Conservatives in crisis

Amid the angry exchanges which have ensued between true believers and “the establishment” since Congressional Republicans, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, failed to defund Obamacare by shutting down the federal government, a discordant note demanding attention.

The always tempered and considered Jonathan S. Tobin, an editor at Commentary magazine, threw up this possibility:

A few more years in which Tea Partiers stop seeing themselves as the vanguard of the conservative movement but as members of a different political alignment altogether could lead to exactly the kind of right-wing walkout from the GOP that was threatened in 2008 and 2012 but never actually materialized. If so, we may look back on the aftermath of the shutdown as not just a foolish argument started by frustrated conservatives but the beginning of a schism that enabled the Democrats to consolidate their hold on power in Washington for the foreseeable future.

He is not the first conservative commentator to suggest the possibility of a schism, but he is the most thoughtful. The occasion for his warning was the fallout from an important editorial in the forthcoming issue of National Review. The piece, “Against Despair”, by editor Rich Lowry and staff writer Ramesh Ponnuru, argues that the actions of those House Republicans who forced the shutdown, against the wise counsel of substantial conservative figures, are undermining the ability of the GOP to win elections. In fact, Lowry and Ponnuru assert, some on the right have all but given up on winning elections:

Among the most dismaying developments of the shutdown fight was the explicit assent given by a few conservative writers and politicians to the notion that it is a pipedream to seek to elect more conservatives who will then, for example, repeal Obamacare. That is asking a lot of a party, exponents of this view said, that has won the popular vote for president only once in the last six contests.

The diehards, while perhaps well-intentioned, have confused the ideological fervor of those who agree with them with the political instincts of the American people. There are times in American history when the aims of a movement or its leaders have broadly coincided with the values of the American people: Lincoln and slavery, FDR and the New Deal, Reagan and anti-communism. The movement for limited government has no such standard-bearer at present and some of its footsoldiers forget that Lincoln, FDR and Reagan worked hard to bring people around to their way of thinking.

But the focus of conservatives’ problems and the means of their solution, National Review contended, lies not in ideological purity but in the art of persuasion and the difficult and prosaic business of electoral coalition-building:

The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.

National Review said what needed to be said. Conservative ideas can flourish only if they are tested and recalibrated and the only way to do that is through policy implementation, for which you need to be in government. That does not mean abandoning conservatism but presenting the voters with an appealing right-wing platform, a conservatism that can win.

Erick Erickson of Red State, a smart and committed conservative activist, shot down National Review’s editorial in a hail of denunciations and quotations from the magazine’s mission statement, as penned by William F Buckley, Jr.

He writes:

The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan.

Later adding:

Unfortunately, since Mr. Buckley died, the magazine has drifted. It is no longer true north for conservatism. It has drifted from its position at the pole of conservatism into the currents of a political party. It is the house publication for the Republican Party. And there is a difference — a difference this latest editorial highlights. Republicans are about the acquisition of power to advance policies and goals designed to keep the GOP in power. Conservatism is about human freedom. Conservative publications need not be stenographers of the party.

Before a final parting shot, worthy of a grounded teenager’s howl over a slammed bedroom door:

I await the well-fed editors apologizing for the Goldwater candidacy. At this point, it is only a matter of time.

No one can doubt Erickson’s commitment to the conservative movement, to which he has devoted his adult life, but his need to cast his opponents in the role of pantomime villain undermines what little argument he has. The talk of a Republican “establishment”, a trope which has regained currency in the last few weeks, is preposterous. True, when Mr Buckley set up National Review, promising to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”, the GOP was dominated by Nelson Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Republicans, a caste of patrician liberals who did little to conceal its contempt for radical upstarts like Mr Buckley. The Rockefeller Republicans are long gone; nowadays, high-handed, to-the-manor-born seat-clingers are more likely to be found in the dramatis personae of the Democrat Party.

