Robert Frost’s famous poem begins:
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/and sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler, long I stood/and looked down one as far as I could/to where it bent in the undergrowth."
Mr. Frost was using nature as a metaphor for human existence more broadly, but he could have been writing about the presidential primary. For here we stand, just over two months into a Republican primary that seems to have stretched on over decades, and Republican voters lack a unified decision on which path to pick.
As of 3:00 a.m. Wednesday, Mitt Romney has won six states: Alaska, Ohio, Massachusetts, Virginia, Vermont and Idaho. Rick Santorum has won three states: North Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Oh yeah, and Newt Gingrich has won one: Georgia.
As split as the state count is, the vote count is arguably more so. In Ohio, for instance, Romney only narrowly won with 38 percent of the votes over Santorum's 37 percent.
In today's primaries, as those prior (at least those in which all current candidates are on the ballot) the vote tally is roughly divided three ways — with a third going to Romney, a third going to Ron Paul and a third going to Gingrich and/or Santorum. I spent the evening on the FoxNews.com Live chat room hearing from faithful Republicans who deeply, deeply dislike Mitt Romney but almost just as many who think Rick Santorum is dangerously extreme.
Far from a coronation, the Republican primary continues to be a coronary, like ideological plaque clogging up any potential for clarity and blocking the path forward.
It’s not just that Republican voters can’t settle on one candidate. That indecision is merely a symptom of deeper rupturing.
In his campaign, Ronald Reagan forged the so-called “three-legged stool” of the Republican coalition — comprised of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks. But just as we watch winter turn to spring across the United States, the thick permafrost that has bound together the Republican coalition for the past 40 years is rapidly melting. The Republican Party’s identity, loosely held together as it has been, risks sinking entirely.
For better or for worse, Republicans no longer can claim the monopoly on foreign policy prowess (ask, e.g., Usama bin Laden). Meanwhile, try as some might to deny it, in recent years conservative governance has failed — among other things, crashing our economy, exacerbating yawning inequality and skyrocketing the deficit.
In the wake, the Tea Party was like a pickaxe to the fragile ice still holding the Republican Party together, really just the same social conservative base (witness Tea Party support for Gingrich and Santorum over Romney) with new energy and a newfound willingness to attack other Republicans.
What we’re watching in this prolonged primary is not so much a Republican Party unwilling to settle on a candidate but, rather, a Republican Party no longer willing to paper over deep differences.
It’s why, in state after state, we keep seeing roughly one-third of GOP voters supporting Romney, one-third supporting Santorum and/or Gingrich and one-third supporting Paul. The Republican Party isn’t coming together around a candidate, it’s coming apart at the seams.
Part of the problem, no doubt, is that both social conservatives and fiscal conservatives are increasingly outside the mainstream of public opinion. According to a new national poll this week, 49% of Americans support full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples (up from 30% in 2004). Meanwhile, 60% of Americans believe that millionaires and billionaires should pay higher taxes and the same percent of Americans think our government should take action to reduce income inequality. Romney appealed to socially liberal values when Governor of Massachusetts. Santorum has been an economic populist on the campaign trail, railing against inequality.
This disconnect does not bode well for Republican prospects in 2012. But, frankly, this may not be the year for Republican political victory (conservative columnist George Will is among those admitting that unseating President Obama may not be an “attainable” goal.
Instead, this may be the year for internal soul searching and house cleaning within the Republican establishment, where Republicans of both good conscience and political savvy wake up and smell the future — facing the fact that while GOP candidates scramble to be more fiscally and socially conservative for the Republican base, the party is risks irrelevance in a rapidly changing America that increasingly rejects both.
Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have other problems.
Mr. 1% couldn’t seem like a regular guy if his life depended on it, and Mr. Moral-High-Horse-In-A-Sweater-Vest seems crazier and crazier every time he opens his mouth. But no more crazier or rigid, I suppose, than the Republican Party in general, which has adopted such ideological rigidity that it won’t even compromise with President Obama on tax cuts!
It’s no wonder reasonable voices like Olympia Snowe are leaving the party this year.
Robert Frost wrote of keeping one path “for another day” — but then warned, “knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.” Republicans can’t keep having it both ways. The “three-legged stool” is crumbling under the weight of progress.
Republicans can no longer embrace social and economic extremism and simultaneously aspire for mainstream support. It’s not even working within the party anymore.
The longer this primary goes on, the better the chance President Obama has at being re-elected — and, hopefully, the better the chance Republicans will finally choose not a candidate but a new path forward, one that is consistent with the values and needs of modern Americans.
Sally Kohn is a FoxNews.com contributor. You can find her online at http://sallykohn.com and on Twitter @sallykohn.