Ten Miles Square


April 30, 2012 1:12 PM “The Core of the Problem Lies With the Republican Party”

By Jonathan Bernstein

Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein, political scientists and (I hope they wouldn’t object to the characterization) quintessential center-loving establishment types, take full aim at the Republican Party in a column today at the Washington Post.

It’s an excellent piece, and I agree with almost all of it. My only caveat would be about the language they use to characterize the GOP: that it’s moved “sharply to the right,” that they’ve “gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post,” that it’s about the “bedrock right.” I don’t believe that the program they’re writing about, and the examples they give, have anything to do with conservative vs. liberal, conservative vs. moderate, or extreme conservative vs. conservative. And for the most part I’m not really talking about the question of what’s “really” conservative — you know, the argument that you’ll hear from Andrew Sullivan or Conor Friedersdorf or Noah Millman or Dan Larison that the positions on public policy supported by mainstream Republicans isn’t really conservative. They have a point, but that’s not really the key here.

The key is what all of Mann and Ornstein’s examples are about, which is radicalism and irresponsible behavior, not ideological extremism. The most liberal, or most conservative, Member of Congress can find ways to compromise with the other side; there’s nothing inherent in conservativism, or even in ideological extremism, that precludes compromise, comity, respect for institutional norms, and other things that Gingrich/DeLay Republicans — and that’s what we have today — are lacking.

And that gets back to the question of what is “really” conservative, because the problem is that when your leadership is so radical, and radically dishonest as well (consider, just as one example, the “fight” against the UN swooping in and taking away everyone’s guns, or the claim that Democrats are trying to do that), it’s very difficult for a party to really develop either viable policy or principled policy. I think the best way to see this is in the challenges to folks such as Bob Bennett, Dick Lugar, or Orrin Hatch — or in the inability of conservative opinion leaders to laugh off Sarah Palin, or Herman Cain, or Michele Bachmann. It’s not that Cain, for example, was more conservative than Mitt Romney; Cain was barely able to talk about public policy at all. It’s all notional junk about “establishment.”

The Republican Party is severely dysfunctional, not severely conservative. And it’s going to take honest, sane, conservatives to restore it to health. How that can happen, alas, I have no idea at all.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Neildsmith on May 01, 2012 4:04 AM:

    The severly dysfunctional GOP reflects the values of many Americans. I hear the talking points all the time in conversations with conservative colleagues at work. They don't really want government to work. The sad fact is that Democrats have failed miserably to provide an appealing alternative. Maybe that says something about Democrat... or maybe that says something about America.

    PS - half the time the CAPTCHA words are unreadable. What's up with that?

  • Sean Scallon on May 01, 2012 7:40 AM:

    So the problem with problem of the Republican Party is a group of radicals took over? Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, in 1972 people were saying the same thing about the Democrats. The McGovernites took over. It became radicalized. The party left us. History repeats itself.

    When you use rhetoric that's been around for nearly 50 years in conservative politics designed to elect conservative politicians and then wake up one morning and find such rhetoric cannot govern nor have influence anyone one iota in popular culture, then you will react in one of two ways. 1). Abandon such rhetoric and focus on reality or 2). Double down on the rhetoric and pretend the problem is not what your saying but that those saying it either don't quite believe like you do or are too incompetent to get it accomplish it. And most regular conservative, like most people in general not wanting to feel like fools for so long, have chosen option No. 2. Like Communists they believe if only gave the pure doctrine a chance instead of the "deviations" (conservatives call them RINOs) then things would really work out they way are supposed to.

    Look at it this way, if being a "conservative" is really good thing as persons are told day after day on talk radio and Fox, then being the most conservative person you could possibly be is greatest thing of all! To conservatives there is no such thing as being "radical". Only those on the Left can be "radical" as my media tells me, so what's wrong with conservatism to its fullest extent? After all they're just doing they're patriotic duty, right? Well, if this line of thinking out there among a large group of voters, it's not going to be long before a group of politicians responds to it and acts accordingly. And that's not just true on the campaign trail, but in Congress as well.

  • Peter C on May 01, 2012 9:27 AM:

    Sorry, Jonathan, you seem to really want Conservatives and Republicans to be 'good at the core', but is it not possible that the traits you admire about Bob Bennett, Dick Lugar, or Orrin Hatch were the shreds of liberal principles that these moderate Republicans still held?