If you listen to a certain segment of the right (personified by many talk-show hosts) you would think the GOP stood for no tax hikes ever, no immigration reform, no action in Syria, no gay-marriage recognition and no abortions even in cases of rape or incest. But in reality we know from polling that GOP voters approve of immigration reform under circumstances similar to those spelled out in the Gang of 8 proposal. We know a majority of young GOP voters under 30 favor gay marriage. And we know that even among Republicans, opinion is mixed on taxes (as part of a total debt reduction plan) and a total ban on abortion.
Even tougher for these hardline conservatives is finding a standard-bearer who actually agrees this is “true” conservatism. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a strong internationalist and leads the Gang of 8. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says he favors a path to citizenship and is fine with letting states decide the marriage issue. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is pro-immigration reform and favors a Reaganesque foreign policy. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) raised the sales tax to fund transportation. Jeb Bush is a bogeyman on the right for his longtime support for comprehensive immigration reform. Even aside from his lack of experience and abrasive personality, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) rhetorically has stood with Rubio and other pro-defense senators rather than with Paul.
In short, the idealized version of conservatism championed by this subset of the right wing lacks significant support among voters and can point as its ideal presidential nominee to no prominent elected GOP official who might seek the presidency. Yes, they are loud within the right-wing echo chamber and can raise a lot money, but whatever they can raise is dwarfed by figures that could be raised by the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Paul, Rubio and American Crossroads, not to mention individual moguls such as Sheldon Adelson.
In short, can’t the extremists be ignored? Realistically speaking, a hardline conservative congressman in a deep-red district might get primaried if he strays from the right-wing hymnal, but if he hasn’t built rapport with voters and endeared himself through constituent service (in other words, used incumbency to make reelection a virtual certainty), there is probably a greater issue there. As for current and past senators and governors, they know that voters are far less ideologically rigid than these extreme voices, and they’ve generally managed to attract support from Democrats and independents. So yes — unless you are a freshman congressman without a natural base of support in a far-right district, there really isn’t any electoral requirement to espouse radical views on all these issues.
Moreover, the notion that a radio talk-show host has discovered the true essence of modern conservatism while everyone from Paul to the American Enterprise Institute to Ryan has it all wrong is a bit too much to stomach. The narrow version of radical right-wingers — that can point to few, if any, ideal pols, has scant constituency and demands rigidity and lack of concern for the morals and habits of fellow citizens that resembles the fervor of Jacobins rather than the big tent of Ronald Reagan (who would fail most of their litmus tests) — is a Potemkin Village of conservatism. Give a peek behind the scenery and there isn’t much there.
In sum, Republicans need not define their own politics in ways that make them unelectable outside deep-red states. They don’t have to adopt a vision of conservatism that is guaranteed to leave the party in permanent minority status. What they do need to do is stop looking over their shoulder, quaking over right-wing tweets and living in fear of a talk-show host with an audience of less than 1 percent of the country. They don’t need to define conservative governance as demanding a no vote on everything, since no passable legislation meets their criteria for perfection. They can and should be unafraid of taking risks as successful Republicans have always done so that the party and the movement remain vibrant and a center-right agenda can be advanced.