Ted Cruz, Jim DeMint, Rand Paul (Reuters/Gary Cameron/Sean Gardner/Larry Downing)

You call these "moderates"?! How the far right hopes to fool America (again)

The Beltway conventional wisdom now says the GOP is moving to the center and proving they can govern. Come again?


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Heather Digby Parton
January 15, 2015 4:58PM (UTC)

After the election the Villagers all declared that the Republicans now have to "prove they can govern," apparently meaning they would have to moderate their views, hold hands with moderate Democrats and basically be the moderate centrists all politicians surely yearn to be. There is reason to be skeptical of this scenario for a couple of reasons.

The first is that Republicans just won a large number of seats in both Houses after they pushed far right policies and engaged in unprecedented obstructionism. Perhaps they have searched their hearts and decided that no matter how much their voters approved of their behavior and rewarded them with a congressional majority, it was the wrong thing to do. But it's doubtful.

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The second reason this is unlikely is that the base of the Republican Party votes and the base of the Republican Party is extremely conservative. The Republican activists, of which their are legions, are even more conservative. It's always possible that politicians will abandon their political foot soldiers and voters to serve what the political establishment sees as the nation's interest but let's just say there's little precedent in the modern Republican Party for such self-sacrifice.  Not to mention that many of these politicians agree with the base of the Republican Party about most things and those who don't are unlikely to say so.  When even staunch conservatives like Bob Bennet of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana are unceremoniously booted out of office by challengers from their right, the message is pretty clear: stray from right-wing orthodoxy at your peril.

However, that has not stopped the D.C. pundits from insisting their fantasy is coming true. And in one particular respect, you can't blame them since the GOP is actually feeding juicy little tidbits like this story about the Heritage Foundation's activist arm, Heritage Action for America, allegedly moderating to the gullible Beltway media and they're eating it up:

While the conservative group makes no apologies for its fights with party leaders, it is embracing ideas from the party's intellectual wing—ranging from Rep. Paul Ryan to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. In an article published in the winter issue of National Affairs,Heritage Action for America CEO Mike Needham approvingly cites Douthat's and Reihan Salam's recent book Grand New Party for acknowledging that modern-day conservatism struggles to offer policies that would benefit noncollege-educated, blue-collar, "Sam's Club" voters. And he credits Ryan with building a GOP consensus on controversial issues such as Medicare premium support. Needham's article also singles out Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah for praise, calling them among the "most innovative policy entrepreneurs among congressional Republicans."

First, let's dispense with the ludicrous idea that Paul Ryan represents the "intellectual wing" of the Republican Party. He represents the flim-flam wing of the Republican Party, which is admittedly a very large faction, but it can hardly be defined as "intellectual." Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are actual intellectuals. (And at this point they are practically the only ones.) But it doesn't take an intellectual to see that policies benefiting the non-college-educated, blue-collar, "Sam's Club" voter would be useful to a party that must win the vast majority of white votes in order to even have a dim chance at obtaining the presidency. This is the stuff of Fox News analysis, not intellectual inquiry. Obviously, Marco Rubio is no intellectual and Mike Lee is a policy entrepreneur in the sense that he is an extremely conservative civil liberties advocate, which has just enough currency in the GOP to attract four young nerds and a few of Ron Paul's old fishing buddies.

The article also points out that Heritage Action has recently been ostracized in Washington for taking on the political establishment. They were even barred from attending the meetings of the Republican Study group, which is the D.C. Republican equivalent of being shunned by the Mean Girls table in the cafeteria -- a kind of social death. The article characterizes this as an ideological battle between the center and the right, but it's really a little family spat among conservatives. There is no center. And the idea that they've suddenly noticed that voters expect a policy agenda "even though Heritage Action's favored prescriptions are more conservative than what many party officials support" is basically saying that the 2016 presidential candidates need something to run on besides hating Barack Obama. Heritage is hoping to get a little piece of that action.

But you have to give them credit for sheer audacity. The party that elevates the health of business above every other concern, that worships "market solutions" to every problem, that calls the nearly 50 percent of Americans who make too little money to owe federal income taxes "moochers" and "parasites" is now saying, "What a lot of Americans are looking for is a genuine agenda that speaks to the anxieties they have, and that's a tough thing for Washington to deliver because it's not what K Street's asking for."

That's the party that initiated a program called "The K-Street Project":

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The K Street Project is an effort by the Republican Party (GOP) to pressure Washington lobbying firms to hire Republicans in top positions, and to reward loyal GOP lobbyists with access to influential officials, an arrangement known as crony capitalism. It was launched in 1995 by Republican strategist Grover Norquist and then-House majority whip Tom DeLay. It has been criticized as being part of a "coziness" between the GOP and large corporations which has allegedly allowed business to rewrite government regulations affecting their own industries in some cases.

