This weekend a conclave of self-described "social conservative" movement leaders will gather in Texas. Their purpose is to unite the movement behind a single candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. While the meeting will convene on Gov. Perry's home turf, statements from several of the expected participants indicate that the Santorum Surge will prevail among them. For the sake of arguments, this group has three candidates to choose from: Santorum, Perry and Gingrich. Perry's campaign is in its death throes. I'm already seeing conspiracymongers suggest that the governor remains in the race only at the behest of the hated Romney, who would presumably reward the imagined Texas quisling with a cabinet post if not the Vice Presidency. Huntsman and Paul are beyond the pale. Between Gingrich and Santorum the latter seems certain to prevail; the former Speaker's marital record could well disqualify him among these elders.
While the movement leaders are probably capable of coming to a consensus, it's far from clear whether their decision will influence either of the men they won't choose. Presuming that the conclave endorses Santorum, will that decision compel Gingrich or Perry to step aside? The demand could prove a defining moment. If the Republicans see themselves as servants of the conservative movement, should they not defer to the men from the metaphorical smoke-filled room in Texas? If those men speak for the social-conservative multitude, should Gingrich and Perry not assume that the base has spoken in an unadulterated voice? On the other hand, should they make that assumption? For that matter, should they identify the Republican party and its causes so closely with the movement as it manifests in Texas? Defying the social-conservative cardinals would give them a chance to explain to the nation how and why the GOP differs from the theocratic tendency while remaining essentially "conservative." At the same time, how forcefully will the movement demand the two expected losers to withdraw? That depends on how strongly they believe that no alternative to their preferred candidate is acceptable. Republicans already worry that the movement hates Romney so much, considers him so little better than the incumbent President, that they might sit out the general election, perhaps in the radicals' typical expectation that the worst-case scenario will speed the day of the necessary reformation. Some may calculate, however, that Romney as the nominee might make up in centrists who've given up on Obama what he'd lose in alienated social conservatives. This might be the moment for the movement to raise the stakes. If they expect any of the candidates to step aside in favor of the man chosen this weekend, perhaps they should make clear that, if the Republicans fail to endorse that man now, -- if not only Gingrich and Perry but Romney steps aside -- that man will be the candidate of an independent social-conservative party in the November election. Of course, such an ultimatum depends on the preferred candidate's willingness to bolt the party, but this brings us back to whether the party or the movement comes first for the contenders. For the past thirty years or so, the chief justification for the Republican party's existence has been that it represents the country's conservative tendency against the statist progressivism allegedly embodied by the Democratic party. Arguably, however, the GOP has given social conservatives little more over that time than the satisfaction of seeing liberals lose elections. Is this the time for the movement to demand more, starting with their preferred candidate? Or is this the year when the illusion of unity of purpose finally dissipates, with consequences yet to be determined? The next few weeks may start to tell the story.