economic/government Conservatives have been transformed, or maybe I should say they have degenerated, into country clubbers or status quo politicians who desire to hold on to personal power more than to advance an agenda and save the nation. Many of the Christians once engaged in the political arena have turned their back on the process once again, taking the head-in-the-sand position that we can't change anything and that's not part of our job description as Christians anyway. What error, what willful ignorance. And those who remain firmly involved in the process have been marginalized by not just the liberal media and Democrats, but by former allies among Republicans, who now call them fanatics, extremists and parasites.
We don't know the direction this election year will take. We can conclude that the era of Reaganism is all but dead -- and most of those who were once identified as Republicans are glad to see it go. The nomination of a McCain or a Huckabee, or even a Guiliani, would assure its demise. First, because that ticket would, if elected, be liberal on economic policies like taxes, spending, entitlement spending and programs, and ever growing government - no different than Democrats. Second, because that ticket would almost certainly gaurantee the election of a Democrat President, while expanding the Democrat majority in Congress (a practical certainty anyway).
The question then becomes, "What Next?" Will there be a Republican Party after this years approaching debacle? Will the US be able to withstand a wholly Democrat government for 4 years, much less 8? Could our political system even collapse -- because, if the Clintons return to power, ya gotta know, they'll never let it go again. What next?
I'm keeping my powder dry folks, and my foxhole too. And man, am I praying these days!