How to Pander to the Base

So Paul Waldman turns the page to 2015 at the Plum Line today, and suggests we’re already into the gala base-pandering phase of the 2016 presidential campaign.

After all, the Iowa caucuses are only 401 days away. For quite a while yet, the candidates are going to spend their time figuring out how to bring base voters over to their side.

He goes on to do some comparisons of D versus R base-pandering. What I’d add is an observation about the different approaches to base-pandering in the GOP, where this is an essential blood sport.

There’s the “The base, c’est moi” tack of Ted Cruz, who so embodies conservative radicalism that he’s out there leading parades before they even begin.

There’s the hand-waving “Hey look me over” tack of Bobby Jindal, a candidate who will spend the early days of the cycle looking for litmus tests to sign and kingmaker rings to kiss.

And there’s the “For the win!” appeal of Rand Paul, who will try to convince “base” activists that he can expand their electoral reach without modifying the deep crazy goodness of his “core values.”

But for my money, the most effective base-pandering is at the stealth level, where commitments are made that media ignore and most non-base voters don’t understand. And Mitt Romney proved himself the master of this technique in 2012–which he definitely needed with the baggage he carried into that cycle.

The crown jewel of stealth base-pandering in 2012 was the “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge, devised by the House Republican Study Committee and popularized by Jim DeMint. It sounded like yet another recitation of the old Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment chestnut. But it actually involved enshrining a permanently reduced federal government in the Constitution via “cuts” turned into “caps.” Here’s how I described it at TNR back in 2011:

The logic of CCB itself gives away the potentially disastrous stance of its adherents. Republicans are taking this very hard line not, as is so often asserted, as a way of returning to the GOP’s ancient creed of deficit hawkery, abandoned in favor of supply-side free lunch nostrums in the 1980s and beyond. Yes, it has indeed become fashionable again for conservatives to deplore the public debts being passed on to future generations, a habit that they generally lost during the administration of George W. Bush. But when you look at the content of the CCB proposal, pledge, or bill, it’s obvious the “balance” part of the formula is entirely subordinate to “cut” and “cap,” and to another phrase not in the headline: “tax limitation.” CCB rules out revenue increases as an element of budget-balancing and erects the kind of super-majority requirement against future revenue increases that has done so much to frustrate budget-balancing in California. Moreover, it makes huge cuts in spending both a statutory and a constitutional mandate, and only then, with government shrunken and taxes frozen, will it enable a balanced budget.

During the runup to the 2012 presidential nomination contest, all but one GOP candidate–predictably, the base-spurning failure Jon Huntsman–refused to sign the CCB pledge. It was an especially big moment when the supposedly pragmatic Mitt Romney came on board, signalling a commitment to Constitutional Conservatism as the central principle of fiscal management, and making all of Mitt’s more specific fiscal proposals mere details.

Will anyone in the 2016 field master quiet but symbolic base-panders the way Mitt did? That’s hard to say. So far Jeb Bush has taken the opposite tack, sharing a lot of right-wing policy positions but combining that with richly symbolic and even LOUD revolts against the base on hot-button issues like immigration and Common Core. And maybe conservative activists will insist on more overt measures of solidarity this time around, all but demanding that candidates sacrifice general election street cred in tribute to The Cause. As a progressive blogger, I’m sure I would enjoy watching a vast presidential field follow Bobby Jindal around the track chasing the rabbit of True Conservatism. But it’s perilous for the country.

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.