LOS ANGELES -- In the 1980s, I lectured on American politics at Sciences Po (l'Institute d'Etudes Politique) in Paris, the elite French school of political science. When the time came for questions, the first one from students was always the same: "How can you tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans in the United States?"
I would answer that Republicans smell better.
A joke, rather than an answer.
To the French students it was barely possible for them to see the difference. For most of my lifetime, the two major American parties agreed on most issues, particularly during the Cold War, and on what might be called a capitalist welfare system. I'd say then that if you could question President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Edward Kennedy on the fundamental political issues of those days, the most celebrated men of the two parties would agree on almost every question. They agreed on goals, even if they might disagree on methods of reaching those goals.
The question was natural from students in a country whose two major parties were the Socialists, led by Francois Mitterrand, and the conservatives led by Valery Giscard d'Estaing and then Jacques Chirac. There really was a difference in France then (still is), even if French conservatives were generally to the left of American Democrats, to say nothing of American Republicans. The best example of that is that both of the French parties considered health care a right rather than a product. Other significant French parties ranged from Communists to racists (still strong) to monarchists (not so strong).
That was then. I think French students aren't asking that question anymore. Now there are real differences between American Democrats and Republicans. As an intellectual competition, the parties are essentially debating the proper role of government. Many on the right have taken as gospel President Reagan's basically dishonest campaign line that government is not the solution, it is the problem. The fact is that American political factions, including the tea party, are not really arguing about the size of government, but are divided on what the power of "big" government should be used to do.
The Republican Party is breaking down or up over that question. Obviously, many conservative Republican voters, as indicated by primary votes and exit polls, believe that the front-runner, Mitt Romney, judging by his record as governor of Massachusetts, is not one of them. He may be the party's most likely prospect to defeat President Obama, but as in 1964 with Barry Goldwater, many Republicans would rather go down in flames than choose a guy they don't trust to impose their value system on the rest of the country.
Romney may be a Mormon, which could become a campaign issue in the fall, but that does not pass the God question for many fundamentalist Christians. It is astounding that in some exit polls in Alabama and Mississippi, more than 70 percent of primary voters said the most important issue in an American presidential candidate was that he or she reflect their religious beliefs. That, to me, sounds more like the Middle Ages than the 21st century.
Where will this end? The "values" voters are going to be disappointed in how this turns out, perhaps enraged, if President Obama is re-elected or if he is replaced by Mitt Romney. Their next move then will be to try to change the electoral system -- to make it easier for third parties to get on the ballot in all of the 50 states. As things are now, the election rules in this country are a contract between the two major parties to protect each other from outsiders.