One of the most surprising events of recent years is the death by drowning of polar bears. Polar bears are some of the strongest swimmers in the world of mammals. Why are they drowning? Well, it turns out that that as the polar caps melt, the bears have to go farther and farther from their natural home to find food. Sometimes they make it back safely; sometimes they don’t.
That strikes me as a dilemma unexpectedly similar to what the current crop of Republican candidates face. Most of the undergraduates I teach don’t know this, but for most of the 20th Century, the Republican party was the party of social moderation and fiscal restraint. Republican candidates campaigned by referring to their party that way (the G in GOP meant “grand,” although it is hard to remember it today) and promised that, if elected, they would govern that way.
Then the ice caps began to melt. Party primaries became the principal route to the presidential nomination. Discussions by party elders in smoke-filled rooms were superceded. Then, as the parties became more ideologically consistent, the most extreme fringes of the parties took over the presidential primaries. These extremists have long provided most of the funds and most of the workers for candidates. Funds and volunteers are the food that has traditionally sustained candidates. Where does that leave us?
Any Republican who wants to be president will need to go to where the resources are, just as the polar bears must. The distance between where the party has always lived–the prudent center–and where candidates must now go to get access to those resources has gotten larger and larger, just as it has for the bears. Not all the candidates can manage the growing gap between the governing center and the campaigning resources and more and more of them drown in transit. Actually, some of the best potential candidates decide not to make the trip at all. If only that were an option for the bears!
There are two ways out of this death swim. The party elders, if there are still party elders, will need to recover control of the party and choose candidates who don’t have to swim that far to get to the feeding grounds. That’s probably what will happen eventually, but it isn’t going to be this year. The second is that Republican moderates (and I know there are still Republican moderates because they complain to me that their party has forsaken them) will flow into the primaries and provide resources closer to the natural home of the Republican party. “Closer” means that fewer candidates will drown trying to cross the open ocean between where they live–and where they will have to be if they are going to govern–and where they feed, where they must go if they are to endure the grueling nomination process.
Thinking now only of the political side of this analogy, I think that some Republicans–the elders or the voters–will have to find a way to reverse the global warming that has endangered their party. Either that, or they will need to find a better answer to God’s question to Noah in Bill Cosby’s famous skit: “Noah,” God asks, “How long can you tread water?”