Since the election, the debate has raged. Who is responsible for the 2008 election debacle and the defeat of the Republican Party?
So far this question has centered on various groups’ attempts to reenact the scapegoat scene from Leviticus and cast all the sins of the Republican Party onto cultural conservatives and release their concerns into the wilderness.
The battle has been as entertaining as it has been misguided and pointless. Is there a war between economic conservatives and social conservatives? As someone actively involved in both social and fiscal issues, I’ve seen a lot of crossover between the two sides in terms of people who show up. This crossover is quite common. A leading economic conservative group, Club for Growth, often backed the same candidates as socially conservative groups like National Right to Life, Government Is Not God-PAC, and Focus on the Family Action. Newt Gingrich has begun to go around with slides showing that the most socially conservative members of Congress were also the most fiscally conservative.
I’m going to suggest an alternate conclusion. I’m going to reject the conventional wisdom that the election was lost because of the party grassroots and go out on a limb and suggest that maybe the problem is not the party’s activists. Perhaps (and I know this is shocking) the people who led the party over the cliff are the ones to blame.
The GOP doesn’t have a religious problem, a gay rights problem, or an abortion problem. It fundamentally has a good old boy problem. Let us tell the story of a primary, and we don’t have to name names, because the story is the same across the country.
A vacancy occurs in Congress. Who’s going to fill it? The GOP establishment has its favorite son, an amiable fellow who thinks he’d be one heck of a congressman. And then there are other candidates, probably three or four, who lay hold to the label of true conservatism. They fight it out. Leaders of many right-of-center groups endorse the good old boy. The good old boy is hailed for his electability. He may have his flaws, but he can win, we’re assured. So voters nominate and then elect Congressman Good Old Boy.
Congressman Good Old Boy doesn’t give a lick about issues like right to life or limited government. Sure, he may personally believe in some of these things, but they have nothing to do with why he got into politics. The congressman’s focus is on getting re-elected, so he works his darnedest to bring home tens of millions of dollars in earmarks and to impress a cross-section of special interest groups.
Congressman Good Old Boy is focused on appropriating money, doling out favors, defending the party establishment, and getting re-elected. Rinse, lather, and repeat a hundred times, and you have the story of two-thirds of the Republicans in Congress.
The problem the Republican Party faces is twofold. First is the division between the GOP’s leadership and its membership. Scott Rasmussen has defined a divide in polling between the mainstream (or “populist”) mood and the political class. This is the basic divide within the GOP.
Republican Party activists, however, are there because of issues such as limited government, abortion, gun rights, tax reform, school choice, property rights, etc. The GOP’s leadership showed little appetite for rocking the established order and bringing about fundamental reform during its last 11 years in control of Congress.
Because of the Republican Party’s lack of interest in the ideas that brought passion and energy to the party’s base, many activists began to step away, give less money, not volunteer, and stay home on election day. Conservatives have had cause to be angry after the broken promises that Bush made in 2004.
The general public was also seeing something. In 1994, voters had kicked out-of-touch big-spending Democrats to the curb. However, Republicans became the same scandal-plagued party of government that they’d defeated. Republicans had met the enemy and they were it. The public decided they’d had enough, and Karl Rove’s permanent majority came crashing down.
The instigators of post-election recriminations are a funny lot. They describe themselves as fiscal conservatives and libertarians, but you rarely see them lay out any spending they want to see cut. Nor do you hear them extolling fundamental tax reform. And while they claim to be reformers, their offerings collectively make Bambi look like Rambo.
Where are the great mass movements to make the agendas of David Frum’s The Conservative Comeback or Ross Douthat’s Grand New Party come to fruition? Lackluster ideas do not inspire great political movements. The irony is that the attacks on members of the grassroots coalition let the real perpetrators of Republican ruin off the hook. Is it a coincidence that four Republican senators who supported TARP were narrowly defeated, while another TARP supporter was forced into a runoff? And this Frankenstein monster of a program has become everything that stalwart conservatives warned it would be back in September, even while the establishment urged us to swallow the “crap sandwich.”
Republicans didn’t lose because we had people at the grassroots of the party with strong viewpoints. Republicans lost because we had hypocritical leadership that gave lip service to ideas but was ultimately focused on its own power. The greatest danger to a GOP resurgence is not those folks who are motivated to political actions by their beliefs, but rather the way-too-powerful good old boys who stalk the halls of Congress and statehouses across America. They continue on, as if trying to repeat the strategy of the amiable Republicans who spent an entire generation as an irrelevant congressional minority from 1955-1994.
The bottom line is that the attempt to pit activists against one another in a blame game is little more than a distraction. We can point fingers all we want, but as long as we continue to put up power-hungry posers, the American people will continue to give us exactly what we deserve: defeat.