Grover Norquist, the conservative Washington operative, has a compelling theory about declining Republican prospects in the blowout belt. Those states have been dominated by “Lincoln Republicans,” he says. The party created in Northern states by Abraham Lincoln believed in fighting slavery and preserving the Union. Once those goals were achieved, it had no ideology, no set of firm beliefs. It became an establishment party, thriving on power and patronage. In a bad Republican year like 2006, such a party has little pull with average voters, Norquist says.

He contrasts Lincoln Republicans with Reagan Republicans in southern, prairie, and western states. The Republican party that grew up in those states in recent decades was based on conservative beliefs. And this ideology holds Reagan Republicans together in good years and bad, Norquist says. Indeed, Democrats have mounted few serious challenges this year in the South, where Reagan Republicans are strongest. ~Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard

Chait at The Plank has fun with this one, and points out the oddity of modern Republicans–Barnes and Norquist, not exactly neo-Confederates themselves–using Lincoln’s name in a disparaging way.  Serious conservatives of old (and some still around today) frequently disparaged Father Abraham and rejected the politics that he represented; to the extent that the GOP really was always the Party of Lincoln, conservatives are hard-pressed to ever find a real place in it, since our tradition via the Agrarians and Bradford ties us to the Antifederalists, Jeffersonian Republicans, Southern Democrats and Populists.  At each stage of our history, the revolutionary forces of consolidation wanted to transform and do violence to the settled order of American life and sought to damage the constitutional order as well.  At each stage serious conservatives opposed them and their works, whether it was the Bank, the American System, internal improvements, Yankee imperialism or post-War overseas empire and the corrupt rule of the moneyed interest. 

There were, of course, decent Federalists who took their commitments to the Constitution seriously when Democratic-Republicans began abusing their power (John Adams was generally a model of restraint and good government; my distant cousin William Plumer stood up to Jefferson’s illegal land grab of 1803 and tried to get New England to secede, unfortunately to no avail for all concerned), and some decent Whigs were unwilling to pursue the politics of consolidation as far as others, but if “Lincoln Republican” means anything it refers to the post-1865 Republican stranglehold imposed on the country by the post-War arrangements of power, Radical Republicanism and a century of relative dominance in places like Ohio, the land of Garfield, Harding and the ultimately ill-fated Taft dynasty.  The Red Republicans of today could only dream of the sort of dominance the real ”Lincoln Republicans” had after the War of Secession.  To say that those people had no “ideology” or ideas is untrue–their idea was an energetic central government working in tandem with corporations towards a nationalist goal of consolidated, quasi-democratic, quasi-oligarchic government in a united, integrated nation-state.  Which is, more or less, what modern Republicans seem to want even to this day (the main change being that corporations now embrace “free trade” rather than the tariff and so the corporate party has likewise embraced it).  In the 19th century, corruption was the inevitable product of massive centralisation of power, military occupation of an entire section of the country and the influence of the moneyed interest on the ruling party (the concentration of power and wealth always breeds corruption of both a generic and a Walpolean kind), but it flowed from the ruling party’s ideas of how to govern–it did not just accidentally happen because the party suffered from ideological drift.  Bob Ney’s corruption was not just some isolated accident–it was part and parcel of the means by which the GOP sought to consolidate their hold on power.         

It was only ten years ago that Bob Dole lectured us about how the GOP was the Party of Lincoln and anybody who didn’t like it could get out right now.  I got the hint when I was still just 17 and never joined the Party of Corporations, Corruption and Consolidation.  Weaver’s argument from definition notwithstanding, Lincoln was certainly no conservative or, if he was a conservative, I would not want to have anything to do with such a conservatism. 

But now Norquist would have us believe that the name Lincoln in connection with the GOP summons up the image of bloated corruption and lack of vision–who knew?  (Surely the trouble with the real “Lincoln Republicans” was that they always had a little too much vision!)  But it is a little weird to find leading GOP types blame failure across the Midwest on the “Lincoln Republicans” who allegedly have no conservative beliefs.  Tell it to John Hostettler and Ken Blackwell, among others, who are probably more conservative on a bad day than Grover Norquist will ever be, but who face electoral doom in some part because the modern-day Lincoln in the White House has stirred up a lot of resentment against the party through his failed and reckless policies.  Compare the two for a moment and see why quite a lot of folks across the Midwest are disillusioned with the ruling party.  War of aggression?  Check.  Violations of the Constitution?  Check.  Sending Americans to die in an unjust war?  Check and check. 

The problem the GOP is having in the Midwest is not that its members there lack conservative convictions (which could be a liability in some parts of the Midwest, depending on where we’re talking about) or at least some guiding philosophy, but that it is the GOP.  Those areas in the South and West dominated by more conservative, “Reagan Republicans” are more likely to remain loyal to the GOP because these people remain convinced that there is some basic harmony between the party and conservatism, when the party’s history and its interests tell a very different story.  Regardless, many people in the Midwest are becoming reacquainted with the opposition between Republican rule and good government.  It is that, and not any lack of strong conviction or ideas, that has badly injured the GOP in the Midwest and the North generally.