The GOP’s Generational Divide

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at Basalt Public High School in Colorado Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Phot

The GOP convention that just wrapped up in Tampa was meant to convey a coming together of the Republican Party behind its presidential nominee. For the most part, it succeeded. Speechwriters put obvious, strenuous effort into attempts to “humanize” Mitt Romney, which probably won’t do much to change the overall impression that he’s awkward and somewhat remote. Delegates still seemed more animated by their opposition to Barack Obama than by any particular enthusiasm for their own candidate. Even so, Romney accomplished his most important task: shaking off the pettiness of the primaries and his summer struggles to emerge as the clear leader of his party.

But four days of talking with delegates, activists, and politicians made it clear that this apparently unified front obscures a deep tension at the party’s core that Romney is trying to straddle.

On one side are the more ideological members, who want Romney to make a direct, forceful case for conservative governance. They’re led by a generation of younger politicians, including governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. This is the real source of the party’s energy. The combination of the weak economy and the recent success of several aggressive Republican governors (Walker and Christie prominent among them) has convinced this faction that they need to strike now.

On the other side are the more politically minded members of the party, notionally committed to the same objectives but more alert to the risks of laying them out directly. Romney is chief among this group, which also includes such figures as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. They, too, see the economy’s weakness as a tantalizing opportunity to gain power, but they approach that opportunity with a mind-set geared toward not blowing it.

On occasion this week, the tension peeked through. Christie’s speech promising that as president, Romney “will tell us the hard truths” was one such example. In fact, Romney has been allergic to saying anything of substance.

An exchange I had with Walker laid out this tension even more clearly. Walker wants to address the cost of Medicare and is admirably forthright about the trade-offs inherent in reform: namely, that seniors must eventually accept reduced benefits to keep the program solvent. The Wisconsin governor thinks the country is ready for this debate “because, in the end, what do our parents care about more than anything?” he said. “More than Medicare, more than Social Security, more than anything else, they care about their grandchildren.”

But Romney is ducking that debate and would even worsen Medicare’s cost problem by undoing $716 billion of cuts contained in the new health-care law. “Those are specifics,” Walker conceded, “that the campaign would have to talk about a little more.”

As with so much else in Romney’s career, his choice of vice president is an attempt to have it both ways. Paul Ryan is a hero to the party’s ideological wing for his genuinely aggressive budgets. In choosing Ryan, Romney was seeking to associate himself with the boldness of those plans, while at the same time disavowing many of the details contained within them.

Not coincidentally, this tension presented itself most clearly in the hypocrisies of Ryan’s speech, since, by virtue of becoming Romney’s running mate, he recently defected from the ideological camp to the political-pragmatist camp: Ryan condemned Obama for “raiding” Medicare, without revealing that his own recent budget contained identical cuts; attacked the stimulus, even though he sought funds for his own district; and denounced Obama for ignoring the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission, despite having been a member of the commission and voting against the recommendations.

Political conventions are officially about anointing the nominee, but they also serve as an important venue for future presidential hopefuls to jockey for position. Christie’s call for “hard truths,” Paul’s call to cut defense spending, and Walker’s blunt explication of what’s at stake in entitlement reform all suggest that if Romney loses, the ideological wing of the party will gain the upper hand.

Ryan is also on the short list of GOP presidential hopefuls. But while his speech won mostly glowing reviews from conservative commentators, it’s hard to imagine he won’t pay a price for switching sides in the event of a Romney loss.

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