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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, from the Washington Post: We could […]

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, 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 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 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 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 — and because he once said it was irresponsible to talk about impeaching Obama. 

If conservative fundraising activists reject out of hand a candidate like Jeff Fortenberry — with an 86 percent lifetime rating 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”



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