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August 24, 2012 4:11 PM The Lessons of Akin

By Jonathan Bernstein

I’ve been meaning to write something more about conservative pundit Philip Klein’s column yesterday about Todd Akin and the GOP. Klein writes that perhaps the Akin affair will be a “remembered as an important development for the conservative movement.” Why?

When Akin took to Twitter this week to blame “liberal elites” for his predicament, it came off as ridiculous, because the harshest criticism was coming from conservatives. When all the dust settles on the Missouri Senate race, the Akin mess could be looked back upon as marking a shift in the standards that those on the Right apply to conservative candidates.

What’s interesting about Klein’s piece is that instead of treating Akin as an aberration, Klein (quite correctly) lumps him in with Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and, yes, Sarah Palin, as examples of conservative heroes who weren’t really up to the job (what, no Herman Cain?). Klein notes that in those other cases, conservatives rallied to support their policy-deficient candidates on the theory that if liberals were attacking them, they needed defending. This time, that didn’t happen.

As a description of what’s happening, I could make several criticisms of what Klein has to say, beginning with how he casts Paul Ryan as some sort of wonkish ideal — as regular readers know, I’m with those who think that Paul’s wonkery is, well, not especially impressive (and see Kevin Drum’s pessimism about this).

However, it is a work of advocacy, what matters here is the idea that Republicans should aspire to policy competence. And that’s been a long fight that smart conservatives have mostly been losing, so I’m very pleased to see the Akin affair framed this way.

That is: I’ve often talked here about how parties “learn” from their own history, which only means that they interpret what’s happened and act on those interpretations. And Republicans have learned two terribly self-destructive lessons in recent decades. Their 1994 landslide was interpreted as a reward for extremism and obstruction, on the one hand, but also as a triumph of Luntzian sloganeering. And the rise and triumph of Ronald Reagan was too often interpreted as a victory over policy expertise.

All of which brought the Republicans to the nomination and (for a while) near deification of George W. Bush, a politician whose policy ignorance and indifference wound up terribly harmful to the nation and, what’s more, to the Republican Party. And it also, many have argued, leads to a situation where movement conservatives habitually shrug off basic science, basic history, and other aspects of really if it doesn’t fit what they want to believe — I hesitate to call it ideology, because there’s nothing within most flavors of conservative ideology that calls for conservatives to reject the reality of the way things are.

So: for those of us who have complained that there’s something seriously wrong with the Republican Party, it would be a very positive sign indeed if they interpreted the Akin affair as a consequence of a longer-term lack of “standards” in GOP candidate selection — especially if the missing standard has to do with, well, ignorance. Policy-related ignorance. If what matters is how these sorts of things get interpreted within the party, then what Klein is doing here is a very positive step.

All that said…the state of the GOP on policy is in such disarray right now that it’s going to take much more than this to make some difference. Remember, this is a party which treated obvious snake-oil salesman and overall fraud Newt Gingrich as a policy expert this year. It’s a party which considers Paul Ryan a major policy wonk. In other words, it’s a party that doesn’t even know what serious policy expertise even looks like. And it’s by no means certain that Klein’s interpretation is going to be the winner out of all of this. But those who want a better Republican Party should hope that this is a turning point.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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