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The Fortenberry Test Case

Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns is not going to seek a second term as US Senator. Because the state is considered a safe Republican seat, the GOP primary will likely decide this race. US Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln has said he’s considering a run for the seat.

Get this [1], from the Washington Post:

We could see some heated competition, if, say, Heineman doesn’t run for the Senate, but Fortenberry (who is no favorite of the political right) and Smith (who is more conservative) do make bids.

“We can already say that we won’t be able to support Congressman Fortenberry if he runs. His record on spending, debt, and taxes in the House is just too liberal. Republicans in Nebraska deserve better,” said Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins. SCF, which was started by conservative Jim DeMint and involved itself in the 2012 Nebraska Senate GOP primary, is looking to identify a candidate it can get behind, Hoskins added.

The Senate Conservatives Fund [2] says it supports “candidates who have the courage to fight for the timeless conservative principles of limited government, strong national defense, and traditional family values.” Follow that link to see them elaborate on what that means.

Fortenberry is “too liberal” on fiscal issues? This requires some unpacking. From my TAC interview with Fortenberry [3] last year:

Last year, Fortenberry, who holds an undergraduate degree in economics and master’s degrees in public policy and theology, raised eyebrows by refusing to renew his commitment to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge never to vote for a tax increase. By declining to bow towards ATR president Grover Norquist, a pro forma ritual for Republican lawmakers, Fortenberry signaled a willingness to rethink the right’s tax orthodoxy in light of changing times.

It’s not that the Nebraskan is becoming more moderate, but rather that he sees Republican policies as driven too much by Wall Street and not enough by Main Street. And the devoutly Catholic Fortenberry, whose divinity degree is from the notably conservative Franciscan University of Steubenville, is beginning to advocate a conservatism that draws on the Catholic social principles of subsidiarity, which entails a commitment to localism and strengthening the small-scale institutions of civil society. He thinks this might just be the philosophical breakthrough the conservative movement needs to get unstuck from its intellectual stasis, and to reinvigorate the moral imagination of the country.



RD: You broke party ranks last year by refusing to renew your pledge not to vote for any future tax increases. Since when do Republican congressmen dare to defy Grover Norquist?

JF: My responsibility is to make judgments about hard, complex issues that I believe to be right. Simply looking at the status quo and suggesting that the tax code is sacrosanct and can never change, and that decisions made in the ’80s and ’90s can never change, is absurd. The tax code is weighted toward the ultra-wealthy and ultra-wealthy corporations, and has created an offshore aristocracy of people who can afford to hire an army of accountants and lawyers. This shifts the tax burden to small businesses, entrepreneurs, and others. I don’t want to see taxes go up on any hardworking American. We need a simpler, fairer tax code. Removing special-interest loopholes could potentially increase revenues and allow for lower rates.


RD: You have criticized bank bailouts and what you call “the privatization of profit and the socialization of risk.” Your fellow Louisiana-born Republican, Buddy Roemer, is a professional banker who strongly criticizes the U.S. financial system, saying that Wall Street has captured the political system. Is he right?

JF: Yes, he’s right. Look at what happened with the whole Dodd-Frank proposal. The whole premise was we have to prevent systemic collapse like we had in 2008. I didn’t support it, but Congress passed the legislation. I have good bankers here in Nebraska who had no role in the financial crisis, who are in fact the antidote to the financial crisis, because they’re small enough to manage their portfolios well. They’re extremely frustrated because of the new regulatory culture brought on them by the misbehavior of the big banks. Ask yourself: what advantage have we seen by concentration of assets in fewer and fewer hands on Wall Street? Five banks now hold a majority of banking assets in the country. I think this is anti-free market. It’s the regulatory capture of an entire industry.

RD: How did this happen?

JF: It’s complicated. A lot of people, both left and right, see Washington as a leading driver of policies and outcomes. Actually, it lags. It’s responding to problems, not preventing problems. While you have a great deal of grumbling over the financial bailouts, which were started under President Bush, carried on by President Obama, and supported by both Republicans and Democrats, you also have complicity. Look at [former] Treasury Secretary Paulson. What did he do before he came to government? He ran Goldman Sachs. What did [Jon] Corzine do? He ran Goldman Sachs. Then he left government, ran MF Global, and broke that company. The system is too big, and there’s no accountability from individuals to the organization. Fixing this would require a different economic model, and that’s a Herculean undertaking given the status quo and the revolving door of big players between government and the financial sector.

