Republicans could not have won as many elections as they have won lately if they were just the party of the religious right, nor if they were just the party of the corporate elite (i.e., the rich). They have to be both. And the genius of what they’ve been able to do recently is appeal to both of these groups without really upsetting either – even though in many cases these two groups don’t have a lot in common, and in fact should be on opposite sides of a lot of issues.
I would venture to say, for example, that many Christian conservatives are not wealthy people, that they probably don’t benefit from the Bush tax cuts, and that they in fact are harmed by the Bush economic policies. Similarly, I would venture to say that many rich Wall Street types couldn’t care less whether women get abortions or gay people get married, that they probably know and work with (and may even themselves be) people who are pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and that they think government’s most important job is to keep the wheels of commerce running smoothly and never mind all this "cultural" stuff which they see as a big distraction.
And yet both these sorts of people tend to vote Republican. Why? Because in both cases the Republican party has figured out how to appeal to what is really important to them. The corporate crowd would probably prefer, on balance, to have a government that leaves abortions etc. alone, but it’s much more important to them to have what they see as a favorable tax structure, favorable regulatory climate, and so on. Similarly, the religious right crowd would probably prefer, on balance, that the government not screw them economically, but it’s much more important to them that the government try to restore what they see as a moral compass – get rid of abortions, make life harder for gay people, more religion in public life, and so on. This is why the central mystery of "What’s the Matter With Kansas" – why do people keep voting for a party that is making them poorer – is really not that mysterious. You can rationally support a party that does not act in your immediate economic self-interest if you think what the party is doing elsewhere is more important. The abortion, etc. issues are so important to the religious right that nothing else matters much. Same with the corporate elite, but in reverse. (You can see variants of this on the left as well – e.g., there are lots of well-off lefties who don’t vote Republican even though Republican policies would put lots more money in their pockets, presumably because they define their own self-interest more broadly than just having a larger balance in their checking account.)
The real beauty of the Republican strategy is that the two appeals don’t have to interfere with each other. The party can be all for tax cuts for the rich, a lax regulatory environment, etc., and still be pro-restrictions on abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-funnelling money to religious organizations, and the rest of the "cultural conservative" agenda. It’s worked brilliantly.
UNTIL NOW. Because now what’s happening is that the agendas are starting to converge – and in a very uncomfortable way. The newly-emboldened religious right wing, no longer satisfied with making abortions and gay marriages incrementally harder to obtain, has started an all-out assault on the federal judiciary. And in so doing, they are scaring the crap out of the corporate elite, who need stable, well-functioning, independent federal courts. Remember, the corporate elite really like the federal courts – that’s why they want to move as many state law tort claims into federal court as they can. A weakened federal judiciary is the corporate elite’s worst nightmare. Similarly, the Bushies’ assault on social security seems to be scaring the crap out of even people who ordinarily don’t pay a lot of attention to economic issues – that is, people who have supported Republicans because of their stand on the culture wars, not the class wars. The Bush administration’s failure to appreciate how attached the American people (particularly the non-wealthy American people) are to social security has got to be one of the most colossal political blunders of recent years, and it is threatening to turn a lot of previously-reliable Republican "cultural issue" voters into persuadables for the Democrats. No one, cultural conservative or otherwise, wants to see their grandma in the poor house, and while rich folks don’t have to worry about that, a lot of other folks do.
Terri Schiavo figures into this too. The Republicans’ behavior in that extraordinary case of course scared the crap out of corporate elite Republicans (who really hate the idea of government telling them how to care for their sick family members). But it also may have freaked out even some of the cultural conservatives, who while probably in sympathy with the anti-euthanasia position, were justifiably horrified by the Republican overreaching and hypocrisy.
The delicate balancing act, in other words, is starting to fail. The natural enmity of the Republican corporate elite and the Republican cultural conservatives, for so long deftly managed by the national Republican party, is starting to take on a life of its own, and the party has no idea how to stop it. Just look at poor Bill Frist – he’s completely trapped in this nucular option business. I’m guessing that no one regrets more than he does the fact that he is really going to have to do it – because he knows that when he does, he will have lost any shot he ever had at becoming President. To win, you have to have more than just the cultural conservatives, and going nucular will freak the corporate elite.
Remember those old Star Trek episodes where Scotty radios up to the bridge and says something like "this thing is goin’ ta blow up, and there’s nothin’ in the universe can stop it"? It’s kinda like that for the Republicans right now. Scotty, of course, always found a way to avert disaster at the last possible millisecond. We will know, and I think sooner rather than later, whether the Republicans have someone as good as Scotty who can defuse the coming internecine blowout.