By Robert Wallace
Moderate Republicans are on the defensive as establishment candidate Deirdre Scozzafava quit the race yesterday and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens today. Conservatives are on the war path, emboldened by Doug Hoffman’s success. Talk of a third party revolution is sweeping the blogosphere.
Both sides are missing the point.
The Scozzafava-Hoffman contest looks like a proxy for the moderate-conservative battle, but it isn’t. Scozzafava wasn’t just socially liberal, she was fiscally left-wing as well. Hoffman may have won endorsements from champions of conservatism like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, but the dollars that funded his advertisements came from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.
The battle between Scozzafava and Hoffman was never about moderates versus conservatives and, likewise, the fate of the Republican Party isn’t about intellectual, fiscally conservative moderates versus blue-collar social conservatives either.
We’ve got the whole picture sideways.
Something Has Gone Wrong for the GOP
Let’s start someplace where everyone can agree: the Republican Party got its clock cleaned in both the 2006 mid-term election and again last year in 2008.
Something is wrong with the party. It’s bigger than John McCain vs. Barack Obama. It’s bigger than George W. Bush’s rampant unpopularity. And it’s not going to go away just because Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama are finding every way possible to annoy the American electorate. The Republican Party is dead-set on proving that, just because people hate the Democrats, it doesn’t mean they can’t hate the Republicans even more. It is more fundamental than any specific policy from abortion to Afghanistan.
The problem with the GOP is a crisis of credibility with the American people.
More and more in recent years, political observers and ordinary Americans alike have noted that the two parties are beginning to look suspiciously similar. It is in that similarity that the GOP can discover the key to unraveling where the party went wrong and, more importantly, how it can get back on track.
The interesting thing is that America is a center-right nation. Poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly identify themselves as conservative. It’s been a consistent fact for decades, and yet not one but both parties have been moving to the left. Why is that? Why are both parties moving to the left (away from the electorate) towards larger government? And why is the Republican Party paying a higher price even though they have moved more slowly in that direction?
The answer to the first and second question has very little to do with politics and everything to do with human nature. Progressive ideology is essentially elitist. The basic idea is that if the smartest people in the country have more power, they can influence the rest of the populace for the better. It’s the same principle behind everything from Margaret Sanger’s eugenics of the early 20th century right on down to Cass Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism.”
Government is the conduit through which the elite influence the regular schmoes. And the more influence they want to have to improve society, the bigger government gets. When government gets bigger, the primary beneficiaries are elected officials and their hangers-on. That would include staff, lobbyists, consultants, and pollsters. These guys–the political class–all stand to gain as government gets bigger, less transparent, and less accountable.
So you see that, for the Democrats, the incentives between ideology and self-interest are in perfect alignment. This is why the progressives have found their home in the Democratic Party, and it is why the American public tends to be more forgiving of their policies — they can wrap their power-grabs in rhetoric about “social justice” and “global warming” and “hope” and “change” and obtain support from an increasingly dependent people.
That’s not to say they don’t believe the rhetoric. I have little doubt that many progressives are completely sincere. They don’t realize how compromised they have become by the perverse incentives of fixing society while increasing their own power and prestige and retaining the moral high ground. It’s like a three-for-one deal.
The old Lord Acton maxim that power tends to corrupt applies to all human beings equally — Democrats and Republicans alike. But unlike Democrats, the Republicans who came to power in 1994 had a political ideology that was fundamentally incompatible with big government. As a result the cancer of lust for power spreads more slowly through the GOP machine than through the Democratic machine. This is why the GOP has moved more slowly towards big government.
The reason that the American public have penalized them more heavily for it should be clear by now. We can give the Democrats a pass as well-intentioned but uninformed. The GOP has no such excuse. They are supposed to be the party of personal liberty and limited government. Democrats can survive in a center-right nation by appealing to our better nature (“we are our brothers’ keepers!”) and by promising bread and circuses via government largesse. But when GOP leaders attempt to expand their own power through “compassionate conservatism” they are rightfully rewarded with scorn.
The Wrong War
The in-fighting in the Republican Party has been categorized as a contest of rational pragmatists versus hot-tempered idealists. That should tell you that something is fundamentally wrong. What’s the point, after all, of pragmatically implementing the wrong ideals? What’s the point of having the right ideals, but not being pragmatic enough to find a way to implement them? Choosing between pragmatism and idealism is like choosing between fuel and oxygen — you need both to keep a fire going.
Right now the pragmatists of the party–whether intentionally or on accident–are enabling the cancer of power-seeking to continue to thrive within the GOP.
Patrick is a regular contributor to TheNextRight. This is his reaction (from his Twitter feed) to the news that Scozzafava had dropped out of NY-23:
Brainstorm: what if Republicans were to withdraw from a series of hot Congressional races and run as conservative independents a la #ny23?
In other words, his brilliant idea is to take a bunch of Republicans, re-brand them as independents, and see if that gimmick is good for 5 or 10 points with the voters. I don’t want to waste time thrashing the tactical merits of this idea (he called it a “brainstorm,” after all), but rather I’d like to focus on the reality that the very definition of enabling is to allow people to carry on the same behavior without having to change. This kind of nonsense will doom the Republican Party. You can’t start to recover until you admit you have a problem.
The decimation of Dede Scozzafava’s campaign in the face of an unknown conservative running as an independent should be a large step for the GOP in acknowledging and admitting that problem.
Exhibit B: Matthew Gagnon
Now, I thought Ruffini’s idea was amazingly bad (in every sense of the word), but then I read Gagnon’s piece. He’s another one who has a knee-jerk reflex to protect the party status-quo. His argument consists of listing off the GOP presidential candidates since 1948 and classifying them as either “moderate” or “true conservative.”
