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July 31, 2014 1:19 PM Breaking the Fever

By Ed Kilgore

At The Week, Damon Linker speaks for a lot of non-Republicans and what’s left of the GOP’s more conventionally conservative wing in suggesting that the party won’t be open to genuine “reform” ideas until it nominates a “true conservative” who proceeds to get trounced in a presidential election:

As long as the Republican base and its would-be electoral champions use the RINO charge to police GOP ranks, there will be a strong incentive for presidential candidates to avoid embracing too much of the reformicon agenda — which in its details can sound an awful lot like ideas for, you know, reforming government rather than just cutting, slashing, and gutting it. Nothing could be more RINO, after all, than failing to see that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem…..”

[T]he best chance for genuine Republican reform will be for the party to nominate a firebrand who gets roundly and unambiguously repudiated by voters. That defeat, coming after two previous ones, just might provoke genuine soul searching, and a dawning awareness that the GOP has gone down a dead end and can only find its way out by a dramatic change of direction. Think of liberals nominating New Democrat Bill Clinton after losing with Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael “Card-Carrying Member of the ACLU” Dukakis. Or Tony “Third Way” Blair leading the U.K.’s Labour Party to victory after 15 years in the wilderness under the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Sometimes a political party needs to get knocked upside the head before it can come back to its collective senses.

Now as the analogies Damon mentions should indicate, it wasn’t completely obvious to Democrats that its pre-Clinton defeats were attributable to excessive liberalism. Jimmy Carter was in some respects a moderate, or even a conservative, Democrat. Mondale was hardly a “firebrand,” and the Dukakis campaign had a lot of problems, of which his ACLU membership was but one. Clinton’s candidacy had assets that weren’t just attributable to an ideological readjustments, and moreover, he never won a popular majority.

Beyond those shortcomings of a simple analysis that what ailed Democrats then and Republicans now has been abandonment of the “median voter theorem,” today’s conservatives approach politics quite differently than yesterday’s (and today’s) liberals. The essential meaning and purpose of the “constitutional conservative” movement is the conviction that conservative governing norms and cultural totems are eternally the same, grounded in divine and natural law, and in “American Exceptionalism.” Yes, such conservatives may have deluded themselves into thinking that there is a “hidden majority” for their point of view. But in the end, many of them would prefer righteousness to electoral victories, or to put it another way, would prefer to hold out for one big and total victory for The Cause even if that means short-term losses. That is not something most liberals are willing to risk.

Still, it’s true that losing with candidates like McCain and Romney makes it easier for Republicans to imagine they’d win with Cruz or Paul or Walker. So eliminating that illusion might have a salutory effect. But personally, I’m not inclined to hope that someone like Cruz or Paul or Walker gets one accident or economic calamity away from the presidency.

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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