Elephant in the Room

In his glass-half-full reaction to the RNC’s “2012 autopsy report,” David Frum absolves its authors for their rather conspicuous avoidance of the ideological elephant in the room:

[A]s Reihan Salam has aptly said, the job of developing new and more relevant policies belongs to the policy community and to aspiring candidates, not to the central party organization. That central organization is an umbrella group that must represent all party factions.

Frum goes on, accordingly, to wonder why the report abandoned this reticence when it came to the immigration issue.

But even if you assume that Frum and Salam think there’s a GOP “policy community” beyond themselves and a few others who will come up with “new and more relevant policies” beyond those dictated by “constitutional conservatives,” where do you suppose those “aspiring candidates” are going to come from who are willing to defy the Right’s death grip on the party?

This bugs me especially because it’s an example of a vast difference between the two parties that false-equivalence talk somehow misses. For as long as I can remember, in most parts of the country at least, contested Democratic primaries have featured many candidates proud to call themselves “moderate.” But it’s a rare occurrence in today’s GOP. In fact, I can only think of two successful statewide Republican candidates in competitive primaries since 2008 who chose not to engage in the more-conservative-than-thou competition: Mark Kirk in Illinois and Mitch Snyder in Michigan, both in 2010. And even Kirk felt compelled to spend a good part of his campaign apologizing for his initial support for cap-and-trade legislation in the House. Beyond that, maybe I’m not thinking of one or two other exceptions, but the vast majority of GOP candidates for nominations have insisted they are not just “conservatives,” but “real conservatives,” or “constitutional conservatives,” or in one famous example, “severely conservative.”

And here’s the thing: this uniformity is a relatively recent phenomenon, not just in the Northeast or Midwest, but even in the South and West. The GOP hasn’t just “failed to adjust;” it’s moved hard right.

I can’t help but think of my home state of Georgia in this connection. In 1996, Johnny Isakson, who is now the senior Senator from the state, ran for the Senate and chose to run a radio ad identifying himself as pro-choice. He promptly lost a runoff, and did not make that mistake again. By 2010, in a gubernatorial runoff, the candidate being demonized as insufficiently committed to the cause of outlawing abortion was none other than Karen Handel, soon to become the maximum RTL heroine as the Komen Foundation staff member who spearheaded that group’s disastrous effort to drop its association with Planned Parenthood.

Right now in the runup to the 2014 primary to choose a Republican successor to Isakson’s colleague Saxby Chambliss–who retired after being aggressively targeted for purging as a godless RINO–the jockeying for “most conservative” candidate is sweeping the field, where at least three members of the state’s House delegation are in the early running. You’d think Phil Gingrey, an intense culture warrior with a lifetime 96% rating from the American Conservative Union, would be the “true conservative” in the field. But oh no: he’s a real piker compared to his colleague and fellow physician Paul Broun, the Science Committee member who recently told an audience that evolution and many other scientific tenets he’d learned in school were “lies from the pit of Hell.” And in the end, the “moderate” in the race could be yet another House colleague (and yet another doctor) of these two wacky dudes, Tom Price, who last year threatened to run against John Boehner for Speaker on grounds that the Ohioan had betrayed conservative principles. Price could be saved from the “least conservative” Mark of the Beast, however, if Karen Handel runs. No wonder Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich didn’t seriously consider the race. They’d be hooted off the rostrum as secular socialists.

So with all due respect to Frum and Salam and Douthat and Ponnuru and other serious-minded “reformists” in the GOP ranks, the prevailing issue isn’t talking complacent conservatives into the kind of “move to the center” that normally is the product of two consecutive presidential losses, adverse demographic trends, and abysmal party approval ratings. It’s stopping an even more drastic “plunge to the right” in an environment where Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are becoming maximum GOP stars for arguing that moderation is the party’s problem, and finding candidates to buck the trend is even harder than ignoring the elephant in the room.

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.