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How 2 Powerful Streams Of Republicanism Are Headed For Cleveland

Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argue a point during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre in Detroit earlier this month.
Paul Sancya
Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argue a point during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre in Detroit earlier this month.

Where powerful streams converge, there will be turbulence. That applies to politics as well as to waterways.

Right now, two powerful streams of Republicanism in our time are converging on Cleveland and threatening to define the party's national convention in July.

One of these streams is like a historic river, long settled in its course. The other is more like a flood, surging beyond its banks to render the landscape unrecognizable.

Ted Cruz, the uber-conservative senator from Texas, has emerged as the candidate of the old-school stream, which now carries him toward a confrontation with Donald Trump, the man who unleashed the pent-up force of the new flood.

History is in the balance. It has become almost a commonplace to say the coming clash in Cleveland may determine not only the 2016 nominee but the survival of the Republican Party as we know it.

History is also the backdrop against which this battle will be fought, providing insight into the process and the outcome.

The Cruz forces in the party are the recognizable heirs of its Regulars of generations ago. Their beliefs have been the bedrock for the Grand Old Party since it started calling itself that in the 19th century.

Their credo prizes individual liberty over government programs and regulations. They are ever-respectful of states and suspicious of Washington. They detest taxes and have no use for labor unions. They are steeped in traditional social values, faith-based religion and commitment to a strong national defense.

These legacy conservatives fought the party's progressives a century ago, resisting also the New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s. Sometimes labeled the "Old Right," or "paleo-conservatives," they have kept their flame alive through decades when the party typically chose centrists or moderate conservatives for president who were acceptable to the party establishment.

(Explore a century of intra-party convention wars here.)

In the current Congress, the revival of old-school conservatism is alive in the Freedom Caucus, a relatively new alliance of about 40 mostly junior members. In the fall of 2013, when the government shut down for 16 days over funding for Obamacare, members of the Freedom Caucus huddled with one newly elected freshman senator to plot strategy.

That senator was Ted Cruz.

Trump's Legion

But present day Republicanism is also driven by a host of newer arrivals, visible in the thousands crowding into Trump's rallies and the millions following Trump on Twitter. Surely the Trump phenomenon has to do with his highly personal brand and media magnetism, but the voters he represents are not simply a personality cult.

Many of them trace their "roots" as Republicans back no farther than the Tea Party movement that arose in response to the first months of President Obama's first term. Others may have come to the GOP during its growth spurt in the Ronald Reagan era, when the Republican tent expanded to welcome "Reagan Democrats."

For decades, Southern voters who preferred Reagan or Richard Nixon, continued to vote Democratic for other offices. But that changed in 1994, when in one midterm election the "Solid South" went from having a majority of Democratic governors, senators and members of Congress to having Republican majorities in all three categories. And the GOP has held on to those majorities ever since, adding majorities in state legislatures as well.

These newer Republicans, whether Reagan era or drawn to Trump, tend to be working people and business people who have gravitated to the Republican Party as they aged and as the parties changed.

They are predominantly older, white and Anglo, and most of them are men. They come from all levels of education and affluence, but many do not have college degrees or high incomes.

And whatever their backgrounds, they are as much a part of the Grand New Party as their more ideologically orthodox cousins who have been there for generations.

The new arrivals do not necessarily disagree with the old-school GOP on any of its basic tenets, but they are much more recent in their association with the party — and potentially more transient as well. Their energy comes not so much from roots and principles as from their reaction to immediate issues and pressures.

They feel their economic security and cultural comfort level being threatened by immigration and greater diversity, by social change and activist government. When they hear Trump say "make America great again," they hear a promise of their own personal restoration — individually and as a group.

History Of Conflict

This new conflict, between the parties of Cruz and Trump, draws from deep wells of resentment and dissent within Republicanism — feelings that may be reinforced by personal rivalries based in region and personality, as well as ideology.

At one time, the party had a robust progressive wing that supported President Theodore Roosevelt and often worked with like-minded Democrats in Congress.

Later, there were Republicans, often called the Eastern Establishment, who shared some of the goals of the New Deal in the 1930s and stood with relatively centrist presidents of both parties (Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower) in the 1940s and 1950s.

In this era, the term "liberal Republican" was not an oxymoron. In 1964, four of five Republicans in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act. Republican votes defeated the filibuster by southern Democrats in the Senate.

But thereafter, the party of Lincoln experienced a sea change. The pivotal moment came in 1964, when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater broke from his own party's Senate leaders to vote against the Civil Rights Act. One month later, the Republican Party's national convention nominated for him president.

In November, Goldwater carried just six states, his home state and five in the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina) that were disillusioned with President Lyndon Johnson for ending racial segregation.

Goldwater lost, but the party's new focus on the South survived. In 1968, Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination and embarked on what was called a "Southern Strategy." One symbol of the shift was party switcher Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Dixiecrat who had run against his own Democratic president as the "States Rights Party" nominee in 1948. In 1964, the Republican Nixon claimed most of the states of the Confederacy. He would win them all four years later.

When Ronald Reagan became the face of the Republican Party in the 1980s, he smiled even more broadly on the South, launching his first campaign as the GOP nominee from Mississippi with praise for the code phrase "states rights."

The states of the South, together with the Mountain States, became the base of the "Republican lock" on the White House in that era — and remain its best source of electoral votes today. Since the 1990s, the same states have been home base for Republican majorities in Congress as well.

The racial overtones of the party divide have since become even more unmistakable. Black voters deserted the GOP nationwide even as white voters, especially white men, felt increasingly at home there. This has intensified in the Obama years, expressing itself in the "birther" challenge to Obama's citizenship and in elements of the Tea Party uprising as well. When asked about the birther issue, even prominent Republican officials typically said they "didn't know" whether Obama was born in the U.S. or not.

Among those who kept talking up the birther story longest was Donald Trump.

Effect On 2016

Some moderates do remain in Republican ranks. Some polls suggest as many as 30 percent of Republicans might self-identify as moderates or moderate conservatives. Some support abortion rights and same sex marriage, and their views on immigration may be as varied as the nation's.

But in the 2016 presidential primaries, this center-right fraction of the party has been nearly invisible amid the media attention to Trump and a few rival conservatives.

Beyond that, the old establishment has been without a hero to rally around. Jeb Bush, scion of the party's last dynastic family, did not make it to Super Tuesday.

John Kasich, the Ohio governor, is one of the last four contenders standing, and could reasonably be called a fallback for the party's vestigial center-right. But at this point, Kasich appears in the running primarily as a prospective running mate.

This lack of a horse for the establishment (or moderates, or moderate conservatives) to ride demonstrates how the intraparty wars have moved. The new competition is between kinds of conservatives: basically, between conservatives old and new.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for

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