At the same time, it’s interesting to see the “you’re not conservative enough” argument coming down to fiscal issues rather than social ones. Bennett and Crist, at least, lost favor because of their support of the stimulus package and other spending issues rather than, say, abortion. ~James Joyner

James is repeating a claim about Bennett I have seen made in a few places, but one that simply isn’t correct. The only Republicans who supported the stimulus last year were Specter, Collins and Snowe. When opposition to the stimulus became a test of party-line discipline, everyone on the GOP side fell in line except for these three. So actually it was Specter and Crist who faced rebellions because of their support for the stimulus. As a matter of partisanship and ideology, rebelling against Specter for voting with the Obama administration is understandable. Likewise, rebelling against Crist for embracing an Obama administration policy is understandable. What Bennett did was to go along with a Bush administration proposal that three-quarters of his Republican colleagues and three-quarters of the Senate supported. He wasn’t some lone turncoat joining an initiative identified entirely with the other party. I agree that it was a terrible proposal and Bennett was wrong to support it, but he was just one of a great many in the wrong. He also co-sponsored a health care bill that I think small-government conservatives are right to oppose, but which at least two of his incumbent colleagues up for re-election this year (Grassley and Crapo) have also supported at one time or another, and apparently they have done this without any negative political consequences. Pushing Specter and Crist out may not be the smartest electoral strategy, but at least there is more of an explanation for why these two specifically faced so much ire from the rank-and-file.

Bennett’s defeat is ultimately a bit flukey, since he was trying to be re-nominated through a process that was bound to magnify enormously whatever conservative discontent there was with him. The format of a convention filled with incensed activists was also going to make his incumbent status into a huge liability instead of the tremendous advantage it normally is. One way to interpret Bennett’s defeat is as a sign of Tea Party-type activist clout, and that’s partly true, but another would be to observe that in a contest with a much more broadly representative group of voters Bennett’s challengers would have had enormous difficulty defeating him. Something else to bear in mind is that there are relatively few states in the country where this strategy of replacing mostly conservative incumbents with very conservative challengers will lead to success in the fall. It will work in Utah, so that’s fair enough, but what happened to Bennett is not a model that can be successfully imitated in most places.

On the other point, it is not all that remarkable that Republican officeholders are being punished entirely for their fiscal errors. It is difficult to think of incumbent Republicans abandoning their party because of a backlash against their social liberalism, but it is fairly easy in recent years to find examples of fiscal moderates and liberals in the party that the rank-and-file have turned against or liberal Republican incumbents who switched parties at least partly because of disagreements over fiscal policy (e.g., Jeffords). Indeed, we can look at Arlen Specter’s recent political career as proof that social conservative litmus tests frequently count for a lot less than fiscal conservative tests in the modern GOP. In 2004, the party establishment rallied around Specter on the grounds that the party supported incumbents against primary challengers. To his lasting embarrassment and discredit, Santorum endorsed Specter over Toomey. Pro-lifers’ objections to Specter’s position on abortion weren’t important enough to Santorum or to the administration to risk losing that seat to the Democrats, and in the end they weren’t quite important enough to the primary voters, either. Five years later, one vote Specter cast for the stimulus made him persona non grata in the Pennsylvania GOP. Had Specter not cast that vote, it is questionable whether Toomey’s challenge would have still driven Specter to switch parties.

In practice, fiscal issues tend to be more important to more Republican activists and primary voters than social issues in almost every contest, except perhaps presidential primaries, and even in these contests it depends. Huckabee translated his strong social conservative record and evangelical Christianity into a sizeable following by the end of the primaries, but he never won outside the South and he was widely loathed in the conservative movement for his fiscal record as governor. His combination of social conservatism and economic pseudo-populism went over very badly with party and movement leaders generally, even though there is some reason to think that socially conservative and economically populist candidates could tap into a much broader base of support nationally. For party and movement leaders, Romney had become sufficiently conservative on social issues to pass muster, despite having zero credibility on these issues, and what really mattered to them was his position on fiscal and economic issues. McCain took a lot of grief from activists and conservative voters for several reasons, but his opposition to Bush’s tax cuts earlier in the decade was always high on the list of McCain’s errors. Someone as far left on economic and fiscal policy as Giuliani was on social issues would never have been given a real hearing, much less taken seriously as a credible candidate for the nomination.