A Coalition of Conviction

Kate O’Beirne points out a fundamental truth of American politics: the need to build coalitions among groups who hold disparate views.

Republicans were mocked when popular social liberals Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger were showcased to make their party’s case on national security and economic opportunity at the national convention in New York. What Democrats saw on the podium were dissident Republican politicians with enlightened views on abortion and gay marriage who had been enlisted in order to deceive voters; what we were all actually looking at was the makings of a successful majority party.

The moderate Republicans who spoke at the convention are at home in their conservative, pro-life party and represent countless others who share their views on such issues as foreign policy, tax rates or tort reform. Political parties are coalitions, and elections are won when a self-confident party can remain faithful to its core principles while appealing to voters with different priorities. President Bush’s success exemplifies that approach: He is unapologetically opposed to abortion but passes no judgment on those who disagree with him and encourages them to find common cause with him elsewhere. Last year, Sen. John Kerry was calling pro-lifers “the forces of intolerance.”

This is a tough balance, to be sure. Certainly, trying to outlaw abortion is “passing judgment.” Yet people can disagree on important issues but still work together if they agree on most other issues. The Republicans, using a formula that worked well in the 1980s, managed to build a working majority by finding common ground between cultural conservatives and foreign policy hawks, groups that don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. The 1990s were an aberation, in that national security was not perceived as a major issue between the end of the Cold War and 9/11.

The Democrats have long had a slightly larger support base but it has been one that is very fragmented. Blacks and Hispanics tend to be rather religious and some will peel off to the Republicans on social issues. Blue collar union voters are very patriotic and are turned off by Democratic leaders who rail against a war where we have troops on the ground. While libertarian-leaning Republicans–and, increasingly, fiscal conservatives–have been frustrated with the leadership of the GOP, they have generally not been willing to vote for Democrats.

This isn’t necessarily a permanent condition. A more hawkish Democrat might have been able to beat President Bush, who was certainly vulnerable on the war and the economy. Further, majority parties tend to either get too cocky (and thus buy into the hype that the electorate gave them a mandate to be very ideological) or stay in power too long and run out of fresh ideas.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    I personally think we could have been talking about president-elect Liberman right now if the whacky left did not control the primary system.

  2. Exercise for the reader: square Ms. O’Beirne’s comments here with those above. Sounds to me like the “big tent” is to be seen, but not heard.

  3. Paul says:

    Chris, I’m not sure they are somehow mutually exclusive. She openly acknowledges on the piece James quotes that it is, at its core, a conservative party. Wanting conservative judges is a natural extension of that.

    Certainly it would be impossible to find a judge with views in perfect sync with everyone in either party. You can appeal to a base while still trying to “build coalitions among groups who hold disparate views.”

    As James says it is a balance, lean to far to the right and the Dems pick up power. The key to long term success (of the party) is to keep these disparate groups happy. That requires compromise but does not, I hope, require one to lose their core values.

  4. Kathy K says:

    What Paul said. I voted this time on security issues. If Republicans lean too far to the right, I expect that many of the other moderates, Independents, and small ‘l’ libertarians, who just voted for Bush, will be voting Democratic in two years.