Strategy and Ideology

There’s a pretty big and continuing gap between those outside the GOP who think its intramural problems are attributable to a deeply ideological struggle and those who think it’s mostly a strategic debate among ideologues. The former camp describes almost every argument as between extremists who believe all these crazy things about “socialism” and baby-killing and the “real” Constitution, and “pragmatists” who are pretty much like the reasonable bourgeois conservatives of yore–think Gerald Ford or Howard Baker–who just want to restrain the excesses of the welfare state and win elections. The latter camp, which I inhabit, acknowledges serious differences in preferred strategy and tactics among Republicans, but believes the whole push of them (with a few exceptions) represent the conquest of the GOP by a radicalized conservative movement that shares an ideology pretty far out of the historical mainstream.

It’s a pretty important analytical distinction that obviously colors how you interpret daily political events, particularly for those who are forced constantly to recast yesterday’s “extremists” (e.g., Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Marco Rubio) as today’s “pragmatists.”

But hey, if you don’t believe a liberal like me, here’s the Wall Street Journal‘s Kimberly Strasser in a tirade against Ted Cruz’s contemptuous dismissal of less fire-breathing conservatives as “squishes” (in the context of Cruz’s gun filibuster and his House counterparts’ objection to Cantor’s “high-risk pool” gambit):

These days, the squishes apparently include groups like Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, which supported the pre-existing conditions bill. They include rock-ribbed conservatives like Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who did not join the gun filibuster threat—issued before the bill was written. “I’ve done more filibusters than Rand Paul is old,” said Mr. Coburn at the time—adding that his rule is to first read what he’s filibustering.

These groups are sincere in their belief that only by standing on principle can the party draw a sharp distinction with Mr. Obama. Yet it is, after all, possible to be both principled and . . . smart! It is principled to allow a congressional debate on guns (what is the GOP afraid of?), and smart to let Democrats own their gun failure. It is principled to chip away at ObamaCare, and smart to force Democrats to help do it….

The real debate within the GOP right now is whether battles might not be better won with canny flanking maneuvers. Bear that in mind next time someone hollers “squish.”

I will indeed.

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.