As it turns out, the only true conservatives Gagnon found were Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Since the moderates didn’t always lose and the conservatives didn’t always win, though, his point was that moderates are better than conservatives. I know . . . the logic is so tortured that tonight, somewhere, a thousand statisticians are quietly crying themselves to sleep.
In Gagnon’s defense, he was responding to the claim that “real conservatives always win.” Clearly this is equally silly–Hoffman hasn’t even won yet!–but at least I’ve never seen anyone attempt to back it up with pretend evidence.
My point is not to berate Ruffini or Gagnon personally. I know little or nothing about them, and I’m quite sure that they could be smart, capable, decent people. But no matter their intelligence or moral fiber, these kinds of reflexive “defend the party!” antics are counterproductive.
On the other hand, writers at TheNextRight have been waging a war of sanity against WorldNetDaily for some of their off-the-wall, credibility-busting craziness. Not only do I generally support TheNextRight in this campaign, but it highlights the idea that if the more vocal elements of conservatism win out, then we’re probably going to see the cause of conservatism fail even faster.
You see, the American people may be fundamentally conservative, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically interested in conspiracy theories or hysteria. Very few people believe that President Obama is going to equip a Civilian Defense Force with steel-toed boots, brown shirts and riot gear in order to drag conservative bloggers out of their beds at night and take them to secret FEMA re-education camps. You want to win with the American people? Talk instead about the common thread of conservatism: individual liberty and a limited federal government. I say “thread” and not “threads” because individual liberty and limited government are not separate things; they are two faces of the same coin. The issues that have ordinary, apolitical Americans sitting up and worrying about the future of their country are the government takeover of the financial, automotive, and health care industries and the astronomical levels of debt we’re taking on. These issues–the size and scope of government, the rights of the people, and the nation we will pass on to our children–run to the beating heart of conservatism.
The GOP needs a return to the principles of limited government enacted through lower spending, stricter ethical standards, and greater transparency. It’s no coincidence that these principles coincide with the financial crisis we find ourselves in. We need the power of the free market more than ever, and the existential danger of out-of-control debt has never been more pressing since the earliest years of our nation.
You may be wondering where NY-23 fits into all of this. Let’s be clear on one thing: we don’t need a third party to replace the GOP right now. The GOP has cancer, but I don’t believe it’s terminal. What the GOP needs right now is chemotherapy. And that’s exactly what NY-23 was: a round of chemotherapy.
When the pragmatists aren’t arguing that all is well in Zion they fall back on the argument that a cure would be worse than the disease. If third-party candidates run they will just spoil the race for the GOP and the most liberal guy will win. That’s the bogeyman they have been using to keep conservative Republicans in check. That’s the idea which the mainstream media will start to tout the advantages of, just as they herald moderate Republicans like John McCain and Colin Powell.
But Doug Hoffman didn’t spoil the race for liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava. A look at the polls shows who the obvious spoiler in this race was. (Click to enlarge.)
If 2010 has a horde of ill-prepared, under-funded, decentralized, inexperienced third-party candidates cropping up in every contest, the resulting chaos will almost certainly hurt the GOP and the conservatives. What happened in NY-23 was the exception and not the rule, the product of its own exclusivity; such a race simply cannot be maintained on a nationwide level. If you think things are bad now, try going back before World War II. That’s what a real minority party looks like.
But if we don’t have any third party candidates, the pragmatists will continue to enable the political class of the GOP and the cancer–unchecked–will kill the party. It will take longer, but it will be just as inevitable.
Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling wrote that “[s]trategy. . . is not concerned with the efficient application of force but with the exploitation of potential force.” As satisfying as it would be to vote every politician out of office in 2010, that is not Plan A. We don’t need to replace everyone in the GOP as long as we put the fear of God back in them. Sure, I’d love to have paragons of virtue in every elected office but–failing that–I’ll settle for any old politician as long as they have a deep and abiding sense of accountability to the American people.
The key to making that sense of accountability deep and abiding–to efficiently exploit potential force–comes down once again to matters of credibility. The political class of the GOP must know that conservatives are willing and able to kick ass and take names.
I look forward to the day when the time for political threats within the party has passed. Just as with chemotherapy, I’m not eager to see any more third party candidates than are absolutely necessary because each one carries a substantial risk of losing to the Democrats or further fracturing the coalition we’re desperately trying to rebuild before a 2012 contest that could leave us with a radical lame-duck president. But a coalition rebuilt on any foundation other than limited government and personal liberty is a coalition built on sand and not worth supporting in the long run.
I believe in America, and therefore I must believe that the GOP needs conservatives (of all stripes) more than conservatives need the GOP. But it will be better for everyone–the Republican Party, conservatives and, most importantly, America–if we can figure out how to cure the patient we have rather than start from scratch with a fragile new embryo in the form of a new party. We’ve seen the damage caused by this administration now, with re-election at the back of their minds — imagine for a moment how much damage Barack Obama and his progressive radicals could do in the intervening years of confusion and disorganization.
But if the elites of the GOP would prefer to remain masters of their dwindling domain rather than to accept the burdens of greater accountability and reform, then they should understand just how credible the conservative third-party threat is. We did it in NY-23. We don’t want to do it again, but we can. And if we have to, we will.
Robert Wallace is classical liberal studying economics in graduate school. He and his wife work as business analysis consultants, and they live as undercover conservatives with their two small children in a socialist bastion of a college town. He has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.