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The Primary Challenge

Jonathan Martin at Politico reports on the thinking of some GOP party leaders in Washington. The problem as they see it: competitive primaries.

The intra-party contests, or threat thereof, have become the original sin that explains many of the party’s woes in the minds of GOP leaders. It’s the primaries that push their presidential nominees far to the right (see “self-deportation” and “47 percent”); produce lackluster Senate candidates (Todd Akin has almost become a one-word shorthand); and, as seen most vividly in the last two weeks, dissuade scores of gerrymandered House members from face-saving compromise while politically emasculating their speaker.

What to do about the primaries has become Topic A in many a post-election Republican soul-searching session, and now the first steps are being taken to address the issue. For Senate Republicans, that means a modified return to their 2010 posture of openly playing in primaries. A retiring House Republican is starting a super PAC to help House members challenged from the right. And an RNC commission is mulling over changes to the party’s presidential primary.

The easy response to this is to say that this is just the Establishment trying to rein in the grassroots. It is an excuse to get rid of the infusion of new libertarian-minded officeholders like Justin Amash and Rand Paul. And that is true, if the GOP got much better at “clearing the field” we might have Senator Trey Greyson from Kentucky rather than Paul.

At the same time it is obvious that many of the primary challengers and winners have been dolts and kooks; they have all the vices of the Establishment, but that they have them more intensely. Just because the Establishment was horrified at Christine O’Donnell doesn’t mean that she’d be making principled stands like Paul. Her critique of the party Establishment was simply that it wasn’t partisan enough.

The party wants to clear the decks during primaries because it wants to enjoy the fruits of gerrymandered safe-districts without the associated risks. If it can achieve this we’ll be swiftly returned to the days of Majority Leader Tom Delay. Instead of the odd nut, we’ll have more opportunities for entrenched corruption.

Many of our readers can be confused about what TAC’s aim really is. Sometimes we complain that the GOP isn’t conservative at all. At others we complain that the party is in an ideological straitjacket. In fact, both can be true.

And so the system of gerry-mandered districts and competitive primaries really is a double-edged sword both for the Establishment and for those of us who’d like real conservative reform. At once it allows an opening for more principled and creative minds like Paul, but it also encourages the straitjacket to get tighter elsewhere, when the primary challenger fancies himself “principled” by merely being a more belligerent ideologue.

The presidential primaries have had the same effect. The same mechanism that allowed Ron Paul to build a movement that helped elect a few others like him, also allows Herman Cains and Newt Gingriches to make their speaking fees fatter while fitting the straitjacket on the nominee.

I don’t claim to have a ready-made technical fix for Republican party or one that favors  TAC-friendly reformers. But those who want a sane and sensible conservatism to succeed shouldn’t one-sidedly throw their weight to the populists and the self-interested avatars of the grassroots in order to stick it to the RNC and the Establishment. Having a majority leader like McConnell may be bad, but creating the conditions where Todd Akins and Christine O’Donnells run a future Senate may be worse.

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