It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.
They generously give the benefit of the doubt to those practicing apocalyptic politics, declining to attribute a pecuniary motive to its proponents. That said, Ponnuru and Lowry deliver a forceful blow at the essence of the effort to purify the GOP. (“The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers.”)
This raises a few points.
First, Republicans should realize how off-putting their most dogmatic figures can be. I readily agree with the NR’s admonition, “There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues.” But how does one do that if the volume is always on high and the rhetoric is blistering? It wasn’t merely the inane stunt that Cruz, Jim DeMint and others championed; it was the accusations of betrayal and the doomsday predictions about the country that few non-conservatives (and many conservatives) found off-putting.
On the immigration front, conservatives differ on the particulars, but the refusal to identify and dissociate from anti-immigrant voices is unacceptable and turns off voters. Moreover, the notion that Republicans must or should get along with only white voters’ support is a giant message not only to Hispanics but to many non-Hispanic voters. It is worth exploring whether conservatism reliant on one race or one demographic is morally and politically sustainable.
Second, if the party doesn’t have enough voters, conservatives should think about which voters they might appeal to it and what the party is offering those voters. If you are against immigration reform, against family-friendly tax breaks and against most every form of domestic spending, what exactly is going to attract voters who are not already conservative? The effort to build the party has to have a purpose, a vision and enough particulars to be successful. One cannot build a party in a policy vacuum.
Third, timeliness matters. Conservatives who know better and right-leaning pundits who should show greater independence should be less shy about criticizing bad strategies and dumb approaches before it is too late. Even in the midst of the shutdown disaster, conservative talking heads declared the GOP should “stand pat” or said things weren’t too bad. (Lowry and Ponnuru were not among them.) The desire to circle the wagons is understandable but counterproductive.
And finally, the emphasis in presidential and other elections on checking every box on the conservative-agenda checklist — a practice encouraged by outside groups and right-leaning media — should be challenged. The conservative movement would do much better to look at character, judgment and people-smarts than focus praise, for example, on how brilliant is Ted Cruz or how compelling is Sen. Rand Paul’s budget or Newt Gingrich’s tax plan. The latter are not unimportant, but to focus on such issues at the exclusion of all else gives us, well, candidates like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich who have very little appeal outside the tight-knit web of ideological true-believers. And, frankly, smart people can be toxic and self-interested to the detriment of the larger conservative cause.
In short, there is plenty the conservative movement can do better or do differently, but the incentives must change for candidates. The great compromisers, the bipartisan deal makers and the savvy legislators and executives get a lot of grief from opinion-makers and outside groups. To be bombastic and extreme, on the other hand, gets you plaudits from radio talk-show hosts, conservative blogs and outside interest groups. There have to be reality-based voices to push back and to encourage those figures who might actually appeal beyond the base. However, the first step — as Ponnuru and Lowry ably do — is to recognize the problem and refuse to encourage acts of folly.