Since the day after John McCain lost the election, a battle has raged. “Pragmatists” have demanded that conservatives, particularly social conservatives, compromise their values in order to win elections.
The argument between the principled and the “pragmatists” goes back and forth, and there are numerous variations. A personal favorite, from the conservatives, is the pugilistic argument: make us.
This, of course, is not so much an argument as a challenge to the David Frums of the world. Conservatives did not obtain their spot in the GOP because the Rockefeller wing decided one day that, in order for the Republicans to win, they needed to let conservatives run things for a while. Conservatives became the core of the party through hard work and struggle.
But conservatives may not be utilizing the most potent fuel for the fight: the self-styled pragmatists’ ideas, listed below, are anything but.
1) Spectral politics is the underlying force of American life
Pragmatists believe Republicans must capture the center to win elections.
John McCain is far closer to the center than Barack Obama. And if spectral politics determined the outcome of elections, the 2008 election would have had much the same result as the 2004 race, based on exit polls showing that the percentage of conservatives, liberals, and moderates voting was essentially the same as four years before.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s theory of vertical politics makes far more sense. Huckabee posits that, while the base of the two parties look for which candidate will take the country to the right or to the left, most voters think vertically and are far more concerned with whether their leaders are taking the country up or down. In 2008, voters rejected the GOP — not because they had taken America too far to the right, but because they were seen as taking the country down.
One can easily make the case that you’ll take the country up while running as a liberal like Obama, or as a conservative like Ronald Reagan.
2) The center is a solid political foundation
The danger of trying to run to the center is that the center is constantly moving. In the early ’90s, the idea of civil unions for gays and lesbians would be considered extreme. Now most observers call it centrist. Opening the Department of Education was an extreme left idea. Not having it is now an extreme right idea.
Building a political party on the center is building on a foundation of Jell-O.
Big Tent Democrat of talkleft.com says it well: “Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle.” If conservatives concede to efforts to move the center to the left, it will not be long until the definition of the center moves leftward again, ever leftward, the terms of the debate being defined by the leftists.
3) The argument matters, not the facts
Good strategy examines the facts and maps out a plan. Bad strategy does what you wanted to do in the first place and tries to frame facts around your argument. The latter is that of the pragmatist. The argument against social conservatives has gone on for years, and only has more potency because Republicans are out of power.
There’s no proof that abortion or same-sex marriage cost Republicans the election. All indicators are that it was the lousy economy and big bailouts. In fact, polls have shown the majority of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage.
The one actual piece of data they’ll point to is that younger people tend to be more open to same-sex marriage. They argue the GOP ought to jump ahead of the age curve and abandon the majority position for what will be the majority position in a few years.
There are two problems with this strategy. First, people tend to become more conservative as they grow older, get away from the politically correct atmosphere of the academy, and marry. Many twenty-two-year-olds who support same-sex marriage may well become thirty-two-year-olds who oppose it.
More importantly, the pragmatists lack solid proof of an army of people who, but for the stance on same-sex marriage and abortion, would join the Republican Party. Indeed, the most vocal supporters of same-sex marriage are either part of the gay rights movement or movement leftism and are unlikely to change sides if Republicans reversed course on these issues.
Some very prominent bloggers on the right, such as Allahpundit at Hot Air, Patterico, and Moe Lane opposed Proposition 8. Yet they’ve said far more in reaction to anti-Prop. 8 extremism than they ever said against Prop. 8.
The reason? Politics isn’t about getting everything you want. Two examples, according to polls: 82 percent of Americans support voluntary prayer in public school and 70 percent of Americans support term limits. Yet both issues are dead in the water. Why?
Because our system is not government by what people want, but by what they care about.
Even if they would personally vote for school prayer or term limits if they were in Congress, few will base their votes on these issues. On the other hand, a November 2008 poll showed 11 percent of people voting Republican had abortion as their top issue, versus only 2 percent of Democrats and 4 percent of independents.
How much pragmatic sense does it make to tick off one out of nine Republicans in order to reach out to independents on an issue they don’t really care about?