Before the election, I argued that “reformist” conservatives would likely wind up wielding inordinate influence on Republican policy thinking in the event that Republicans won a House majority. This seemed likely to happen because their arguments will seem more timely during a slow recovery than they did before the bursting of the housing bubble, and it seemed likely to happen because there will not be any serious competition from those conservatives that have sometimes been dubbed “traditionalists” or those conservatives who believe that there is no policy problem that a “return to first principles” cannot solve. However, looking at the sheer scale of Republican gains in the House, the political case for following reformist conservatives does not appear all that compelling.
It might be deplorable and maddening to watch, but what incentive do Republicans have to reflect on the errors of their former ways? None. What incentive have their supporters given Republicans to do this? None. What incentive do they have to abandon their tired refrains and formulate policies that address existing problems? None. Yesterday was a clear sign from Republicans’ core supporters that casting some symbolic nay votes and using the right kind of rhetoric are more than enough to keep them loyally voting for the very same people who just a couple years ago were seen (correctly!) as subverting and tainting the party and the conservative movement with their corruption and folly. There was a brief timeout followed by empty promises of doing better, and now one could assume that all or almost all is forgiven. Not only is there no reason why the Republican leadership would act differently this time, but they would be acting irrationally if they sacrificed the benefits of promoting corporate interests for the sake of principles in which they do not really believe.
The midterm results didn’t represent a dramatic shift in the overall public’s views, but they did confirm that rank-and-file Republicans and movement conservatives are quite happy to enable a party that badly disappoints them every time it is given an opportunity to govern. Four years ago, movement conservatives were looking for the exits and claiming that they as conservatives had nothing to do with those unpopular Republicans. Today, Republican triumph is taken as conservative vindication, and the deeply dysfunctional, unhealthy identification of conservatism with the cause of the GOP has become stronger than ever. In a little while, maybe a few months or a year or two years, the people who made John Boehner the next Speaker of the House will be groaning and complaining that Boehner and his colleagues are reverting to their old ways. That is inevitably what Boehner and his colleagues will do, and why wouldn’t they? They have every reason to return to their old habits, and they have just been shown that change or reform is entirely unnecessary to advance their careers. For a while, the disillusioned movement conservatives may be receptive to critiques of Republican leadership, but as soon as the 2012 campaign gets going they will begin rushing back to empower another batch of Republicans so that their interests can be neglected some more.
The refomist case takes for granted that Republicans need to have relevant policy ideas to be able to compete as a national party with a changing electorate. The GOP has just won one of its largest midterm victories in the last century while having no relevant policy ideas (as opposed to slogans, of which it has many) and relying heavily on its traditional constituencies. Yes, it was a midterm election and the electorate was more heavily slanted towards constituencies that tend to favor Republicans, but that isn’t going to register unless 2012 proves to be a particularly bad year. If the GOP’s overwhelming concern is to acquire and wield power, rather than actually serve the interests of its constituents, the brief four-year period in the minority would seem to be a small price to pay if the party can come storming back to better than 2004-era levels of control in the House without doing anything to earn it.
Reformists argue that Republicans have to be more than a rejectionist party, but rejectionism has rescucitated the party and undone most of the political losses of the last six years. It doesn’t matter that this is akin to the reanimation of a zombie. As long as there is some sign of life or undeath, that will be enough. Reformists and dissident conservatives alike have insisted that Republicans have to answer for their years of disastrous misrule and incompetence before they could hope to win back the public’s trust. Granted, the GOP doesn’t really have the public’s trust now, but they have been entrusted with much more power anyway, and they did this with an unreformed, unchanged party leadership. The Republican Party that the public rejected and repudiated four years ago has not meaningfully changed, and all that it had to do to regain power was engage in reflexive opposition and wait. Even if one believes, as I do, that time is not on their side, and that they are throwing away their future with the next generation, why would the current Republican leadership care? Their preferred way of doing things is to reap the benefits in the present and defer costs and responsibilities until later.
During the last few months, I have been reading the argument that angry Americans want to restore some measure of justice and order in society so that rewards go to the deserving and failures are not bailed out. It is a significant problem that the chosen method to express this anger has been to reward the undeserving and promote the failures.