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October 29, 2013 4:29 AM National Review Takes on the Radicals, Gently

By Jonathan Bernstein

Sometimes, the twitter machine just spits out perfect material for items to write. So this morning I wound up opening tabs on Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry’s epic (five-screen) condemnation of radical Republicans, along side a nice takedown of Russell Brand’s recent political babbling from Alex Massie. One of them was about “an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance” — want to guess which one?

OK, it’s the one calling all politicians frauds…from the Left, where liberal democracy, including the “left” parties, looks like a conspiracy against the True Revolution. But one could pretty easily write exactly the same critique of Tail Gunner Ted and his radical allies. Of course, the key point is that in the US, the radicals have a powerful hold on one of the major political parties. Which is a bit of a problem.

Massie is far more direct and effective. Does he have the easier target? Not really, but he does have the harder argument, perhaps. After all, Massie doesn’t care at all that those sympathetic to Brand will consider him Not Left Enough, but National Review certainly cares a lot about being considered a True Conservative publication.

Indeed, Ponnuru and Lowry’s five-screen attack on the radicals is packed full of “on the other hand” and “to be sure” qualifications, so much so that at times it’s hard to tell whether the point is convincing convincable conservatives or if it’s to do just enough to be able to claim credit for being on the side of sanity. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But there sure are a lot of caveats here. “The tendency arises from legitimate frustrations.” “The Republican consultant class has often seemed to suffer from an almost clinical deficit of imagination.” “It’s not as if the Republican leadership handled this episode especially well.” And they endorse the silly Fox-ready spin during the shutdown, the minibills and the Battles of the World War II Memorials, as “smart tactical moves,” while calling the Tea Party “one of the wonders of American politics” which they claim, implausibly, would be impossible anywhere else in the world.

Nevertheless, it’s good to see a flat-out attack on the radicals from NR.

Even as qualified and caveated as this one is.

I do think the problem is a bit deeper than Ponnuru and Lowry want to pretend it is. They really only attack the obviously suicidal: the awful Senate candidates, the shutdown strategy that had no chance of victory. Their solution is that the party should work hard to win elections in order to implement their agenda, which is all very well and good. However, it also masks something real going on here. The “True Conservative” agenda that the radicals and most mainstream conservatives claim to want, at this point, has become so radical that it probably is at least a modest electoral problem — and even more so, it would be a massive governing problem, both in practical and electoral consequences. I’m thinking here about the Ryan Budget, with its complete elimination (if you take the budget math literally, which is what we’re supposed to do with budgets) of all non-defense discretionary spending. I’m thinking, too, about the “47%” rhetoric, and about Medicare (and presumably Social Security) “reform.” Or about the farm bill, where Ponnuru and Lowry are on the side of the “reformers” and ignore that the main reform in the bill is slashing food stamps.

In other words, really detaching themselves from the radicals and healing the GOP might require some rather more difficult choices for mainstream conservatives than just jettisoning Christine O’Donnell. No matter how enthusiastically and (I suspect) repeatedly they’re willing to do that.

Still, it’s a start, I guess.

[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.

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