If I were voting in the Delware primary today, as I say, I would vote for Mike Castle. He’s a moderate, but his election might—just might—enable the GOP to capture the U.S. Senate, a prize worth having. But when the tea party argues instead on behalf of Christine O’Donnell—when conservatives insist that, over the longer term, the only way for the GOP to become viable in the Northeast is to present conservative candidates, offering voters a true choice—well, you know what?
They have an argument. ~Peter Robinson
No, not really. Republicans in the Northeast are free to nominate candidates of whatever stripe they like, but “offering a true choice” by running thoroughly conservative candidates and becoming politically viable in one of the least politically conservative parts of the country are clearly different things. Obviously, I am not a Republican partisan, so I don’t care that much about whether or not the party is viable there or anywhere else. I also don’t identify with movement conservatism because so much of what they believe conservatism to be is nothing of the kind. Despite all that, I find I am bothered by the extent to which conservative thinking about the practical politics of elections relies on certain fantasies.
There are three main fantasies. The first fantasy is that Americans are a naturally conservative people, and by “naturally conservative” activists and pundits on the right mean that they should favor a self-identified conservative policy agenda. Even if most Americans have certain instincts or attitudes that could be described in some way as conservative, when it comes to politics most Americans identify as something else. Moderates and liberals are more heavily concentrated in some parts of the country, and in those parts of the country if the GOP offered a “true choice” between a standard-issue conservative candidate and a liberal Democrat the latter would win most of the time. The reverse is true in areas with higher concentrations of conservatives, and in many cases the Democrats have re-adjusted to this and run candidates who are well to the right of the national party on some issues. For some reason, many conservatives are allergic to tailoring candidates to suit different regions and states, and they keep wanting to insist on a degree of ideological uniformity among all of their candidates. This uniformity probably wouldn’t be desirable even if it weren’t a political liability in many places.
Another important fantasy is the idea that political conservatives are “normal people” who don’t spend their time preoccupied with politics. The reality is that most political conservatives, which for the most part means likely Republican voters, are far more consistently engaged with politics and political news than their counterparts. This is one reason why Republicans typically enjoy significant turnout advantages in midterm and off-year elections. They remain consistently engaged in the political process, and the interest of Democratic voters tends to wax and wane depending on whether or not there is a presidential election. This allows Republican voters to create the illusion that “the country” is rejecting the other party’s agenda, and it leads them to believe that they represent a genuine majority view. In fact, these electorates are far less representative of the nation as a whole than the electorate in a presidential year, and Republicans are counting on this factor to exaggerate the level of support they have in the country.
The third fantasy is the one Robinson was indulging at the end of his post. This is the fantasy that Republican political failure can usually be explained as the product of insufficient or lacking conservatism. I understand why some conservatives like to make this argument: it gives Republican politicians an immediate incentive to move closer to conservative positions, and it puts down a marker to provide a ready-made explanation if an insufficiently conservative candidate loses. As a means of pressuring politicians or spinning election results, it may be an understandable move. However, as a matter of analysis, most of the time this claim is just not true, and in the Northeast or Pacific Northwest or in most of New Mexico it is obviously not true. Steve Pearce didn’t lose in a landslide to Tom Udall two years ago because he wasn’t conservative enough. New Mexicans had a “true choice” for Senate, and two-thirds of them chose Udall.
I have no problem if conservatives want to promote principled candidates and get them nominated for major offices, but I do object when they pretend that they can “have it all”–principle and political success–and base all of their calculations on that profoundly unrealistic and not very conservative understanding.