The moderate's GOP survival guide

Republicans want to take their party back from "The Crazy." Here's how they should do it

By Jonathan Bernstein

Published February 8, 2013 12:51PM (EST)

Former Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, R-Del.         (Wikipedia/Gage Skidmore)
Former Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, R-Del. (Wikipedia/Gage Skidmore)

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect Karl Rove and big Republican donors are trying to rescue the GOP from more Christine "I am not a witch" O'Donnell-type embarrassments by funding a new group dedicated to stopping terrible candidates from winning Republican nominations. The impulse is a healthy one, but it’s going to take a lot more than some attack ads to stop extremist candidates.

After all, most of the ugly Republican candidates from the last two cycles were relatively underfunded in their primaries; a little more money thrown into the pot against them is unlikely to make a difference, and it might, as Saloncolumnist Steve Kornacki has argued, even backfire if it winds up drawing Tea Party activists into a fight they might otherwise have ignored. At best, it will help on the margins.

The larger question is what Republicans who want to defeat The Crazy could do to reclaim their party. It’s a big question: The fear of primary defeats at the hands of ideological extremists or incompetent candidates has been the dominant consideration in Republican politics—and perhaps electoral politics—in the last couple of election cycles. It matters not just when a Todd Akin or a Sharron Angle wins, but also when strong general-election candidates pass on winnable races because they fear a defeat in the primary.  It also makes perfectly sensible, conservative incumbents do their best to embrace whatever the nuttiest voices are saying in order to save themselves from a primary challenge.

So what can moderate GOP leaders do?

The first thing is basic: They have to stop educating their rank-and-file voters to accept crazy stuff. That means cutting out the teleprompter jokes, the winks to birthers, the claims that Democrats are anti-American—all of it. It means that if a backbench member of the House yells out “you lie” during a presidential speech, he gets cernsured instead of praised.

That’s going to mean some short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. It may be hard to go in front of a conservative crowd and resist an applause line calling Barack Obama a socialist. But these are applause lines because Republicans have been using them for at least 40 years whether the target is Bill Clinton (Whitewater, travelgate, mysterious deaths); Hillary Clinton (the Vince Foster “murder” and more); or Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick). Not to mention “San Francisco Democrats” and “Taxachusetts” and “Chicago politics” and “real America.” Republicans have been training their audiences, and now their audiences respond.

A bit of this in moderation is perfectly harmless, and comes with the territory of partisanship. It’s just that it’s become such a large part of Republican rhetoric that it’s almost inevitable that it’s going to leak out from the merchandizing rooms of conservative events and the radio talk shows into the mouths of candidates on the campaign trail.

Can Republicans shut it all down? Of course not. But they could choose to minimize it. That means politicians steering clear of it; it means those party actors who care about winning elections doing what they can to discourage it from those party actors who have different incentives (such as those hawking that merchandise or who can make a very good living selling to a group which is a large market but a small portion of the electorate).

The second thing that Republicans could do to help sane conservatives win primaries is to start furnishing those conservatives with some of what House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tried, even if feebly, to do this week: real issues that have immediate material effects on large primary electorates, as opposed to purely symbolic issues. Not every Republican issue in the last few election cycles has been symbolic, but plenty of them have. Take, for example, the elimination of earmarks— a “reform” that doesn’t even cut government spending, let alone deliver anything that a Republican primary voter might value. Or the various constitutional amendments Republicans have pushed in the last 20 years, whether it’s a balanced budget, line-item veto, term limits, or marriage.

What’s been missing are, to an amazing extent, issue positions which respond to problems most voters experience. This may pose a special challenge for conservatives, who after all tend to oppose new government programs, but note that George W. Bush did manage in 2000 to produce policies—including his education plan and faith-based initiative—which, like them or not, were not merely symbolic. Indeed, I think the largest contributor to the problem is that many Republican politicians have just become lazy: The symbolic stuff works so well (and, to be fair, also avoids some of the difficult choices that come with crafting policy) that they just haven’t bothered to go beyond it.

The drawback to relying on symbolic issues is that sane candidates are at a disadvantage. After all, they tend to be constrained by reality, and so they’re less likely to outbid the nuts when it comes to who loves the flag the most or who hates the “Ground Zero Mosque” the most; they’re more likely to slip up and admit that all candidates are patriotic or that not every Muslim community center is necessarily part of a jihadist plot. If the debate is on real policies with real consequences, however, reality-based conservatives are playing on ground that favors them.

Of these two tasks that would go a long way to avoiding the next Christine O’Donnell fiasco, developing policy positions is in some ways harder than ending the party’s tolerance of crazy talk. Democrats worked really hard to develop the Affordable Care Act! It’s so much easier to advocate for “American exceptionalism”—a symbolic issue—than it is to figure out a conservative response that would offer something to people who don’t like their health-care situation. On the other hand, at least policy development is in the hands of those who want to win elections—it doesn’t require shutting down the crazies on talk radio.

Every party has bad candidates win nominations at times; every party, too, has recruiting failures (which may be an ever larger consequence of Tea Party victories in GOP primaries). But Karl Rove is right about one thing: It’s a problem for Republicans, and has certainly cost them several seats in the Senate. If they really want to fix what’s wrong with the party, however, it’s going to take a lot more than some money applied in the right places.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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Bill Clinton Christine O'donnell Hillary Clinton Republicans Tea Party The American Prospect