March 15, 2013

Yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Texas Governor Rick Perry made a claim that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the Republican Party. When speaking to the crowd at CPAC, he hit back against the idea that the Republican Party needs to change its ideas if it wants to appeal to a wider swath of voters. “The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideas, as evidence by the last two presidential elections,” said Perry. “That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012.”

It’s hard to overstate how much this flies in the face of what we know about the previous two presidential elections. Relative to the current GOP — and the platform Mitt Romney ran on — the John McCain of 2008 looks like a moderate. But at the time, even McCain was well-positioned on the right of the Republican Party. In addition to choosing then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate — who would soon become a conservative icon — he ran on a platform of tax cuts (he pledged to permanently extend the Bush cuts and lower corporate rates), partial Social Security privatization, opposition to Roe v. Wade, support for school vouchers, and a plan that would provide tax credits to families to purchase health care.

Romney, as we know, moved far to the right of McCain over the course of his campaign. He touted Paul Ryan’s fiscal framework (which would slash taxes on the wealthy, make deep cuts to existing social services, and turn Medicare into a voucher program) endorsed “personhood amendments” (which would make abortion and many forms of birth control illegal) and opposed all efforts to deal with climate change, from “cap and trade” (which was endorsed by McCain) to new emissions standards.

In other words, there’s no way in which the most recent Republican nominees for president haven’t been conservative. They may not have originated with the right-wing of the Republican Party, but they did their best to represent it, with Romney going as far as to choose the architect of the GOP’s radical budget policies as his Veep candidate.

And yet, Perry isn’t the only Republican to blame the GOP’s failures on the messenger, rather than on its policies. Former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint faulted GOP leaders for rejecting the “lessons of 2010” — an intensely conservative message — and going back to the “old way of campaigning.” And Marco Rubio argued that Republicans are in no need of new ideas:

“We don’t need a new idea. There is an idea: the idea is called America, and it still works.”

At the largest conservative gathering of the year, Republicans don’t seem prepared to discuss — or even acknowledge — their problems. Which means we should expect another election cycle dominated by “severe” conservatism.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.