These should be good times to be a Republican. The president and his Democratic allies have had a cruel summer as a tepid recovery and a steady drip of low-level scandals have taken their toll. Obamacare, President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, has been plagued by administrative delays that have raised questions about its long-run viability. The sagas of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have disillusioned at least some members of the liberal intelligentsia, who once believed that the president intended to rein in the national security state. And though the Obama administration has put forward ambitious new policy initiatives in its second term, such as plans for universal pre-school and higher education reform, the Democrats seem too exhausted to do much of anything about them.
Yet clear-eyed Republicans look to the future with trepidation. Even if the GOP makes major gains in next year’s midterm elections, it is no longer very clear what Republicans stand for. We all know that they favor low taxes and celebrate the virtues of the free enterprise system. However, what exactly is the party’s vision for the American future, and how do its members intend to go about realizing it? Without an answer to this question, any political victories will be squandered.

This is not to suggest that there are no visions on offer. The debates currently roiling the GOP get at the heart of the party’s identity. New revelations about domestic surveillance programs have sharpened the division between the party’s resurgent libertarian wing and its national security hawks, with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie playing leading roles. The fight over comprehensive immigration reform has pitted conservatives who see a large increase in less-skilled immigration as a boon against those who fear it will squeeze wages and exacerbate cultural divisions. Likewise, tea party ultras are calling for deep and immediate spending cuts, while other Republicans warn of the political backlash that would follow a government shutdown.

More broadly, the Republicans vying to define the party’s post-Obama future are coalescing around two different tendencies. The first, which grows out of the tea party movement, is a new fusion of economic libertarianism and populist anti-elitism. This tendency is, in theory, as hostile to Wall Street as it is to Washington, and deeply sceptical of technocratic efforts to streamline or fix government. The second, rooted in statehouses across the country, is a reform conservatism that aims to modernize government with an eye toward shoring up families and communities buffeted by economic and cultural change.

At its heart, the clash between the libertarians and the reformers is over the widening opportunity gap that separates Americans with the skills and the networks they need to flourish from those who are languishing on society’s margins.

For most of the Obama years, Republican politicians have been far more focused on debt and deficits than upward mobility, a development perfectly distilled by Mitt Romney’s now-notorious remarks about writing off the “47 percent” who do not earn enough to pay federal income taxes. But with middle-income voters growing more anxious about their economic prospects, the opportunity gap is now too big to ignore.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has emerged as a darling of the right, often speaks of “opportunity conservatism,” a government-shrinking agenda of school vouchers and labor market deregulation designed to better the lives of the poor. Sen. Paul argues in the same libertarian vein, while Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, has been trying to reconcile his free-market ideals with the demands of social justice. What these figures all share is a reluctance to compromise their small government ideals in service to closing the opportunity gap.

In the states, meanwhile, a number of Republican governors, including Mr. Christie, have argued that a stronger safety net is entirely compatible with conservatism properly understood. Christie has angered right-of-centre activists by embracing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Not coincidentally, he has proved to be popular with constituencies Republicans rarely reach, including Latino and black voters. He has also worked with local Democrats to improve the quality of education in the state’s poorest cities. What Mr. Christie has not done yet is offer a broader national reform agenda, one that could offer an intellectually serious alternative to the libertarian conservatism of senators Paul and Cruz. Assuming he wins re-election this fall, Mr. Christie will be in a perfect position to do so.

The libertarians are a better fit for today’s Republican coalition, but the reform movement speaks to the increasingly diverse suburbs and cities that will be key for success in presidential elections. Whichever tendency prevails, it will have major implications for America’s economy and its role in the wider world.

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