Is the Republican Party ready to lead America again?

Republican presidential candidates take part in a televised TV debate

What do the primaries reveal about the state of the Republican Party in the US? Is the party really split? As Super Tuesday approaches, former BBC North America editor Justin Webb asks what Republican voters really want.

The former British Prime Minister John Major tells a story about soundbites. He was visiting Boris Yeltsin in Moscow when Yeltsin was president of a fast-collapsing Russia.

It was the early 1990's and things were bad. To make conversation Mr Major asks Mr Yeltsin a question.

"In a word, Boris, what is the state of your nation?"

"In a word: good!"

The Prime Minister felt a fool. He had been fobbed off in front of his civil servants with an answer that was patently wrong. So he tried again:

"What is the longer version of that, Boris?"

"Not good!"

Mr Major's story came back to me as I began this investigation of the modern day Republicans. The short soundbite version of their state at the moment is that they are, in a word, fractured.

The primaries have been bitterly fought. The main candidates seem to have little respect for each other, to put it mildly. The primary voters have failed to find a front-runner and rally round him - which in the past was the Republican way.

It is all - as US journalist Joe Klein recently put it - "a victorless crime". And what is the longer version of that, Boris?

Well it is the opposite: un-fractured. United. In fact, united as never before according to virtually all the contributors I spoke to forRadio 4's Analysis.

More united than ever

Henry Olsen of the conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) puts it like this: "The party is more unified on general principles - first order policies - than it has been in my lifetime."

Whether this unity is good for the Republicans is another matter of course.

Political writer Michael Lind left the party because he sees its modern unity as toxic. Too much based on the values of the deep south of the USA - and in particular a visceral and unquenchable dislike of any government by anyone, of anyone.

"The thing that holds together the modern Republican party is opposition to the government," says Mr Lind.

"What's happened in the last generation is that the conversion of conservative southern Democrats to the Republican party is almost complete.

"And in converting, they have not simply added a constituency to the party, but they've pretty much taken it over and they dominate the base and also the congressional delegation."

The Lind thesis has been rather supported by events in recent days.

The moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe has decided not to run again in her northeastern base of Maine.

Her Senate seat will almost certainly be taken by a Democrat in the November election, so the geographical and intellectual separation of the Republican party from the northeast takes another step.

So what does the modern, southern-dominated Republican party actually want to do? What would it demand of a Republican president and congress were the party to take power after November?

Working-class Republicans

The central issue for Republicans is the size of America's national debt, which they see as unsustainable and capable of being reduced only by cuts in services.

Image caption Is the Republican Party losing touch with America's white working-class voters?

I talked to Matt Kibbe, of the pressure group Freedom Works, who is a prominent supporter of the Tea Party movement.

Mr Kibbe is a thoughtful, mild-mannered man contemplating, well, big changes, if not a new revolution:

"You're going to have to look at things like closing down full departments like the Department of Energy that has failed in its mission of energy independence.

"The Department of Education which has actually resided over massive cost inflation and declining quality in education in America.

"We have to take a look at defence. We are spending astronomical amounts of money on defence and just from a budgetary point of view it's unsustainable."

Mr Kibbe also mentions government programmes like Medicare - which pays medical bills for the elderly - and the Social Security pension system.

Both must be replaced with personal plans into which individuals pay during their lives, he says.

Here is the problem. Mr Kibbe's programme for government - as he very candidly acknowledges - is not an easy plan to sell.

In particular the party has a problem with a group of voters vital to its electoral success: white people with no college education.

Mr Olson of the AEI puts it like this:

"The party base thinksthe deficitis the most important problem. These people [the white working class] think the economy is the most important problem."

Somehow over the next decade the Republican party - which cannot win elections without support from the white working-class - has got to makes its peace with them and convince them that the ideas it espouses make sense.

The alternative, frankly, is electoral irrelevance.

So what will the Republicans do? How will they cope with this problem?

Will they - as Michael Kibbe hinted and the maverick presidential candidate Ron Paul suggests - campaign to cut defence spending as much as domestic programmes? How will that change America's place in the world?

The Republican Party has often been on the right side of history.

From Lincoln to Reagan they have been able persuaders - admired and respected. This primary season has not been their finest hour. Their re-emergence, when it comes, will be fascinating to watch.

You can listen to Justin Webb's report forAnalysison BBC Radio 4 on Sunday, 4 March at 21:30 GMT.

You can listen again via the Radio 4websiteor by downloading the Analysispodcast.

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