Peeling the Onion of Conservative Delusion

We are far along now into the post-election season that it’s beginning to become possible to sort out Republican reactions to their defeat. It’s like peeling an onion, essentially, since each new layer brings us closer to the fundamental decisions the Right needs to make to fundamentally change its long-term trajectory.

The outer-most layer is simple denial, which means claims that the results were purely the product of ephemeral developments from candidate mistakes to inferior GOTV technology. All these shortcomings could be addressed by means other than any reconsideration of GOP ideology, messaging, and policy positions. Karl Rove wrote a masterpiece of such claims for the Wall Street Journal yesterday, though there are many others, which can easily be spotted via frequent disclaimers that conservatism is in no way to blame.

Next in there is the tweak approach, which means either addressing particular issues remote from core conservative ideological tenets thought to be magic with some voter group, or adjusting messaging to remove the most abrasive elements. It’s no suprise at all that Grove Norquist is in the front lines of those arguing for a relaxation of anti-immigration policies, since (a) he supports this approach anyway, and (b) it distracts attention from the problems that Grover’s own small-government, anti-tax gospel creates for Latino voters, among others.

Then, at a somewhat deeper layer of seriousness, we have conservatives arguing a big change in messaging on economic issues that does not necessarily involve changes in actual issues-positioning. That’s about the only way to interpret Bobby Jindal’s argument that Republicans need to show how conservative policies benefit everyone, or even Ramesh Ponnuru’s much more elaborate diagnosis of the long-term failure of Republicans to identify themselves with middle-class economic aspirations (other than in calling for more fossil-fuel exploitation).

At the center of the onion are the handful of conservatives who aren’t being self-delusional at all, and believe the GOP needs to make serious, substantive concessions to public opinion, particularly on the core issues of the economy and the role of government. Josh Barro (assuming he is still considered a “conservative” after so many bouts of truth-telling) makes this case about as rudely as is possible:

That is the problem with Ramesh’s prescription that Republicans should find “a way to apply conservative principles in ways that offer tangible benefits to most voters.” Any conceivable agenda that is likely to be effective in getting health care, jobs and higher wages in the hands of the American masses will be unconservative, at least on the terms by which most American conservatives define conservatism.

Chait, of all people, is optimistic that many Republicans can break out of both self-delusion and the trap of ideology:

The confluence of Obama’s reelection, the shock of the win born by Republican self-delusion, and the bargaining leverage Obama has compiled are all working together to force an opening for a reformation of the Republican Party of the sort that hasn’t been possible for more than two decades.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

What is often lost in all these discussions is that an awful lot of conservatives would rather lose elections than change. After all, like the Christian Right that makes up a large proportion of the GOP “base,” they’re use to disappointment and often emotionally enjoy a sense of being a besieged, even persecuted, minority. They often view themselves as promoting eternal truths–some would say divinely-ordained truths–that do not stop being true because a presidential candidate loses most of the battleground states. And aside from all the many avenues of self-delusion available to them, some conservative militants understand that winning regularly is less important than winning big once, and overturning the entire liberal policy edifice in one joyful bout of destruction. They came just close enough in 2012 thanks to their conquest of the GOP and imposition of litmus tests on the entire party to keep that dream alive, so long as Republicans are not allowed to “backslide.” And Democrats, MSM observers, and “rational” Republicans should keep that in mind in wondering why so many conservatives can’t seem to read the hand-writing on the wall.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.