When you think about it, there’s something kind of surreal about the common occurrence of pundits from one side of the aisle purporting to give serious political advice to their adversaries. Not that they do it, of course—the ulterior motives of kneecapping the opposition or making it more like you is obvious—but it’s remarkable that it gets taken seriously.
Consider, for example, Peter Beinart’s latest at The Daily Beast. He argues that Republicans are setting themselves up for electoral disaster by feeding their “fetish” for hard-right ideological purity. Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
Republicans are angry—angry at Barack Obama, angry at the national debt, even angry at some of the leaders of their own party. Anger is a good motivator, and in midterm elections, where turnout is small, a little motivation goes a long way. The bad news: Republicans are not hungry. They’re not willing to submerge their anger for the sake of winning elections. They either don’t think they need to compromise their ideological purity to beat Democrats this fall or they don’t care.
Exhibit A: California. The Golden State’s political history is clear: centrist Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson (a moderate before he became an anti-immigrant demagogue) can win statewide elections. Right-wing Republicans cannot. The state is just too culturally liberal and too ethnically diverse. This year, GOP primary voters could have chosen a slightly dull, highly wonky, pro-choice former congressman named Tom Campbell. Campbell, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, would have led incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer by seven points in the general election. Instead, they chose former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who opposes the right to abortion, can’t decide if global warming is real, won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, and according to the Times poll, trails Boxer by the same margin Campbell leads her. Fiorina didn’t win the GOP Senate primary only because she is more conservative; she also bought it with her vast personal wealth. But her combination of conservatism and inexperience gives Boxer a chance to sneak back into office.
Unmentioned: “viable centrist Republican” Schwarzenegger’s approval rating is a whopping 23%. “Culturally liberal” California voted (narrowly) to preserve traditional marriage. And y’know what? The “ethnically diverse” Golden State even supports Arizona’s eeevil new immigration law! Fiorina might not lead Boxer now, but given that polls are hardly written in stone, I don’t think California conservatives are reckless for taking a chance on the candidate they feel matches their values better. (I am grateful for Peter’s concern about our electoral prospects, though!)
Besides, I seem to recall another conservative Republican who did pretty well in California…then again, today’s talking heads are also trying to rewrite Ronald Reagan’s record to accommodate the Republicans-as-extremists narrative, making him into a pragmatic centrist. No, he wasn’t. (Mark my words: give it a decade or two, and all of a sudden George W. Bush will become one of the “good” Republicans in the Left’s eyes.)
Exhibit B: Nevada, where everyone agrees that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is extremely vulnerable. But perhaps not quite vulnerable enough to lose to Sharron Angle, a woman who wants to abolish social security, the department of education and the income tax. Reid did his best to make Angle his opponent, spending heavily to undermine the more moderate GOP frontrunner, Sue Lowden. It seems to have worked. Angle is the perfect symbol of the Republican base in 2010: She’s a fresh face; she enjoys grassroots support, and she wants to repeal the handiwork not just of Franklin Roosevelt, but of Theodore Roosevelt.
See Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics for why this conventional wisdom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For example:
The most recent poll – the Mason Dixon poll taken from June 1-June 3 – shows Angle leading Reid by a 44-41% margin, as opposed to Lowden, who trails the Majority lead by a point. Tarkanian led by seven. Earlier polls show Angle performing worse, but that is likely as much a function of lower name identification (her surge has only begun in the last couple of weeks) than anything else. Tarkanian actually polls the best out of the three, but as noted above, he’s been flying under the radar.
Moreover, none of this changes the fact that, in polling terms, Reid is a dead man walking no matter who he faces. In the past two months, he’s polled a 37, 39, 39, 42, and 42 against Lowden. His numbers against Tarkanian are 41, 41, 43 and 39, while his numbers against Angle are 40, 42, 43, and 41. The only numbers that change are voters flipping between Lowden/Tarkanian/Angle and undecided.
Not only are these numbers virtually identical in statistical terms, they are uniformly atrocious for someone who has been a fixture in Nevada politics since Nixon’s first term, and only a handful of politicians with these types of poll numbers five months out from an election have gone on to win.
Successful parties motivate their activists, but harness them as well. They convince them that it is so important to retake power that it’s worth supporting ideologically impure candidates who have the best chance to win. That’s not happening in today’s Republican Party. The GOP has not been in the political wilderness long enough to make those compromises; it’s not in a pragmatic frame of mind. Republican activists are desperate to show America how angry they are; they’re less desperate to win elections. And on both counts, they may get their wish.
This is absolutely false. For one thing, Meg Whitman—mentioned in Beinart’s header but not in the article itself—won the GOP nod for California governor despite supporting taxpayer funding for abortion. As I’ve said before, grassroots conservatives have on numerous occasions and to varying degrees rallied around candidates that deviate—sometimes substantially so—from full-spectrum conservatism: see Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Debra Medina.
If this is Peter Beinart’s idea of fanatic, I’d hate to see his version of moderate.