Ramesh Ponnuru, one of the more respected pundits of the establishment right, recently penned a widely-circulated article that took issue with the notion that Republicans lost their way during the Bush years to their political detriment. He argued that conservatives have created a false narrative, based on a bad reading of history, that “ideological purity, especially on spending, had caused those [electoral] losses,” in 2006 and 2008. As a result, the party continues to lose more than it should and is failing to focus on the “real problems” facing the country.
This is an odd bit of revisionist history coming from someone known to be on the right, especially since the implicit lesson for Republicans is to be less ideologically pure and move to the center. Yet, it is interesting that Ramesh claims that “this consensus still moves the party.” It doesn’t.
Ramesh cites various high-ranking Republican leaders as repeating the cliché that “we lost our way.” With the exception of Mike Pence (who first crafted the words “we did not just lose our majority, we lost our way”) and Paul Ryan of the leaders he cites, Ramesh would be pleased to know that this is not actually the consensus that moves them. It is largely lip service. If you sit in their leadership meetings and if you analyze their strategic decisions and the sorts of candidates backed by the party bosses, you realize fairly quickly that Ramesh and the Republican Establishment are of one mind on this question.
I suspect that Ramesh is fully aware of this fact, and thus his article reads more as a thinly-veiled critique of the Tea Party Movement and its allies than of the Republican Party as a whole. For instance, he says, “In Colorado and Nevada, conservative primary voters rejected two electable, conventionally conservative candidates because they were considered part of the compromising establishment.” I’ll return to CO and NV later, but who were those pesky “conservative primary voters” who overturned the will of the National Republican Senatorial Committee? Of course, they were Tea Party voters and their allies. So let’s be clear about who is in the dock, and who is not.
Ramesh’s central argument--and that of most Republican establishment politicos --is that Republican base voters did not stay home (as they presumably would, if Republicans really had lost their way) in 2006 and 2008. Instead, they maintain independents abandoned Republican candidates in droves. It had nothing to do with not being conservative. In 2006, it was “bleeding in Iraq, corruption in Washington, wage stagnation, and the lack of any agenda by the party,” and in 2008, it was voter fatigue of Republican rule and an economic crisis that John McCain seemed ill-equipped to understand or address.
Ramesh notes that 36% of the electorate in 2006 were self-identified Republicans, only 1% below 2004. But that’s not the most relevant data point to judge conservative turnout. He should have looked at the percentage of the electorate that is conservative. In 2006, only 32% of the electorate was conservative. In the majority making elections of 1994 and 2010, 37% and 42% of the electorate was conservative, respectively. This is a major difference in conservative turnout, and the percentage it represents of the whole. For comparison’s sake: after President George H.W. Bush violated his tax pledge, in 1992, self-identified Republicans held steady at 35% but the conservative electorate was only 30%, only two points below its level in 2006. Self-identified Republican voters are certainly part of “the base,” but they are as close to professional voters as the GOP can claim—voters who are Republicans first, conservative second. Its their clan on the ballot—they show up. But that may be all they do. While their votes may not be depressed, their activity can be. Elections are decided by more than just election day: are the activists working the phones, giving their money, and going door-to-door, all steps that data shows us decides elections far more than just positioning? Ramesh does not say.
There is a worse mistake here, however. Ramesh is correct to point out that Republicans lost independents. But he seems to assume that independents are moderates. Some are, but many are not and make up the rest of the conservative base. This was true of Reagan Democrats and Perot voters. They are often confused as “moderates” like Olympia Snowe and Mike Castle. They are not moderate. They do hate partisanship, but only because they don’t trust that either political party actually cares about getting the country back on track versus ruling them from Washington. They are willing to either stay home, begrudgingly vote Republican, or go outside the GOP. Take 1992 for example: of the conservative voters that showed up, only 64% voted for Bush I. 18% voted for Perot.
These independent voters, who often vote for Republicans, are deeply committed to limiting government. Even in 2006, when Iraq and the War on Terror was on the minds of most voters, a post-election survey from Kellyanne Conway found that 65% of independents favored, “Smaller government that provided fewer services and charged lower taxes.” When a war appears to be mismanaged and going south and much of Washington appears to be corrupt, why stick with a party that doesn’t seem to share your views on limiting government and controlling spending?
The Republican establishment fully understands this dynamic and perpetuates the myth of the moderate independent voter to excuse their own unwillingness to change the country fundamentally. If conservatives were right—to paraphrase Dick Armey—that good policy is good politics, that would necessitate real change! But such change will ultimately mean a lessening of the establishment’s own power and influence. Such change will cut into their position within the ruling class, and so it continues to play games with words.
Ramesh also argues essentially that conservatism’s political appeal is limited. “Republicans were more popular in Bush’s first term, when they were expanding entitlements, than in his second term, when they were trying to reform one (Social Security). For most of the second term, they exercised more spending restraint than they had done in the first term--and again, there was no evidence it helped them politically.” Ramesh doesn’t get to have it both ways. He can’t argue that the ’06 election had nothing to do with fiscal responsibility, and then turnaround and conclude that the results were a death knell for limited government. Republican popularity in the first term had far more to do with national security than expanding entitlements, and any so-called “spending restraint” in the second term is quite frankly hard to locate amidst the flows of spending earmarks, Congressional over-rides of the few Bush vetoes, and the massive federal bailout to the financial sector. And Social Security reform’s unpopularity had more to do with the specifics of the particular reforms being proposed and the hypocrisy involved with a party that had just expanded Medicare’s unfunded liabilities by trillions coming along two years later and saying that Social Security was in the midst of some major funding crisis. The messengers for tough reforms do have to be somewhat credible.