How likely is it that this "cozy" relationship is no longer desirable by the Republican Party?

But that doesn't mean there isn't a "rebranding" going on at the Heritage Foundation. Under the mature and reasonable leadership of Jim DeMint, the Christian right ex-senator who said Obamacare would be the president's "Waterloo," the foundation is undergoing a bit of a face-lift. They are touting the sexy new Beltway brand called the "Reform Conservative Movement" (which strikes me as something of an oxymoron. Why would conservatism want reform?). DeMint characterizes this revolutionary change as showing Americans "how our ideas and policies will make their life better and country stronger," which does seem like a challenge.

The article quotes anonymous strategists explaining that what this means is adopting Paul Ryan's assertion that you can't cut social welfare programs without also cutting corporate welfare programs. How this is supposed to help ordinary people is left unsaid but it's fair to guess that it means they will simply reiterate that the Invisible Hand of God will intervene once the government is drowned in the bathtub. And lest anyone think this means they won't be going after the dreaded "entitlements," think again. The alleged intellectual leader of the "reform conservative" movement, Paul Ryan, wants to voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security. He just thinks they need to stop saying such mean things about poor people as they take away their food stamps.

Apparently, this is being sold as yet another one of those "third-way" movements. The article concludes by saying Heritage Action's rebrand is not the "hot" Tea Party conservatism that wants to destroy government, and it's not the "cold" establishment kind of conservatism that wants to "use government to improve policy outcomes" (whoever that is) but it's instead a new, middle-of-the-road "just right" form of conservatism that wants to use conservative reforms to appeal to working-class voters instead of corporations. (Also known as "voters.") And the article fatuously concludes with q line only a P.R. firm could generate: "expect the Heritage Foundation to be on the forefront of that fight—and its success in Congress will go a long way in determining the movement's long-term clout."

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None of this makes any more sense than the Democrats' "third-way experiments more than 20 years ago. In fact, it's very similar. One of the ideas of the time was to promote the idea that market forces could better be used to improve the conditions of the average working family than bureaucratic government programs. (How'd that work out for us?)  But at least it came from a sincere desire to actually improve the lives of average working families, however misguided. Conservatives believe that average working families need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop asking for anyone to do anything to help them improve their lot. But apparently, they realize that in a world in which the top 1 percent is gobbling up more and more of the nation's wealth while everyone else is dramatically falling behind, that isn't selling as well as it used to, particularly when the demographics of presidential elections may just keep them out of the White House for a good long time unless they can attract a few more voters. So they are "rebranding."

Back in the GOP trenches you have this:

Today House Republicans voted for what might be called "comprehensive anti-immigration reform."As promised, they backed an amendment to a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill to roll back President Barack Obama's November 2014 executive action easing deportations for up to five million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Then they kept pushing. They proposed to undo Obama's 2012 executive action easing enforcement against more than half a million "Dreamers" -- undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

It would appear they aren't going to try to sell their new brand in the Hispanic market.

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Meanwhile, it appears that the grass-roots supporters of Heritage Action see the group as the keeper of the flame, not the New Coke of conservatism. Erik Erickson has called for the Republican Study Group to be disbanded not because it's  a hard-right conservative group that excludes "third-way" reformers like Heritage. He sees them as mushy moderate apostates:

The Republican Study Committee, the one time home of conservatives in the House, is now just another fraternity of the GOP with its members getting labeled “conservative” by virtue of membership instead of votes.

Because the purpose of the Republican Study Committee no longer exists, conservatives in the House need a new group to continue that purpose. We know the purpose because the progenitor of the Republican Study Committee documented its creation. That progenitor is none other than Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., the first president of the Heritage Foundation.

It's possible that Erickson is out of the loop and doesn't realize that Heritage Action is morphing into a kinder and gentler, more "intellectual" version of itself. But that's doubtful. Erickson is as well connected in conservative circles as it gets. What's more likely is that the Beltway press is being spun like a centrifuge into believing that a simple power game among hardcore conservatives is a sign that the GOP is showing that it's "ready to govern." But it's hard to see how anyone would not be instantly skeptical of that assertion when the "grown-ups" who are leading this reform movement are the likes of Jim DeMint and Heritage Action's CEO Mike Needham. There may be some grown-ups in the Republican Party but they aren't at the Heritage Foundation. In fact, they aren't visible anywhere in Washington. They've all been sent packing by GOP voters.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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