Read the entire interview [3] and tell me that this staunchly Catholic Republican is not a conservative. The real problem the DeMintors have with him is that he wouldn’t sign Norquist’s pledge, and he thinks the GOP needs to rethink its tax policy in light of current realities, versus sticking with an ideological orthodoxy that is arguably plutocratic, not conservative. They may also oppose him because he agreed to the fiscal cliff deal — he explained his reasons for voting for it here [4] — and because he once said it was irresponsible to talk about impeaching Obama.  [5]

If conservative fundraising activists reject out of hand a candidate like Jeff Fortenberry — with an 86 percent lifetime rating [6] from the American Conservative Union — on grounds that he’s too liberal on economic issues, who on earth will they accept? Do they even care about winning elections? Are Catholic politicians only welcome in the GOP if they check their Catholicism at the door when it comes to economics? Are the only conservatives these activists welcome in the GOP those who do not question economic orthodoxy, even if they do so from a different set of conservative philosophical assumptions?

If Fortenberry runs for Johanns’ seat, his candidacy will be an interesting test case. It’s shocking to think that a Republican as conservative as Fortenberry — a Catholic Republican who has the potential to appeal to socially conservative Democrats, and, given his relative youth, to hold that Senate seat for the GOP for a long time — is not ideologically pure enough for these party activists.

UPDATE: Some good comments in the thread below. Excerpts:

What strikes me most about this is the incredible depth & breadth of the political vision Fortenberry describes in the interview – certainly an imaginitive one, if ever there was one – and the utter staleness of the Senate Conservatives Fund recitation & its denunciation of Fortenberry. I really hope Fortenberry runs to open up this fissure between Ramesh Republicans urging a re-thinking of fiscal issues & DeMinters who are cashing in on these so-called “timeless values”.

And another:

“Smith is a 100% reliable conservative”

I disagree with the premise that agreement with the ACU on all points defines “conservative,” but my complaint is larger–the ACU can come to its own conclusions about what policies are more in line with conservative principles, after all, and their view is valid.

What I object to is the fact that professional conservatives like those at ACU refuse to allow that anyone who disagrees with them is “conservative” at all, in any sense. You were against the Iraq war? Liberal. Voted to close a tax exemption? Liberal. Favor adding a higher tax bracket to make the tax code better reflect wealth distribution? Liberal. There is a refusal to acknowledge any conservative political thought but that approved by the think tanks within the conservative movement.

If Nebraska Republicans want someone other than Fortenberry, they have that right. But I want candidates like Fortenberry, and people like Norquist and DeMint and the ACU stop me from getting them. So they shouldn’t complain when they lose elections partly because people like me don’t vote for “100% reliable conservatives”

61 Comments (Open | Close)

61 Comments To "The Fortenberry Test Case"

#1 Comment By Art Deco On February 20, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

Todd: The modern Republican Party’s hawkish foreign policy partly grew out of the hawkish foreign policy of conservative Democrats, who began having an affinity for the Republican Party when Eisenhower was president. These hawkish conservative Democrats combined with Goldwater Republicans when Nixon was president to establish the modern Republican Party which was hawkish, as opposed to the dovishness of both the Democratic Party of George McGovern and the earlier Republican Party of Robert Taft.

Um, no. The various measures undertaken during the post-war period, including re-instituting conscription (1948), the Marshall Plan (1948-52), the advent of NATO (1949), the Korean War (1950-53), and the rapid expansion of the military (1950-55) had the support of comfortable majorities of the congressional caucuses of both parties. About a quarter of the Senate Republican caucus voted against the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty. Taft’s view was a minority at that time and evaporated from the Republican caucus in Congress after 1958.

Please keep in mind that the expansion of the military after 1950 amounted to a reallocation of domestic product 2.5x as large as that undertaken after 2001, included waging a war in Korea far more bloody than that in Iraq, and included conscription. It was a far more socially consequential change of policy. The advent of the VietNam War in 1965 had the nearly unanimous support of the congressional caucuses of both parties (Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse the exceptions).

There was a very gradual resorting of the base of support and range of debate within the political parties over the period running from 1952 to 1994, but foreign policy considerations had little to do with it. The propensity of both parties to use force was lower in 1994 than it had been 30 years earlier, though higher than it had been ca. 1975.

