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The 2012 presidential nomination battle, in addition to potentially picking the next president of the United States, provides a window into the transition of the Republican Party and, more broadly, social categories in our country.

There have been two critical dynamics: The first is a rejection by the broader conservative grassroots of the moderate or establishment of the party. In this election, the establishment is embodied by Mitt Romney, the CEO/Governor candidate who is the son of another CEO/Governor who ran for president from the moderate side of the party. In many ways, the Tea Party phenomenon has been as much a rejection of the establishment of the GOP as much as it has been critical of President Barack Obama. I want to pick up on this thread a little later because it makes the most important backdrop for historical comparisons of this cycle.

The second dynamic is the search for an alternative. The “alternative” slot in both national and state polling has been occupied by a surprising cast of characters. Republicans went through, in order, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. Going through these, one can see incremental maturation in expressions of distaste for both the the GOP and President Obama.

I was struck by an applause line of Herman Cain’s at the fall meeting of the Young Republican National Federation national board. He said that “the political class treats the American people as an underclass.” The national and state leadership of the Young Republicans could hardly be described as alienated from political class – surely most of the room had been mentored by an elected official – but the room burst into applause. This sentiment has been present in all of the emergent candidates who have risen and fell. And in many ways, Ron Paul, who may well win the Iowa Caucus, represents another form of critique in the GOP that makes this same point, albeit with a different cultural and economic focus.

It is this sentiment that Cain points to that I reach for when making a historical comparison. I view the progressive resurgence in the Democratic Party that started in 2003 as a reaction to the Iraq War and a rejection as much of the Democratic leadership which had embraced the war, as much as it was of the leadership of President Bush. In this way, it is the clearer analogy to the Tea Party. This also places it in the broader historical context of battles over directions of parties that have come to fruition in pivotal congressional elections such as 2010 (Tea Party), 2006 (Iraq War), 1994 (the Gingrich Republican Revolution), and 1974 (anti-War and Nixon). (In some ways, one could extend this to 1954 and 1946, although the nature of our parties have shifted so much since then that the comparisons get fuzzy.)

However, when you look at these historical analogies, they happen primarily in congressional mid-term elections, not presidential elections. There are several reasons for this. The most notable is that a candidacy for president requires building large organizations for both money and ground-organizing. Without building deep organizations, campaigns have trouble with basic mechanics like getting on ballots; witness the struggles of Gingrich and Perry in my state of Virginia.

Therefore, 2012, like 2004, is a nomination contest in which the establishment bulwark will in all likelihood hold. In 2004, the insurgent, anti-war movement that would come to fundamentally transform the Democratic Party was led by the somewhat incoherent and disorganized Howard Dean. Dean, a product of the investment banking class of New York, believed in gun rights, balanced budgets, and, until his campaign, raising the retirement age, but also single-payer health care and getting out of Iraq.

In much the same way, it looks like the insurgent Republicans will be represented by either Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry. These are both figures who substantially predate the current battles within the party but have attempted to tap into them. Newt, the most likely standard bearer, is able to accomplish this by a sort of continuous revolution in the mode of Mao Zedong.

In the end, the real story for the future of the party may lie in the 2012 congressional nominations, especially if Mitt Romney is the nominee, as I would expect. Will conservative and Tea Party activists try to make sure that a potential President Romney is forced to the right by House and Senate caucuses? And if Romney loses the general election, will the governors elected in 2010 lead the way in reshaping the party, completing the transformation that began in 2009?

Photo Credit: stevebott