In recent weeks, Republicans have been subjected to a couple of Rorschach tests in the form of the dead-to-the-GOP Sen. Arlen Specter, erstwhile-erstwhile Democrat, and the late Rep. Jack Kemp, purveyor of sunny conservatism.
Specter’s defection was “disheartening and disconcerting, at the very least” to GOP moderates, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe wrote in the New York Times. Conservatives had a different take. “Well, it appears that the head of the Turncoat Caucus is finally making it official,” right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin blogged. “Arlen Specter, we have just 10 words for you: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Likewise, the news of Kemp’s passing elicited differing interpretations of his legacy. My colleague Mary Kate Cary, writing on U.S. News’s Thomas Jefferson Street blog, recalled Kemp as a “big tent” Republican with an “inclusive demeanor.” National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg, writing in USA Today, contrasted Specter and Kemp, saying that “conservatives do not need new convictions. The GOP can choose to be the party of Kemp or of Specter—the choice, or the echo.” (Specter did himself no favors by pronouncing that had Republicans only followed his spending priorities, Kemp would still be alive.) These reactions illustrate the ongoing battle for the future of the GOP: whether to broaden the tent or retrench to a purer conservatism. Underpinning the purity argument is the widely held but incorrect notion that the United States is a “center-right country.”
Conservatives lay the blame for the Republican decline at the feet of George W. Bush, pointing out that he dramatically expanded federal spending, created a new department and a new drug benefit entitlement, and so forth. But the roots of the Republican rot go deeper, all the way back to their moment of triumph in the 1994 elections, when they wrested control of Congress from Democrats for the first time in 40 years. The new Republican majority was as purely conservative as could be hoped for, and it worked to enact a truly conservative agenda. The Republicans were comfortable shutting down the government, remember, because it was in keeping with their governing philosophy—and, they assumed, the country’s. Not so much. It turns out that voters don’t really like the notion of simply rolling back the federal government.
When Bush started his presidential run in the late 1990s, he coined the “compassionate conservative” label in an effort to move the party past the pure conservatism that had failed its public test. And he was not alone as a big-government conservative. By September 2005, Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay could with a straight face declare “ongoing victory” in the Republican struggle to rein in the federal budget and say no more spending cuts could be found even as the deficit topped $300 million.
Ask conservatives about the GOP collapse, and they will mutter about the party having gone native in Washington, discarding principles in exchange for power. But that fails to answer the “why” question. Consider Robert’s ninth rule of politics: Politicians will go against their principles if it is politically popular, or they may defy the will of the voters while standing on principle, but they will rarely do something that is both unprincipled and unpopular.
So those on the right who argue that the GOP’s mistake was being insufficiently conservative should ask themselves: Why, if the country is inherently conservative, did the party give up its principles?
The answer is that the country is neither center-right nor broadly, cohesively ideological at all. The Democrats are not back in power because the voters were angry at Republicans for not being conservative enough, and they’re not in charge because the electorate has lurched suddenly and collectively to the left. Democrats regained majorities in both houses of Congress not because of ideological purity but because they ran candidates whose ideology fit their districts. So someone like Madison, Wis., Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who scored a 95 liberal rating in National Journal’s 2007 congressional ranking, could not get elected in Georgia Rep. Jim Marshall’s district (he had a 43.5 liberal rating), and vice versa. But the Democrats need them both. Conservatives who celebrate driving “Republican In Name Only” Specter out of the party should ponder this as they look at polls showing their preferred candidate, Pat Toomey, trailing in the polls in Pennsylvania. Maybe they have. “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs,” South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said after Specter’s defection. Fair enough.