Meme Watch: How Many Pounds of Flesh Does “The Base” Require?

I’m going to go back to regular programming until such time as there’s anything fresh to talk about from the Boston saga (stay tuned to the “highlighter” box at the top of the page, BTW, because Ryan Cooper and Rhiannon Kirkland may post some material on this and related subjects at Ten Miles Square). And I had a “hook” for what I am about to write until it was knocked off the aggregator and Politico pages by all the breaking news. But believe me, this meme will be back soon enough: the idea that congressional Republicans, having propitiated the angry gods of “the base” by killing gun legislation, may now have more room to maneuver on immigration reform and/or the budget and/or other subjects. (This is a separate argument, by the way, from the “silver lining” theory propagated by Fawn Johnson at National Journal today that the Senate’s action on guns will produce a backlash eventually leading to even stronger gun legislation, which I’m skeptical about as well).

That may be how some Republican solons look at it, but I wouldn’t put much reliance on the idea that the demise of Manchin-Toomey is a blessing in disguise for progressives or for those still pining for a “bipartisan breeze” in Washington. For one thing, to continue the propitiation metaphor, the “base” is a jealous god, which views every act of ideological “betrayal” as sufficient to justify primary excommunication or primary challenges. For another, this fresh demonstration that “the base” has the power to compel party discipline on guns (only three Republicans joined former Club for Growth president Pat Toomey in the end) will make the desire to impose it on other subjects seem much more practicable. And third, to focus on the next issue coming up in the Senate, it’s never been clear to me that the obsessive desire to find a way to detoxify the GOP among Latino voters–which is the elite factor driving the interest of Beltway Republicans in immigration reform–is shared that widely among hard-core conservative activists, who are more likely to think that insufficient ideological rigor continues to be the party’s biggest problem.

For all the talk about “rebranding” and “reform” in Republican circles, the last opportunity we had to measure the influence of “the base” on GOP behavior was during the 2012 presidential nominating contest, and the rightward pull on the field extended across virtually every issue, most especially immigration and the budget (guns weren’t much discussed). Between Republican senators fearing primary challenges (which includes, lest we forget, the Minority Leader of that chamber) and Republican House members feeling secure in their rotten boroughs, it’s not clear there are that many actual policymakers who are in the position to make some grand judgment that “the base” has obtained its pound of flesh and can be safely ignored. So even if “the base” should feel sufficiently propitiated, it’s not as though any of its representatives are going to come forward to declare themselves sated and give a free pass to Republicans to go whoring after swing voters.

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.