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New Haven, CT - Much has been said about the Southernisation of the Republican Party, but little about the way Mitt Romney, if he secured the Grand Old Party's presidential nomination, has a chance to wrest control from the party's fringe and restore it to political moderation.
Sure, the GOP is justly viewed as the party of big business, and one of the richest men ever to run for the White House won't change that. But of all the primary candidates, none is more likely to put the brakes on the troubling trend of Southernisation.
I say "troubling" not because I find it so. I'm an observer happy to see the slow unravelling of the Republican Party as it continues to make a fetish of unseating President Barack Obama. Those who find this troubling are establishment Republicans - for the same reasons. That's why TV ads and the right-wing echo-chamber have been blasting away at Newt Gingrich since his surprise victory in South Carolina. Other than George W Bush, no other Republican has done more to move the party southward.
"Southernisation" is used most often to connote geography, but it's more than that. It's an ideology. You can see this when you compare the way the Party of No has obstructed everything the first African-American president of the United States has proposed with the way Southern slave states dominated national politics from Jefferson's presidency to Lincoln's.
If the slave states didn't get federal laws that protected slavery, they'd threaten to blow up the union, which they did with the first shots of Civil War in South Carolina. It was kamikaze politics then and it's kamikaze politics now.
Contemporary notions of right and left
Making things worse is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. That he's running at all suggests an incredible realignment of the stars and planets so that voters who are to the extreme right of the Strom Thurmond and Ayn Rand have a fantastic shot at taking hold of the heart of the Republican Party. Paul's positions don't fit into contemporary notions of right and left, and that's why liberals find him intriguing - he's an anti-war, pro-marijuana Republican.
What liberals don't see is that Paul's platforms are rooted in pre-modernity. Isolationism is the best foreign policy to Paul, and federal power is always tyrannical power. Federal drug enforcement is bad, but so is enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. States are more or less endowed by their Creator to govern themselves in whatever way they please. If that doesn't sound familiar, let me kindly remind you - such was the ideology of the Confederacy.
Southernisation as an ideology is also weakening the party's chances with the US' growing Hispanic population, especially Mexicans. Some have noted rightly that many Hispanics are naturally conservative - hard-working, family-oriented and driven by faith in God.
No such alliance can occur as long as the GOP tolerates guys such as Paul to whom xenophobia and bigotry are the twin pillars of the most reactionary immigration policy proposal since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In addition to walling off the US-Mexican border, Paul would end citizenship for children born in the US to illegal immigrants. Such a move would call into question the citizenship of pretty much everyone in the US, but we know whom he's targeting - aliens and their "anchor babies".
Liberals have long dismissed such fringe thinking as too fantastical to believe, but party Republicans may know something they don't. Even Bob Dole, the quintessential establishment man, is taking shots at Gingrich, his former colleague. Barring a late entry into the race, they know Romney is their best bet.
On some social issues, Romney is more or less a moderate. As a former Wall Street executive, he's naturally uneasy with Tea Party fanaticism. As Mormon, he's naturally unsympathetic with the evangelical Christian right, which takes a dim view, to say the least, of Mormonism.
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As a native Midwesterner and eventual Yankee governor of perhaps the bluest state in the union, his political orientation has never been Southernised. That may go a long way in returning the party its Northeastern patrician roots.
And a Romney nomination (though not a win) might be good for the country. Never in my lifetime has there been so much national discussion over the fundamental unfairness of the US tax system. Progressive Democrats have been saying it, the Occupy Movement has been saying, and billionaires have been saying it, but the GOP is united in its opposition to raising taxes on the one per cent.
Thanks to Gingrich's attacks in South Carolina, Romney was forced to reveal that he pays 14 per cent in taxes. He's worth as much as $250 million, but pays less than what most working families pay.
His returns also revealed investments in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, raising another discussion just getting started - the conditional patriotism of the one per cent. Attention to Romney as a presidential contender will mean attention to these issues.
Florida is more diverse than any state that has thus far held Republican primaries, and its swing voters represent a pretty good cross-section of the country. If Romney pulls off a victory - and the polls suggest he may - the Party of Lincoln may be on its way out of 40 years in the Southern wilderness.
John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.