The conservative movement is wrestling with two conceptions of what the Republican Party should be doing. The movement and the party are not one and the same, as Jay Nordlinger aptly explains: “Conservatism is the wine and the Republican party is the bottle. Neither one can do anything without the other. It’s fine for us conservatives to sit around grousing about the Republican Party, which is how we spend 90 percent of our time, but who’s going to get into the arena and engage in the difficult work of politics, which involves a million concessions?”
That implicitly, and I think correctly, assumes the purpose of the GOP is to promote and enact conservative ideas — the more, the better. That is surely how the Democrats look at things — elect their guys and you get liberalism in all its glory (Obamacare, “ending” wars, etc.)
But there is another version that is at the heart of the current battle for the soul of the party. Let’s assume for the moment that this alternate view is not merely about making money from aggrieved partisans, adding viewers to a talking-head cable TV show and building a devoted talk-radio following. The view was summed up by former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) when he said he’d rather have “30 true conservatives in the Senate than 60 that don’t really have principles.” Of course it may be that their principles and DeMint’s just don’t line up. (Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, has a principled, conservative rationale for immigration reform, for example.)
Moreover, what DeMint — and now a flock of right-wing groups such as Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, Freedom Works and Madison Project — term as unprincipled, many (most, I would argue) Republicans view as practicing common-sense politics in which compromise is essential. It is the politics of two-term Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush) and it is the sort of politics that enables Republicans to advance tax reform, a ban on partial-birth abortion, a rebuilding of defense forces and the appointment of originalist Supreme Court judges.
The elevation of minority status and the political purity that goes with it is the essence of the alternative right-wing view of the GOP. In the real world, that means Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is Senate majority leader. In the presidential context this means the party nominates someone like Sen. Barry Goldwater — and suffers a complete wipe-out, helps usher in the Great Society and loses huge numbers in Congress.
Perhaps a group like Senate Conservatives Fund backs the candidates it does because it thinks such characters can win. The voters will embrace these people! That is what they and some right-wing bloggers said about candidates Todd Akin and Christine O’Donnell. If so, donors and voters should conclude that these backers of flaky characters are guilty of repetitive political malpractice. (The Tea Party Express apparently is going to endorse Milton Wolf, a candidate in Kansas for the U.S. Senate, tomorrow. This is after his online scandalous behavior was revealed.)
The politics of Jay Nordlinger — the politics of winning with the best you can get — is how Republicans will repeal and replace Obamacare, retain a minimally conservative Supreme Court and put us on a course of fiscal sanity. (“For many of my fellow conservatives, no Republican is ever good enough: not George W. Bush, not John McCain, not Mitt Romney. Mushy moderates. Well, they were good enough for me, and I wish McCain or Romney had beaten Barack Obama. I wish McCain were in his second term now, and I surely wish Romney were in his first.”) No matter how pure those 30 Republicans are, so long as the Democrats have the majority none of those goals is attainable. This is what causes leaders like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to strike out at the holier-than-thou set.
The most damaging result of the purists’ school of politics comes in the national security realm. We see it now in the enormously risky defense cuts. (Defense budget guru Mackenzie Eaglen explains: “Not only are there more threats, but the United States lacks the predictability available in the Cold War. Not only is the world more uncertain than any time in recent memory, but this is a defense drawdown taking place while a significant amount of US forces are still engaged in conflict.”) It will take years to rebuild the military after the Obama years. Likewise, it will be impossible to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle if Iran gets its nuclear capability on Obama’s watch. It will potentially take new conflicts, great expense and American losses to respond to terrorist forces that have been and will be allowed to flourish in North Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
In short, the most dangerous result of the “give me 30″ (or “give me Goldwater”) mentality is the harm to U.S. national security. Any way you look at it, that is far too great a penalty to pay for the sake of claim to political purity (and enhanced fundraising and bigger talk radio audiences). For that reason alone, I stand with Jay Nordlinger.