The PJ Tatler

Republican Civil War: Practicality vs. Principle

It’s an argument both perennial and perpetual. On one side, Republican partisans argue that activists should temper their expectations in recognition of “political reality.” On the other side, hardcore activists demand absolute fealty to principle, threatening to challenge straying incumbents in endorsement and primary contests.

It’s a national debate, as well as a local one. As the regular legislative session in Minnesota builds toward its abrupt close on May 18th, one of the state’s most active Republican operatives reminds activists that elections have consequences. On his Residual Forces blog, Andy Apilkowski recalls that the mixed nature of state government prevents Republicans in the lower body from accomplishing much:

Here’s the thing I want my fellow conservative and center right friends and allies to remember. Republicans are going to lose the budget debate in terms of our principles, and we can’t disown [our party’s incumbents] because we think they caved.

No seriously. Some people are expecting, nay, DEMANDING across the board cuts in spending, reduction in the size of government, and ground breaking reforms OR ELSE. (shakes fist)

… Republicans lost the Governor’s race [in 2014]. That means, any desire to repeal MNSure [the state’s Obamacare-compliant health insurance exchange], cut tax rates, and freeze Government spending (yes, I know, even a freeze is not good enough for some) would be impossible as [Democrat governor] Mark Dayton was reelected…

We actually lost the ability to win the budget negotiations on election day last year…

… So friends on the right. Please measure your expectations this week and don’t lash out at our friends on the right for not passing laws in line with our principles because it was never possible.

As a Republican who began as a Tea Party activist and has transitioned into a nascent politician, I can appreciate Aplikowski’s point. Any strategy, political or otherwise, must account for reality. Certainly, a Republican majority in one body of a state legislature can not unilaterally set public policy.

That said, I would submit that very few disgruntled conservative activists genuinely expect the passage of limited government bills without limited government majorities in control. Frustration with the Republican status quo does not proceed from an expectation of magical outcomes.

In truth, activist frustration rises from a perception that electing Republicans will not necessarily result in limited government. Evidence to that effect continues to build, suggesting that disowning bad Republicans may be a necessary prerequisite to securing desired outcomes in the long run.

It’s true that limited government legislation cannot be achieved without a supportive legislative majority and a willing executive. That’s a political reality.

Here’s another political reality. Rarely does legislation pass on a strict party vote. There’s usually a mix of Republicans and Democrats voting for or against any given bill.

Another political reality is that politicians are self-interested creatures drawn inexorably toward the center, to a place of atrophy and maintenance of the status quo. That is unless acted upon by an outside force that threatens their comfort and status.

These latter realities suggest that merely voting Republican (or Democrat, if you’re a partisan on their side) will not achieve your legislative goals in the long run. On the contrary, if you can be relied upon to support Republicans no matter how they behave, your desires will be ignored as candidates instead appeal to voters whose support proves more conditional.

That’s political reality.

There is no choice between practicality on the one hand, and principle on the other. If you care about principle, you must hold your party’s incumbents accountable in order to be practical. Otherwise, if you cannot ensure that elected Republicans will support Republican principles, there’s no practical reality-based reason for voting Republican.