Today’s Republican Party is one in which not a single Senator or Congressman voted for Obamacare. The last two Presidential candidates — Mitt Romney and John McCain — were moderates, but only in the sense that they weren’t tick-all-the-boxes ideologues. Both men espoused orthodox conservative positions on everything from abortion and guns to taxes and national security. Where they tacked center, they did so as a blue-state Republican or as a Republican in an increasingly competitive state. That’s nothing new. The GOP has always been home to conservatives of varying hues and tones.

The notion of spunky grassroots warriors versus establishmentarian sell-outs, the Tea Partiers against the Cocktail Partiers, is a fitting populist narrative for the Republican Party inside some people’s heads but it bears no relation to the Republican Party as it exists in reality.

And reality is what’s lacking. Reality and perspective. The diehards think those criticizing them right now are surrendering principle to electioneering. The conservative debate over Obamacare has always been about tactics, not political principle, but it’s worth remembering that principle without power is like a car without gas. It looks nice and feels great to sit in but it goes nowhere.

It’s not quite right to say that Republican ultras have no alternative plan; it’s just that their plan is the same souped-up bromides about communicating better, being more populist, and something something Ronald Reagan. (On that last point: Would Reagan, a divorced Hollywood Republican who raised taxes and legalized abortion, make it through the GOP primary process today?)

That’s where Jonathan Tobin’s post comes in. The possibility that a sizeable chunk of conservative voters stays at home in future elections, or throws its support behind a third-party candidate, would be disastrous for the conservative cause. It would hand Democrats control of the White House and likely both houses of Congress and give license to an even more liberal Democratic Party passing legislation that would make Obamacare look like the work of Friedrich Hayek. It would be a curious conservatism that damaged the only vehicle available for the advancement of conservative ideas.

A lesson on third parties from Britain: In the 1980s, the British left was divided between the socialist Labour Party and the more moderate Social Democratic Party, which had broken away from Labour over its ideological extremism. This schism meant Margaret Thatcher got a free pass to pursue a radical economic agenda that even many Conservative voters did not agree with. Labour’s dogmatists made a philosophy out of rigidity and calcified ideology into a catechism, denouncing as traitors those who wanted to achieve the party’s egalitarian aims through anything other than “the common ownership of the means of production”. Had the left remained united, and tailored its vision to the industrial and social changes reshaping Britain, it could very well have ousted Thatcher from office. In the end, Labour would remain out of power for 18 years, returning to government only after it had learned these lessons the hard way.

The politics of America are changing and so too are the demographics. The GOP has to respond to these changes and appeal to new constituencies. Elections are about winning over center-ground voters, somewhere conservatives should have an advantage thanks to the popularity of conservative policies on everything from education reform to taxes. The Republican brand, though, is in the doldrums. Gallup’s party favorability rating now places the GOP on 28%, the lowest number for either party since records began in 1992. That rating is a backlash against the shutdown but it is also a reprimand for a Republican Party that has spent the last decade talking — more often than not, shouting — at itself rather than engaging with the American people.

Conservative diehards are standing athwart crosstabs, yelling “Reagan”. Fighting to keep the conservative flame alive is important but the flame is growing dim without the oxygen of new ideas and fresh faces. “My dogma’s purer than your dogma” is not a mission statement around which an electoral coalition can be built. The franchise in national elections extends beyond callers to the Michael Savage show. Conservatives have to speak to America as it is, not America as it was or should or could be.

All successful political parties are coalitions bound by shared goals and common ideals and motivated to win elections to put those ideals into practise. It’s good that right-wingers are up for a fight but it should be a fight with the Democrats, a fight to regain the Presidency, and not a fight with themselves. The hard work should begin in earnest, with a review of GOP policy, operations, funding and organization, all with the same question at the top of the list: How do we regain the trust of the American people?

That’s not selling out, it’s stepping up to the pitch, where the game is won or lost.

 Feature image © Benh LIEU SONG by Creative Commons 2.0.

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