There’s a very simple explanation for how people like Chris McDaniel and Dan Brat (and before them Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock and Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck) keep winning “upsets” in primaries over highly credentialed opponents, and it was articulated in a post by Jonathan Bernstein I quoted briefly yesterday:
Republican leaders, including whomever counts as the “establishment,” have spent more than 40 years educating rank-and-file voters that “more conservative” is always better.
So when challenged by a primary opponent with a credible claim to be “more conservative,” Republican candidates are immediately faced with the dilemma that they can’t do the obvious thing and say the challenger is “too conservative.” That’s just not part of the lexicon. So “Establishment Republicans” are forced either to try to outflank their opponents to the right (as Thom Tillis did in North Carolina and Joni Ernst did in Iowa and Jack Kingston is trying to do in Georgia) or simply crush them saturation ads, superior tactics and liberal-baiting (as Mitch McConnell did in Kentucky and Lindsey Graham did in South Carolina). They can win some battles that way, but it’s hard to say they’re winning the war so long as they concede “more conservative” is always a good thing.
So far as I’m aware, David Frum is the only Republican voice calling for an end to this “pas d’ennimis a droite” (the conservative version of the old Popular Front slogan of “pas d’ennemis a gauche”) habit:
Eric Cantor tried to appease Republican radicals. They turned on him anyway.
John Boehner has tried to resist them. They just overwhelmed him.
Mitt Romney tried to join them—and in doing so fastened onto his party the platform that lost the presidential election of 2012.
At some point, Republican leaders must recognize that they have a fight on their hands whether they like it or not. If they refuse to join that fight, they will be devoured anyway. If they surrender, they condemn the whole conservative project in America to the destructive leadership of fanatics (and the cynics who make their living by duping fanatics).
This lesson keeps being administered. Republican leaders repeatedly refuse to learn.
The political exemplar most relevant to today’s GOP is not the oft-invoked Ronald Reagan. It is Tony Blair, who revived his party by standing up to its most extreme elements. There is no such leadership yet on the Republican side. If Republicans don’t develop it soon, we might just as well already rename our dysfunctional party the Committee to Elect Hillary Clinton.
Sure, there are narrow paths to Republican victory in 2014 and 2016 that don’t involve replacing today’s phony civil war in the GOP (where one way or another, the Right always wins) with a real one. But it’s very strange that virtually all Republicans want to squeeze the elephant through them instead of just telling their ideologues they’re out of the national mainstream.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.