Political Animal


December 27, 2012 4:27 PM 2012 In Review: The Year of Conservative Absolutism

By Ed Kilgore

Between now and New Year’s Day, I will occasionally post thoughts about the big political phenomena of 2012. The biggest was the decision made the Republican Party’s rank-and-file and leadership to embrace an unusually inflexible and combative conservative ideology as it sought to topple an incumbent Democratic president and regain control of the Senate. In my opinion, this counter-intuitive approach had more to do with the ultimate results than any other single factor, including the Obama campaign’s great strengths and Mitt Romney’s personal weaknesses, and the thousands of daily events on the campaign trail we all talked about. The only thing that perhaps rivaled the unforced error of the GOP’s basic messaging was the steady if unspectacular improvement in the objective condition of the country—from the economy to national security to the first positive benefits of Obamacare—which made it easier for Democrats to make the election a clear choice of future policy paths.

It didn’t have to be that way. In Mitt Romney the GOP had a presidential nominee who would have been perfectly happy to campaign as a different version of himself, among the many versions he has presented over the years. Republicans did not have to choose a list of Senate candidates so bad—many either open extremists or former “establishment” GOPers afraid to risk conservative criticism—that they managed to lose seats in a cycle when big gains should have been relatively easy. The party’s dreadful performance among younger and minority voters was largely self-inflicted. Nobody made them raise reproductive rights as an issue, particularly in a year when their own pundits and candidates constantly insisted—as though mumbling to themselves—that “social issues” were off the table.

Yet there they were, as prospects for winning the White House and the Senate slipped away, stuck not only with absolutist positions on abortion and LGBT rights that have become increasingly universal in recent years, but with equally absolutist and unpopular positions on tax rates for the wealthy, economic stimulus, health care, climate change, and “entitlement reform.” By the time Romney tried to pose as a “moderate” in the autumn, praying for media complicity in presenting yet another dishonest self-portrait, it was too late.

Yes, demographic trends played a big role in the outcome, but given economic conditions and what might have been a serious falloff in turnout for Obama’s 2008 coalition, a less ideologically rigid GOP would have had a decent chance to prevail.

This is all worth reiterating because there are scarce signs of any Republican reconsideration of basic ideological positioning following the election. Sure, they’ll move partway back to the George W. Bush positioning on immigration—though not without savage internal dissension—and will probably shut up about marriage equality in most parts of the country. Institutions associated with the Tea Party Movement, and some of its leaders, may decline in popularity—not that it much matters insofar as that movement’s point of view has now been largely internalized by the “Republican Establishment,” as Steve Kornacki notes at Salon today. But even as the image of an extremist party continues to sink in, and even as demographic trends make a party of old white people even less attractive to the entire electorate, the prospect of “better” candidates and shrunken midterm turnout patterns will almost certainly prevent any real internal change.

So those of us who thought Barack Obama deserved a second term, and who were horrified by what a Republican White House and Congress might have done—by now we’d be looking right down the barrel of the Ryan Budget being rammed through Congress via reconciliation—owe a lot to the many ideological enforcers of the GOP who made even modest accommodations to political necessity so difficult. And despite the frustrating inability or unwillingness of some in the Beltway media to grasp the basics of asymmetrical polarization, the conservative movement’s constant aggressions convinced enough self-conscious “centrists”—from Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein to yours truly—that something unsavory was going on in the Elephant Party which had to be repudiated. This enabled Obama and his highly competent campaign to lead a united coalition through thick and thin, and—who knows?—may now help him govern despite all the obstacles he now faces.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on December 27, 2012 4:43 PM:

    This...may now help him govern despite all the obstacles he now faces.

    Okay, how? How does having a collection of nihilists sitting in the House and Senate, ones who appear perfectly content to crash the economy and appear to have cowed their own leadership into complicity with such an act, possibly help the President govern?

  • c u n d gulag on December 27, 2012 5:57 PM:

    And now, the uber-rich, and old guard Republicans, look in horror at the Frankenstein monster they've created and let grow, and realize that they've made themselves powerless to stop it.
    So, why not go along for the ride, and see what happens?

    And as for losing Senate races, and losing seats in the House, the smarter ones are saying, like Pogo, "We have met the enemy and it is us."

    And the rest of them are saying, "We have met the enemy, and it is my country. Or, at a little over half of its citizens - who are Godless Heathens, Socialists, Fascists, Communists, Muslims, Atheists, and/or gay

    As a nation, we are, in fact, Pogo - we have met the enemy, and it is us.
    Or, at least, near enough to half of us, to matter.

  • jomo on December 27, 2012 11:19 PM:

    Thanks for that. In addition to the unforced errors of the likes of Mourdock and Akin, it seems that the Fall has brought about a different phenomenon - the sign that is too hard to ignore. Hurricane Sandy put the lie to climate change denialism. Sandy Hook (and the subsequent remarks by the NRA) made clear the costs of completely out of control gun. The election exposed the mythical belief that the polls were wrong. It is almost as if the fates conspired to call bullshit on all the Republican bullshit.

  • Hue (forgetting to put name and coming up as anonymous) on December 27, 2012 11:49 PM:

    This is one right-on post, Ed.

    Remniscent too of what Charlie Pierce said of that scary guy Paul Ryan--kept some of us awake in October.

    "In his decision to make Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Wisconsin, his running mate, Romney finally surrendered the tattered remnants of his soul not only to the extreme base of his party, but also to extremist economic policies, and to an extremist view of the country he seeks to lead....
    Paul Ryan is an authentically dangerous zealot. He does not want to reform entitlements. He wants to eliminate them. He wants to eliminate them because he doesn't believe they are a legitimate function of government. He is a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live. This now is an argument not over what kind of political commonwealth we will have, but rather whether or not we will have one at all, because Paul Ryan does not believe in the most primary institution of that commonwealth: our government. The first three words of the Preamble to the Constitution make a lie out of every speech he's ever given. He looks at the country and sees its government as something alien that is holding down the individual entrepreneurial genius of 200 million people, and not as their creation, and the vehicle through which that genius can be channelled for the general welfare."


  • William Quinn on December 27, 2012 11:54 PM:

    I normally just come here to read, but I have to say, Brother Kilgore, you are really on a tear today.
    Amen! And thanks for all your work.

  • smartalek on December 28, 2012 8:32 AM:

    "THE year... "


    (As my people might put it, "what makes this year different from all others?")

    Other than that, near-total agreement.
    Best wishes to all for the coming New Year.

  • frazer on December 28, 2012 10:48 AM:

    I agree with all that was said, but am very concerned that the Republicans will resort to electoral manipulation to win future elections, since they aren't winning majorities with their ideas. Specifically, continued emphasis on voter ID, and changing the Electoral College vote allocation in states where they can siphon off a number of votes for the Republican candidate.