#2 Comment By loudonisafool On February 20, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

So you’re saying that a 100% true-blue conservative can’t *ever* vote for increased spending, even when that spending might be necessary, worthy, popular, reasonable and defensible? Your argument is that there is never a reason to increase spending?

If top marginal rates of 40% are required in order to pay for our government then I would say that increased spending, even when that spending might be necessary, worthy, popular, reasonable and defensible, must be coupled with corresponding cuts or 100% of the burden of that increased spending needs to fall solely on the middle class and lower taxpayers who find it to be so necessary, worthy, popular, reasonable and defensible. And preferably on under-employed young non-professionals with sizable college debt who voted for Obama.

#3 Comment By Wesley On February 20, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

Art Deco: Read Todd’s post that I was responding to. I was talking about the Republican Party on the eve of the U.S. entrance into World War II. Todd mentioned the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, which was passed in Congress largely along a party-line vote with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed, especially in the House. And yes of course, from World War II until the late 1960s, the bipartisan consensus was that the U.S. should have a large military and a relatively interventionist foreign policy.

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 20, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

Fortenberry is the kind of conservative, even Republican, I could vote for, although I’m not sure there are any like him in Wisconsin.

I would no doubt disagree on some matters, e.g. if he used his office to push “pro-life” criminal legislation, but no candidate is perfect.

If he doesn’t get the nomination, I would bet there are Democrats in Nebraska who have similar convictions. They should run. It would be a good show to watch, and they might win.

#5 Comment By Travis On February 20, 2013 @ 9:59 pm


You’re free to hold that policy position. I very much doubt that you will ever get an electoral majority which agrees with you.

#6 Comment By Art Deco On February 20, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

Wesley, you said:

These hawkish conservative Democrats combined with Goldwater Republicans when Nixon was president to establish the modern Republican Party which was hawkish

Which is historically false and makes no reference to the inter-war period. There was no ‘Republican Party of Taft’ during the inter-war period. Robert Taft was a greenhorn member of Congress in 1940. The country had a small military establishment and lacked formal alliances, but America First isolationism was hardly an uncontested view and not adhered to by any of the party presidential nominees after 1924.

#7 Comment By Tyro On February 21, 2013 @ 7:16 am

To be fair, if Obama, out most extremist president, is a Marxist Socialist hell-bent on turning America into a Communist State, then Fortenberry does seem like a “liberal” in comparison.

#8 Comment By MikeS On February 21, 2013 @ 7:47 am

“timeless conservative principles of low taxes, [etc]”

Get that? Timeless. Ronald Reagan is the same today, yesterday, and forever. No policy adjustments ever are needed. This is not politics, it is fundamentalist religion.

#9 Comment By Art Deco On February 21, 2013 @ 9:34 am

“timeless conservative principles of low taxes, [etc]”

Get that? Timeless. Ronald Reagan is the same today, yesterday, and forever. No policy adjustments ever are needed. This is not politics, it is fundamentalist religion.

There is nothing wrong with fixed principles. One of the disconcerting things about contemporary liberal discourse is the faddishness of it all. Mort Sahl once said that if you went through your whole life and never changed your opinion on anything, eventually you would be tried for treason. When I see read some juvenile yapping about matrimonial law, I can feel it.

Mr. Reagan’s problem, which came to be a cultural problem in the GOP, was not that he favored ‘low taxes’, but that he failed to reconcile all the things that he professed to favor. The result was large quanta of public sector borrowing and large balance of payments deficits.

#10 Comment By Art Deco On February 21, 2013 @ 9:37 am

BTW, a general bias against public expenditure was not an innovation of Mr. Reagan’s. It has quite a pedigree. The trouble you had ‘ere Reagan with Republican discourse was a disinclination to make plain what that meant when you got down to brass tacks, as if you could utter the words “cut spending” or “fiscal responsibility” and the details would just fall into place. It is still a problem.

#11 Comment By In the Nebraska snow On February 21, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

I’m a Nebraska left leaning Independent who has voted for Fortenberry every time he has run. He’s far more conservative than me, but I’ve personally met him and talked about issues like health care, and have come away impressed with how he talks about issues, even if I don’t agree with everything. For a non-idealogical voter like me, that’s enough to earn my vote. I’m totally turned off by 2 dimensional, line drawing conservatives like our current Governor who have shallow perspectives on politics. I want 3 dimensional leaders who aren’t afraid to delve into the gray areas.