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?
Another faulty argument is that the Republican Party has alienated New England through its move to the social right. This is somewhat silly. With the exception of New Hampshire, Republicans in New England rarely nominate social conservatives.
The truth is many of these states have undergone demographic revolutions. Immigration of radicals from New York has changed Vermont from solidly Republican to solidly liberal. In other cases, liberal Republicans have children who are even more liberal. A prominent example is the late Congressman Hamilton Fish IV (R-NY) whose son Hamilton Fish V ran for his father’s seat as a liberal Democrat in 1994.
The Yankee Republicans were not driven away by religious conservatives. They mostly reside at the cemetery or have moved to states with far more favorable weather and tax climates. They have been replaced by far more liberal offspring and carpetbaggers.
The Republican Party did not leave New England. New England left the Republican Party.
4) Ignore demographics
This is perhaps the most egregious problem with pragmatists’ plans. When interviewed by John Hawkins and asked about picking up votes from minorities, David Frum said, “You have to learn to live with less than 100 percent of the vote.” This is a statement Frum would never make in regards to social liberals, who he proposes the GOP bend over backwards to bring on board.
Demographic trends are clear. The GOP can’t win in the long run as the Grand Old White Party. However, the tactics needed to win minority voters run counter to the pragmatists’ strategy for gaining white moderates and social liberals. While social conservatism has not been a motivating factor with minority voters, it is common ground between Republicans and many minority voters, and that’s where the conversation can begin.
In addition, pragmatists mourn the departure of ex-Republicans like Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter. But many of the ex-Republicans are avowed opponents of school choice, one of the most promising issues with which to reach out to poor voters. Opposition to school choice and support for public schools is far more important than abortion to many social liberals who end up pulling the lever for Democrats.
Trying to appeal to minority voters — who we do need to win over eventually — and making appeals to socially liberal white moderates are contradictory efforts.
5) Make (ham-handed) compromises
Pragmatists are full of ideas on how to compromise conservative values, particularly on cultural issues. Civil unions and leaving abortion to the states are two favorite glib solutions given to prominent culture war issues.
This overlooks three things. First, it takes two to compromise, and the left has no reason to compromise. Gay activists have a tide of court decisions in their favor and abortion rights activists have everything their way as it is. Liberal activists have no interest in coming to some workable middle ground when they can win it all.
Second, these compromises don’t work. Our nation’s experience with civil unions and domestic partnerships in Vermont, New Hampshire, California, and Connecticut show that the laws ultimately lead to same-sex marriage.
Third, the tone of the proposed “compromises” is patronizing. These are not compromises in the best sense of the word, where two sides come together and hammer out an arrangement. Rather, they are ultimatums from people who lack the political firepower to enforce them. They treat conservatives as the auxiliary wing of the Republican Party, when they make up the base. Those proposing the compromises see little wrong with abortion or same-sex marriage, but they’re willing to humor social conservatives for their continued involvement. That’s no way to build a coalition.
Some have declared the various wings of the Republican Party at war with one another. We don’t have to be. We all have two or three top issues that define why we’re involved in politics, and the GOP needs to be a coalition of these non-contradictory concerns.
If what matters to you is fighting the war on terror and low taxes and the Republican Party is with you on those issues, it really shouldn’t matter to you that the Republican Party doesn’t agree with you on same-sex marriage and abortion. If traditional marriage, abortion, and support for Israel are the most important issues to you, then it shouldn’t matter if the Republican Party disagrees with you on global warming.
The Republican Party should stand firm on its values, and sell those ideas and priorities to the American people without apology and without compromising with unreasonable people who expect everything in the party to be their way.
Republicans have to realize that, while the GOP is big enough to hold people with conflicting viewpoints, it is not big enough to hold people with conflicting priorities. President Lincoln warned that a house divided against itself will not stand. A party that tries to satisfy everyone will satisfy no one and will be swallowed up in irrelevancy.