Three days after the doggedly buffoonish former Supreme Justice of Alabama Roy Moore beat his Republican primary opponent Sen. Luther Strange, Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois (R) signed a bill passed by his state's Democratic legislature that allows abortions to be funded by Medicaid. Conservatives in the state legislature expressed disappointment, and Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, accused Rauner of breaking a "promise" to veto the bill. Already there is talk of Rauner not running for re-election or facing a primary challenger, who will almost certainly lose.
Moore and Rauner exemplify opposite tendencies in a party that until recently has been noted for its mind-numbing consistency on issues ranging from tax cuts to health care to abortion. Only half a decade ago, the perfect Republican candidate on paper was someone like Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), a lawyer who favors free trade, an absolutist reading of the Second Amendment, and a far less regulated economy; denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change; opposes abortion and same-sex marriage; and flirts with ideas like reviving the gold standard and auditing the Federal Reserve. He's chamber of commerce in the streets, Bible camp righteousness in the sheets.
It would be tempting to say that Moore is a throwback while Rauner is a glimpse at what the future of the GOP might look like. Extensive polling suggests that younger voters who agree with the Republican Party on a wide range of economic issues are either indifferent to or dismissive of its social policies. Rauner's delay in signing the bill was the result of a long process that involved weighing the importance of abortion rights for suburban white women who are otherwise supportive of his agenda of lower taxes, right-to-work, modest infrastructure spending, and term limits; all but one of Chicago's traditionally Republican five collar counties went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Meanwhile the average opponent of same-sex marriage in this country is retired and also opposes cuts to Medicare spending.
But Rauner is actually a decidedly retro politician. He is a throwback to the socially and economically moderate Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Percy, and Lincoln Chaffee. The son of a WASP vice president of a respectable corporation who grew up in a quiet, attractive suburb, Rauner is a graduate of Harvard, and, like Prescott Bush, a generous supporter of Planned Parenthood. He is even Episcopalian. The handsome cardinal-archbishop of a city long under the control of a Democratic political machine calling the Republican governor to express his displeasure with a piece of legislation has a kind of vintage appeal.
The Rockefeller Republican position was not without its charm. Its Keynesian pragmatism on economic questions, its prudence in questions of foreign policy, and above all its commitment to civil rights and absolute indifference to classical liberal ideology made it possible for the GOP to be a more flexible and attractive political party. The lack of interest in Bible thumping was in many ways an incidental reflection of class priorities, not a political position.
Moore, meanwhile, is something very new: a blundering, yawping quixotic champion of reactionary values. The absorption of evangelical values voters into the Republican coalition between the nomination of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan's first inauguration coincided with the party's turn to libertarian economics, but there was no causal relationship between the two. There has never been a point in the history of the post-Reagan Republican Party in which the priorities of Christians have been allowed to interfere with the GOP's commitments to laissez-faire economics. Moore is the lunatic breakout star that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell dreamed of.
To whom does the future of the Republican Party belong, Rauner or Moore? In many ways the GOP's ostensible leader, President Trump, who has made a point of distancing himself from the latter is irrelevant here. This is not only because his political fortunes are not bound up in the success of the party he only recently joined. Trump is a cultural warrior, but the battles he is fighting — for sentimentality about the flag and harder hits in football and the right to make crude jokes about women and the disabled with impunity — are at best tangential to Moore's concerns and in some cases at odds with them. His "conservatism" is spiritually a generation or two removed from church-going. (Whatever their personal and tactical disagreements, his approach is most in line with that of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.) Whether the Republican Party embraces a pro-business, Chamber of Commerce and NCAA-approved moderate social liberalism or continues on the absolutist course charted by Moore is not something that will be up to the president and the party establishment, who would prefer neither.
But there can no longer be a holding pattern. Is abortion murder or a human right that should be guaranteed by the state? Is marriage equality a meaningless neologism or a hard-fought victory for the civil rights movement of our day? What, if any, role should religion play in public life? These, not prudential questions about political economy, are the real fissures in American politics. They are also subjects about which it is increasingly impossible to be vague.