Many lanes on the road to the White House

Remember the old days, when political parties had ‘wings’?

Eric Thayer/Reuters
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz attends a campaign event in Barrington, New Hampshire.

Yes, this US election cycle really is different. Never before has the road to the Republican nomination had so many “lanes.”

Remember when parties had wings? The Republicans had the Rockefeller wing and the conservative wing. Even the Democrats had a conservative wing of their own, back in the last century.

But here’s Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times describing “two parallel contests” unfolding within the Republican Party: “Lazy pundits sometimes describe these two wings of the GOP as ‘establishment’ and ‘tea party,’ but that’s not quite right. There’s not much of a functioning establishment any more, and the tea party has evaded definition since its birth.”

A “more useful description” of the situation, he wrote, is offered by Mark Murphy, a strategist for Jeb Bush. Mr. Murphy describes a contest between two “lanes”: a “regular Republican, positive conservative lane” for Mr. Bush, plus Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio; and a “grievance lane,” political home to Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.

“Easy to tell which side Murphy’s on,” Mr. McManus quipped. But note that he endorses not only Murphy’s classification, but also his terminology: lanes.

Lane, originally “a narrow way between hedges or banks; a narrow road or street between houses or walls,” is a certifiably ancient English word. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first usage example goes back to 971 (yes, 10th century). Oxford’s first example of the automotive lane is from an American publication in 1926: “the so-called super-highway where eight or more traffic lanes are provided for....”

Fortunately the GOP race hasn’t reached eight lanes. But are there only two? In late January, NBC’s “Meet the Press” listed three: “the social conservative lane, the establishment lane and the Donald Trump lane.” A Washington Post analysis last March identified five – religious voters, tea party voters, very conservative voters, moderate/establishment voters, and libertarians. In November the New York Times column “The Upshot” identified four lanes just within the GOP’s “conservative wing.” 

The lane analogy has its limits, though. Philip Bump, author of the Post piece, acknowledged: “We develop these lanes as a rhetorical device, but the lines between the lanes are not clear.”

Ah, yes. Drivers in Boston know something about unclear lines between the lanes. And how many lanes? You may think you’re in the correct lane to make a right turn, for instance, when the street suddenly widens, and some other driver slips around on your right. 

How to stay far enough over to keep from getting passed on the right is precisely the challenge that many Republicans have faced in recent years.

The New Republic has speculated, “Perhaps there are no ‘lanes’ at all, or perhaps the lanes function very literally in that changing from one to another is easy and appealing when the one you’re in is backed up.”

And after the early contests, some candidates will find themselves in the lane marked “exit only.”

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