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“The Conservative Litmus Test,” Charles Cooke, and Purity

It’s a subject I’ve been tossing around for a while, though I’ve debated actually writing anything about it here because it involves the “c” word – compromise. In the battle between the conservative base, grassroots networks and the GOP establishment, the debate rages back and forth as all sides attack each other (I did separate base and grassroots on purpose, knowing that they are on the same side roughly 99% of the time) in the name of a GOP victory in 2014 and beyond. There is open hostility that spills into our daily lives at this point, and it does admittedly come from both sides. Much like the chicken and the egg argument, it is hard to tell where exactly the hostility started.

Conservatives and grassroots workers will say the hostility came from the Establishment, who have acted completely against the base for years now, and the Establishment will say the hostility started with the “purists” in the base and grassroots. It’s a circular argument that does little to actually address the problems the Republican Party as a whole faces.

One of the more fascinating phrases to get tossed around in this argument is something about a “conservative litmus test.” In politics, the term “litmus test” has been used for a while, though it originally began as a way to test judicial candidates, specifically to the Supreme Court. Over time, it’s expanded to almost all political candidates. Now, the test is being used to find politicians who are “conservative enough.” But, what is it we’re wanting from them?

Detractors of grassroots conservatism rant and rave about just how radical they want all their candidates to be. The Tea Party, after all, hurt the Republican image (they say), and that hurts party efforts in the long run. However, that is merely scratching the surface, I would guess, of what the real goal of getting active conservatives into office would be.

Enter here Charles C. W. Cooke, a wonderful writer and a smart guy from across the pond. On Twitter recently, he argued that the Mark Levin of today would be calling Ronald Reagan a RINO if he were in office. And, while people pointed out that Levin served in the Reagan administration, Cooke insisted on the point, even going through National Review archives to find stories written about the less-than-conservative things Reagan did.

Where I would argue with Cooke is along the lines of where ideology ends and politics begins. What Cooke questions (and the Establishment insists is the case) is the premise that conservatives want nothing less than a 100% conservative voting record from Republicans. While that would be ideal, that is incredibly undoable in a 2- (or more) party system. Instead, the key strategy to getting true conservative candidates is to end what has become instinctive to D.C. Republicans – the instant capitulation on every battle.

It is important for there to be Ted Cruzes and Mike Lees and Rand Pauls and others in Washington D.C. because they are ready and willing to hold the rope at the end and play tug of war the right way in D.C. The current Republican leadership, if they do pick up the rope at all, pick it up with the flag already across the blue line.

What Cooke and, I think, others fail to realize is that Reagan, yes, did go along with less-than-conservative plans. However, he did so by starting on the conservative side opposite of Tip O’Neill, and the two worked their way down in a true negotiation. Reagan, ultimately, was a successful president because he got victories by sticking to his principles. The Republicans, under the leadership of Boehner, McConnell and outside forces like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove, want the Republicans to appear friendly and non-confrontational, giving up all ground up front and ultimately picking up no victories.

The Establishment would like to tell you they have been successful, sure, but most of their successes recently have been through no effort of their own and the Democrats overextending themselves. The closest the party comes to victory is when the Cruzes and the Lees and the Pauls stand up and fight. They are willing to begin where Reagan did and, against a Democratic Senate Majority and the bully pulpit of a hostile Democratic White House, they have fought some tough battles. Imagine if someone who commands the authority like McConnell does stood with them and rallied the Republicans to Cruz’s side during the shutdown. The story would’ve been different. The Democrats would have been forced then to negotiate, and the Republicans could’ve have some victory in there somewhere.

I know the idea of “compromise” instantly makes most conservatives want to gag, but the kind of compromise I’m talking about is true compromise. It’s the kind that ends, if not in the middle, then less in blue territory than what the Republicans have just handed to Democrats in recent years.

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