“Taking One For the Team”

By most analysts’ account, the most illustrative moment in last night’s GOP presidential candidates’ debate occurred when a backpeddling Rick Santorum defended his vote for No Child Left Behind legislation on grounds of “team” solidarity:

I have to admit, I voted for that, it was against the principles I believed in, but you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake.

At the New York Times, Charles Blow noted that this line got heartily booed by the Mesa audience, and explained that with polling data on the relative distaste of rank-and-file Republicans for legislative compromises:

Santorum’s take on compromise was actually one of the more reasonable things he’s said lately. Compromise is the way government is designed to work. But having a working government has become less important to conservatives than rigid doctrinal adherence.

According to the neo-conservative orthodoxy of extremism, any thing that bends must be weak, and weak is a four-letter word.

And that weakness may well be one of Santorum’s.

That’s all entirely true, but I think Blow misses something else that is very important about conservative attitudes towards the GOP domestic policy record of the Bush/DeLay era, totally aside from any matter of “compromise:” They think GOP “liberalism” is why Barack Obama became president in 2008. And that’s why the Republican Party, virtually in its entirety, made the historically unusual decision to move away from the political center after losing two straight elections in 2006 and 2008.

The idea that there is a hidden majority in the electorate for a militantly conservative agenda that Republican politicians have failed to tap is, of course, a hardy perennial in the conservative movement, but it’s become the conventional wisdom for GOPers in the last few years. It’s a convenient way not only to explain away electoral setbacks, but to disassociate Republicans from the deep unpopularity of George W. Bush without repudiating conservative ideology. It’s precisely the same psychology that led so many conservatives to decide that Richard Nixon failed less because he was crook than because he was a “liberal”–just months after conservatives were cheering Tricky Dicky and his soon-to-be-disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew as culture-war heroes.

The strength of the contemporary idea that alleged Republican “liberalism” caused the 2006 and 2008 debacles is best shown by earlier attacks on Santorum by Romney surrogates:

“Mitt Romney has a much more comprehensively conservative record that Rick does,” said Sen. Jim Talent (R-MO), who argued that Santorum’s voting record on fiscal policies “shows he’s been in the liberal wing [of the party].”

Talent argued votes for the No Child Left Behind education reform package and against “right-to-work” legislation that would constrain unions underscored his liberal tendencies.

Campaign surrogates repeatedly pointed to Santorum’s 18-percentage point loss in his 2006 Senate re-election campaign, arguing that voters had punished Santorum for abandoning conservative ideology.

“The reason he got beat, I think, was that he moved so far way from his fiscal conservative principles,” Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) argued on the call.

So it’s not just “compromise” conservatives are condemning when they boo Rick Santorum for voting for a Republican president’s central domestic policy legislation: it’s the ideology they think the legislation represents. Having done well in 2010 after tacking hard right, they are convinced these are the political keys to the kingdom. And while the rest of the country may look at Rick Santorum and think it’s just hilarious to call him any kind of “liberal,” it’s no laughing matter to conservatives who don’t mind “taking one for the team” if and only if the team is strictly faithful to The Cause.

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.