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December 11, 2013 1:33 PM Ike’s Not Coming Back

By Ed Kilgore

To some readers I probably seem like an obsessive crank on the subject of the internal dynamics of the Republican Party, but it’s a subject the MSM and some progressives get redundantly wrong. Among other ills, this leads to mis-diagnoses of the GOP’s direction, all sorts of false equivalency reporting (based on the idea that both parties are composed of equally sized “moderate” and “extremist” wings), and a dangerous underestimation of what will happen if the stars align and Republicans win total control of the federal government.

So I’ve weighed in on the subject more tightly and systematically in a column at TPMCafe that seeks to debunk the idea that Republicans are perpetually involved in a “civil war” or a “struggle for the soul of the party” in which “pragmatists” are fated eventually to overwhelm the “extremists,” because that’s how you win elections or that’s what the business community wants or that’s what will happen when the Tea Party fades and the Great Big Adults take over again.

What this sort of analysis typically misses is not only the extraordinarily broad subscription of Republicans to ideological tenets that would have been on the far fringes not that long ago, but the fixed nature of those tenets—often attributed to the Founders or natural law or God Almighty—which can be violated but never truly compromised. So in the present conservative context, “pragmatism” is by definition semi-treason at best, and many conservative activists would prefer no electoral victories at all to those that won’t produce the policy counterrevolution they desire.

But here’s the dirty little GOP secret I didn’t address explicitly in my column: conservative activists are so skeptical of politicians—at least those this side of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul—that they are perfectly happy accepting an unprincipled “pragmatist” who is totally in their thrall via highly public litmus test signatures and specific commitment to future action. By the time he went down to defeat in 2012, Mitt Romney was an absolute prisoner to the very forces in his party who trusted him least. The same thing happened to “maverick” John McCain in 2008; by the end of his campaign, he was basically a figurehead on a ticket led emotionally and ideologically by Sarah Palin.

My iron conviction is that if Mitt Romney had won last year and Republicans had retaken the Senate, we’d be well into a reign of fire and blood characterized by instant reconciliation-enabled enactment of the Ryan Budget, the total destruction of the Affordable Care Act, and for added measure, a “nuclear option” more thoroughgoing that that recently imposed by Senate Democrats. We might also be at war with Iran; that’s a little harder to assume. But I betcha the vast majority of MSM political writers think life under a Republican government led by Mitt Romney would be simply a more efficient version of life as we know it now. And by 2016, the same people will be cheerleading for a Christie presidency as some sort of latter-day Eisenhower Administration. And they’ll be dead wrong because they don’t understand what’s going on in the GOP.

Anyway, you can read my column, but the key thing is to avoid projecting left-of-center habits of mind onto the right-of-center, and to get out a salt shaker of skepticism any time the next “pragmatic” savior of the GOP—at the moment it’s Chris Christie—is announced. I’m reasonably sure someone like Christie will either be defeated or suborned, and either way, the good old days of “moderate Republicanism” are gone for the foreseeable future.

What’s most ironic to me is that a lot of the folks promoting a fantasy version of the GOP are the very ones who demand unconditional bipartisan respect. I think it’s time to pay conservatives the respect of taking their ideological goals seriously, and stop treating them as part of a silly game that will be pushed aside when it’s time to win elections and govern.

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.

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