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Debating an Empty Chair

One of the most fascinating aspects of this election cycle is the lesson that most Republicans are going to take from their gains on November 2. In a completely counterintuitive development (though one that had become highly predictable as early as 2006 if not much earlier), the GOP lost two straight elections pretty badly and then responded by moving away from the political "center" at warp speed. And in a vindication of movement conservative strategic arguments that go all the way back to Phyllis Schlafly's 1964 book, A Choice Not An Echo, it seems to have worked, or at least did not pose any obstacle to a midterm victory. Aside from the exhilirating effect this scenario will have on Tea Party folk and other hard-core conservatives, it will also repudiate a whole generation of "moderate" voices urging Republicans and conservatives to control their ideological impulses in order to appeal to swing voters and win general elections.

The intrepid Dave Weigel got to wondering about those voices, and challenged three of them, David Frum, Reihan Salam, and Ross Douthat, to examine their assumptions.

In Weigel's summary of the responses he received, Frum posed a short-term/long-term dilemma for Republicans, suggesting that its initial success after moving to the right (attributable to external factors such as the economy) would inevitably produce disastrous and unpopular policies, and generate another round of big political setbacks. (FWIW, that's pretty much my own view). Salam and Douthat, who have done better than Frum in keeping a toe in the conservative movement while criticizing many of its core tenets, peered sideways at the contemporary Tea Party-oriented GOP and professed to find a validation of their famous Sam's Club Republicans argument calling for championship of the more conservative policy predilections of non-college-educated white voters.

Weigel's sardonic rejoinder to these responses was: "It's an ingenious argument: We're not wrong. We're just not yet right."

But if these "reformers" are indeed right--in the long run if not the short run--then you'd have to figure they would be receiving some support from those non-ideological Republican political pros who are far less interested in destroying the legacy of the New Deal than in building a stable GOP electoral majority.

And there is undoubtedly an implicit belief among Beltway insider types in both parties that after November 2, the "hierarchical" habits of the conservative rank-and-file will lead them meekly into submission to the great big grown-ups who understand you can't really do what most Republican candidates this year are demanding--a balanced federal budget with more high-end tax cuts and spending cuts that somehow don't touch cherished domestic programs or the Pentagon. According to this view of the world, the Tea Party Movement will burn itself out, and its activists will happily support a great-big-grown-up presidential candidate like Mitt Romney or Mitch Daniels or Haley Barbourt.

But as Weigel notes, in a follow-up post, if there's some budding pushback against the proposition that moving right is the path to political victory, it's awfully quiet:

When a party loses there are two reform factions -- the We Were Wrong faction and the Double Down faction. And obviously the Double Down faction won in 2008, because the Republican base really believed that it lost power because it failed to cut taxes and spending. I think that one factor in the abandonment of Frum/Salam/Douthat arguments is that the Republican political leaders who had an incentive, or a record, to argue the other side of this -- that would be Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, who saw the governing and political benefits of "compassionate conservatism" -- saw where the energy was and moved into flat-out opposition mode.

Indeed, the posture of Karl Rove is particularly interesting. He was, after all, the architect of the three politically motivated Bush administration policy initiatives that have been most often demonized by conservative candidates this year as examples of Republican betrayal of conservative principles: No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Rx drug benefit, and comprehensive immigration reform. But aside from a quickly repudiated dismissal of Christine O'Donnell as an unelectable kook, Rove has gone along cheerfully with the Tea Party conquest of the GOP.

The precise intensity of right-wing pressure on the Republican Party to completely lose its inhibitions may depend on the details of the outcome on November 2. Three especially conservative Senate candidates, in particular, carry a lot of symbolic weight: Sharron Angle, who is challenging the Majority Leader of the Senate; Rand Paul, who already defeated the candidate of the Minority Leader of the Senate; and Pat Toomey, leader of the principal pre-Tea Party organization demanding purges of party heretics, the Club for Growth.

But even if some or all of these candidates lose, it's reasonable to assume that the post-election argument among Republicans will resemble one of those debates where one candidate refuses to participate: a debate between the move-to-the-right-and-win faction, and an empty chair.