Winning Elections is Good, But How Will Republicans Do It?

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 1:52 PM EDT

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have a timid—but lengthy!—piece in National Review today that takes to task the purists in the Republican Party who think that the road to victory is always and everywhere to demand more confrontation, more obduracy, and more loyalty to the one true cause:

It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.

....The need for greater purity, the ever-present danger of betrayal: These have been long-standing themes on the right. When our people get power, they immediately stop being our people, the great conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans quipped decades ago. Yet this assessment of what ails conservatism has grown less and less true with time.

This is a good point. The tea party faction seems unable to recognize that, in fact, they have very clearly taken over the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans are no longer a real force. For better or worse, right wingers finally have the party they've always wanted—or at least as much of it as any faction is ever likely to get in real life.

But now that they have it, they've discovered that it isn't doing them any good, and Lowry and Ponnuru identify the obvious reason for this: We live in a democracy. The tea partiers may control the Republican Party, but they don't command majority support among the American public. Without that, they'll never be able to advance their agenda, and the more apocalyptic they get, the less likely they are to ever win the kind of broad-based victories that Ronald Reagan did.

So why do I call this piece timid? Not because it's full of caveats about how understandable the frustrations of the tea partiers are or how much their hearts are in the right place. That's standard boilerplate in a piece like this.

No, it's timid because, in the end, Lowry and Ponnuru pull back, seemingly unwilling to make any truly robust recommendations for changing things:

For the country to be governed conservatively, however, conservatives have to win more elections....There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues. The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were “defeatists.” Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.

OK, but how will conservatives win more elections? L&P explicitly disavow the notion of the party turning left, suggesting only that they're skeptical of "the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends." But if they have no concrete suggestions—either in policy or tone or messaging or something—then this is just mush. When Democrats went through this kind of introspection in the 80s, the DLC, for better or worse, drove a conversation that included lots of painfully concrete ideas. That produced plenty of noxious infighting, but it also produced results.

It would be fascinating to see National Review start to play the same kind of role on the right. That's unlikely, I suppose, but one way or another, they need to choose up sides. It's easy and obvious to say that Republicans need to win electoral victories if they want to promote the conservative cause. The bigger question is what Republicans need to do in order to win those victories. Tackling that question in a forthright way will make NR a lot more enemies, but it might, eventually, also produce some actual electoral victories.

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