Who is the intended audience for this kind of argument? Who is it attempting to persuade? People who have basically given up on a majority Republicans — that is, the “conservative rump” — are in a poor position to influence them. ~Jim Antle
To return to the Specter business one more time, a few words in defense of this “rump” remark. It seems to me that when you have a leading conservative Senator, in this case Jim DeMint, expressing a desire to have 30 true believers in the Senate rather than 60 compromised members, you are faced with a situation in which the conservatives who are most hostile to Specter and happiest to see him go are exulting in their status as a political rump and are expressing their hope to be reduced still more to an adamantine core. I suppose that is their prerogative, but when people begin acting like the rump of a once-influential movement it is not exactly unfair to use the name.
Certainly, those most interested in rebuilding a winning electoral coalition of the right should attempt to persuade the majority of the right that seems to think there is nothing that cannot be solved with redoubled conviction and indifference to every past failure except excessive spending. For my part, I’ll acknowledge that my arguments are not always made in the most, er, irenic way, and I will admit that the strong certainty that dissident conservatives have in our views on where movement conservatives have gone wrong tends to clash violently with their equally strong certainty that the movement hasn’t gone wrong at all. At some point, though, assumptions and opinions have to be tested against empirical evidence, and one argument will be more in agreement with the evidence than the other, and it is at that point that tone and choice of words become secondary and the substance of the arguments has to be reckoned with. Movement conservatives and party regulars have been making a series of bets in the last few months that die-hard fiscal austerity is not just the right thing to do, but it is also the winning approach, and on at least two major occasions this approach has backfired spectacularly.
Most everyone agrees that, as part of the generally confused Tedisco campaign, Tedisco’s indecision on the stimulus bill badly damaged him, but few have dug deeper and wondered why Tedisco was unsure how to respond to the legislation at first. If the approach of die-hard opposition was such a clear winner–and in NY-20 it ought to have been even more obviously advantageous given the traditional Republican leaning of the district–Tedisco ought to have reached this conclusion quickly. Instead, he had to balance his knowledge that the voters in the district were responding favorably to the idea of the legislation, however vaguely or poorly they understood its provisions, with the national party message that ended up dragging him down. If the all-in bet against the stimulus had been the right move electorally, Tedisco need never have wavered. In Pennsylvania, the stimulus bill was again at the center: it was the last straw for conservatives, and disagreement over the bill evidently made it impossible for Specter to stay in the party, and so to keep the bet on fiscal austerity going conservatives decided in effect to throw away a Senate seat. Of course, it is possible to take this approach and say that the principle of fiscal austerity (during one of the worst postwar recessions, no less) is more important than election outcomes, but one cannot at the same time say that principle of fiscal austerity is the means to winning back the majority.
Persuasion becomes virtually impossible when the target audience doesn’t see the need for even having the discussion. There may not be enough of an effort by critics of the mainstream from “reform” and dissident conservative perspectives to appeal to the persuadable, but one of the reasons why “the conservative rump” is in its current predicament is that it long ago stopped making any effort at persuasion in relating to the rest of the country, insisted on reiterating its greatest hits and expecting the country to follow. Persuadable, non-ideological voters were lost for lack of seriously trying to secure them as reliable supporters. Suburban voters were driven away by the combination of Iraq, general incompetence and perceived ideological rigidity. In addition to being an awful propaganda line for the war, “stay the course” became a large part of the GOP’s unimaginative electoral strategy as well. Nowadays, if they acknowledge mistakes at all, mainstream conservatives are keen to pin responsibility on anyone but themselves while tarring anyone who points out the obvious errors of the last decade as treacherous or some crypto-liberal eager to score points with the media. Some of these people may exist, but the presumption that every critical voice falls into this category is evidence of intellectual exhaustion and insecurity.
Demographic and cultural changes have been working against conservatives for years, but there was no coherent or defensible attempt to counter this with an expansion of the coalition. Heavy-handed, clumsy handling of immigration legislation in the final Bush years was a perfect example of how not to expand a political coalition, and whatever short-term gain Medicare Part D managed to provide it sabotaged every GOP effort to regain credibility on fiscal matters. Disastrously, these badly misguided attempts to add to the coalition have been taken as proof that no addition was needed and everything had been fine as it was before. According the weird tribal rules that “no one should speak against the family,” those who do offer some ideas and proposals are distrusted because they are deemed unreliable…because they offer ideas and proposals. After 12 years defined mostly by failure, accommodating partisan goals and being good team players, mainstream conservatives seem even more intent on whittling down the number of those who count as “real” members of “the team.” After a decade of ruining conservatism in the name of “getting with the program,” there is now a new program we are all supposed to endorse despite its exceptionally bad timing, its misunderstanding of the political landscape and its misdiagnosis of past electoral defeats. Of course, those on the right rude enough to point these things out are clearly in the employ of George Soros, or so we would be reliably informed whenever anyone in the mainstream deigns to engage with these arguments.
Conservatives’ fairly tenuous hold on power in Washington was masked by the post-9/11 rallying to the GOP and the advantages provided by redistricting and gerrymandering after 2000. People laughed at Ruy Teixeira for talking about an emerging Democratic majority in 2002, when such a majority seemed more of a fantasy than ever before, but instead of responding pre-emptively to the long-term demographic and political danger to the right that stared them in the face the GOP pushed for the “pre-emptive” invasion of another country and its leadership kept trying to force its members to accept the inevitability of mass immigration. Both blew up in their faces, as the war lost the GOP most of the country and immigration demoralized and alienated huge numbers of conservatives. Most of the “reform” conservatives were on the wrong side of both questions, of course, while the dissidents were right about both, which I suppose makes the more recent complaints from “reformers” about the GOP’s electoral woes and deficit of ideas harder to take. Even so, there is more worthwhile thinking going on at these two conservative margins than in the whole of the mainstream at the moment, and unless mainstream conservatives want to remain a rump they ought to pay more attention to what the critics are saying rather than the way in which they are saying it.