Ramesh bemoans the choosing of candidates on the right who are known to be uncompromising “and avoid accommodation at all costs.” He cites the races in Colorado and Nevada, where the Tea Party tossed out the establishment candidates in the primary, backing Ken Buck and Sharon Angle as their nominees. Of course, he fails to mention that Buck was significantly weighed down by a fiasco at the top of the Colorado ticket called the Dan Maes gubernatorial run. Perhaps most devastating in both races was the Michael Steele-led RNC, which failed to run basic GOV efforts as they normally do. Despite these disadvantages, a total 884,032 Coloradans voted for House Republican candidates across the state. Buck received 822,731 votes to Bennett’s 851,590. Given that Buck actually won independents 53% to 37%, it seems likely that many of these 61,301 people who cost Buck the election were establishment GOP-types sour after the divisive primary. The lack of a GOV effort was a particular problem in Nevada where the union presence is strong and the polling in the week before the election showed Angle to be in a strong position (the Real Clear Politics average had her leading by 2.7 percentage points, with her lead trending up until election day). As Buck did, Angle won independents 48% to 44%.
Were mistakes made by each respective campaign? Certainly, but to blame Tea Party voters with such a broad stroke when so much culpability rests on the shoulders of the party establishment, is unfair. And what about Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul? It was the same unsophisticated Tea Party movement looking for “ideological purity” that rejected the wishes of party bosses to get these supposedly un-electable men elected to the Senate. Look, if the charge is that the Tea Party need to find excellent candidates to run, I agree, but let’s not pretend their political viability has anything to do with a willingness to accommodate with the Republican establishment.
It is true that the Tea Party, and those of us who ally ourselves with them, are looking for more spine in our elected leaders. If we are going to devote months of time and treasure to candidates seeking office, they better be a sure thing. They better be willing to stand up to their party if its about to pass an unfunded expansion of Medicare or a massive tax increase or a punitive measure aimed at pro-lifers (all real fights with Republican Leadership that have occurred in recent years). We better not have to worry about them fretting over Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms or condoning earmarks. And they better be willing to fight for conservative policies against fierce political head winds. That is the only way to ensure that the next time we have a Republican in the White House, and Republican control of the House and the Senate, that we produce conservative policy victories, long discussed but never secured, of the magnitude that will actually save our country. That is the only way that we avoid another dispute ten years from now, on missed opportunity and who is to blame.
My guess is that much of Ramesh’s frustration stems from his suspicion that a Tea Party agenda based squarely upon the bedrock of limited government and the actual parameters of the Constitution is a political loser in the long run. Ramesh has long wanted an agenda that focuses on issues such as wage stagnation, traffic congestion, and student loan costs that appeal to middle class voters, not middle class entitlements that are bankrupting the entire nation. Its not that he opposes reforming entitlements eventually; its just that the political stars have to be perfectly aligned. There certainly is no joy in it.
But the problem with that sort of “when I say go” political advice is that it leads many Republicans to incrementalism and inaction. They begin to fear game-changing policy reforms that may prompt a debate that they actually have to work hard to win. It encourages political men and women, who are already risk adverse, to think far too much about the next election instead of the needs of the next generation. Unfortunately, we are past the point of incrementalism. We don’t have the time to fiddle at the edges. We need elected officials free of calcified political assumptions of what is possible that reveal only their own level of accommodation with the liberal welfare state. And we need officials with the courage to actually shape public opinion with urgency in favor of the policies that are necessary to bring the nation back from the brink.
Instead of preaching the virtues of accommodation to a Tea Party that will only tune it out, the Republican Party would do well to realize that it actually did lose its way when it previously held all the levers of government, and that the game has permanently changed for the better.
In an excellent critique of Steve Hayward at Transom, Ben Domenech puts it nicely:
[Hayward] wants a milder, gentler approach, a more sophisticated approach, not just in tone but in policy. The fight is lost. He wants to barter.
A reject of the politics as usual bartering, of course, is the reason people like Scott, Walker, Kasich and Jindal got elected in the first place. It is a rejection of an approach to government that Republicans from Eisenhower to Nixon to Ford to H.W. to Dole to W. to McCain have all espoused - with Goldwater and Reagan as the slight interruptions. This dominant authority on the right dislikes bad government, and it seeks to replace it with good government, not realizing that either way ends up slowly but surely with big government - and if there's one thing history has taught us, as the Eurozone is reminding us now, big government is always, always, bad government…..What has happened since 2008 on the right is an incredible reawakened revolution of governance which rejects the dominant establishment good government Republicans who have ruled from on high for a Coolidge-style return to the basics of what government ought to be and what it ought to cost.
It might make the salons and the operatives nauseous, but this rejection of the Republican establishment is the new reality, and it is a profoundly good thing.