Republicans have shown a remarkable ability to unite after primaries and conventions. The patchwork quilt skillfully sewn has, for the most part, held fast. No better proof was Robert Dole's ability to win the South against Bill Clinton in 1996 despite having very little cultural appeal. South Carolina, as well, during nomination struggles usually rallied around the moderate conservative, be it Dole, George W. Bush or John McCain.
But the unusually taut steadfastness of the GOP regulars might be wearing thin. Take South Carolina, for instance, which for years was a primary firewall for Republicans. This year, they chose Newt Gingrich and extended the Republican primary season. Even Mississippi, whose tendencies have been decidedly to pick "a winner" rather than a "choice," chose Rick Santorum. This from a state whose chairman, Clarke Reed, managed to frustrate Ronald Reagan twice in 1968 and 1976 by throwing votes to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. This year, they rejected "Mr. Right" Mitt Romney and picked the insurgent.
When GOP began to take over the South, elements of the former minority Republicans still restrained the ex-conservative Democrats who flooded into the party. In the main, these were business-oriented votes who never particularly liked the rural Democratic constituencies. Urbane and often socially liberal, they lived politically beside religious conservatives who embraced traditional themes. Many blanched while their new allies inveighed against gambling, shopping on the Sabbath and any new trends in sexuality. Collectively believing in small government, both agreed on that key point and for years that was enough. But with the issue of gay marriage taking center stage, many Christian-right voters drew the line and no longer took traditional family values for granted.
Yet their more commerce-concerned friends tried to explain away social threats by attacking Obama care and in the case of Donald Trump tried to revive the old chestnut of the birth certificate. Romney behaved as if all southern concerns were cosmetic and tried to paper them over with declaring his fondness for grits and saying "y'all." Clearly when the counting house failed to dominate the discussion, Romney decidedly preferred to talk about other issues.
National conservative Republicans were never comfortable with Southern Democratic defectors. Goldwater, in 1964, explained his shift on Civil Rights - having voted for bills in 1957 and 1960 - in pragmatic terms, yet went "hunting where the ducks were." Consequently, rural Southern whites were a bit queasy about the Republican alliances.
"We took four states for Goldwater in 1964," stated Augusta, Ga., editor Roy Harris, "and hell we didn't like him. He voted against the Civil Rights Act and we just showed our appreciation."
Some of these erstwhile segregationists loved "big government" as long as its rewards flowed to them in the forms of agricultural subsidies and military bases.
But what complicated this shot-gun alliance was the Christian Right. They actually believed that faith and morality trumped commerce or any other consideration. Traditionalists like North Carolina's Jesse Helms were wary of the explosion of Walmart's shopping centers and the materialist culture they left in their wake. Preferring local chain stores and the relative stability of small town life, they tolerated rather than welcomed big business. It was Democrats like Bill Clinton who declared, "it's the economy, stupid"; while Christian voters retorted, "it is the community, stupid." Romney, Dole, George W. and McCain murmured sympathy for the old values while proposing policies that would gradually retire them as important civic consideration.
Santorum rallied these traditionalists and shook up Republicans. Given his lifestyle, he simply was more convincing than the jaded Gingrich. For his campaign, he chose to highlight non-economic themes. Romney, sophisticated about world finance, made little effort to revive an America that he has helped to weaken. Business politicians care little about the past and more about the future - even if that future may lack strong cultural struts. For the first time since 1964, two visions of Republicanism confront each other and they appear to be at the beginning stage of a gradual and painful divorce.