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Are "Right-Center" or "Insurgent-Establishment" Distinctions Useful For Today's Republicans?

In analyzing the actual and potential Republican presidential field for 2012, Nate Silver has frequently deployed a chart that plots candidates along axes dividing them by ideology and by perceptions of their relationship to the GOP Establishment. Thus, in his latest installment, he suggests there is more "room" for additional candidates in the "moderate/Establishment" quadrant dominated by Mitt Romney, than in, say, the "conservative/Insurgent" quadrant where Bachmann, Cain, and to a considerable extent Rick Perry are competing.

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein objects that Nate's typology relies on broad characterizations of candidates at the expense of how specific and tangible GOP constituencies view them:

On the ideological side, it's not clear how many important individuals and groups within the party are thinking in terms of left/right (or, I suppose, right/very right) rather than about specific policy areas of concern. That is, what really matters isn't so much whether a candidate is too moderate, but whether the abortion people, the tax people, and so on find the candidate acceptable or not.

I'm also not convinced that an establishment/insurgent vocabulary really captures the relationship of the various groups within the GOP, or the appeal of the candidates. What exactly is an establishment-friendly or insurgent candidacy? If it's just rhetoric, then we're probably talking about appeal to larger electorates in next year's primaries, but no candidate is going to get there without considerable support from organized groups within the party. If it's appeal to particular groups, I don't think the groups really exist on an establishment/insurgent spectrum. Indeed, if you're talking about groups, it's probably just better to think about groups, specifically and in general, without worrying about whether they are "establishment" or their ideological placement.

This is an interesting dispute, beyond the fact that it involves two of the best analysts of the contemporary political scene. The argument is obscured a bit by Jonathan's distinct view of "the Establishment" as including right-wing issue-activist groups who are capable of exercising a veto over presidential candidates they don't like.

I'm also skeptical of Nate's ideological rating of candidates for a reason Jonathan does not articulate: it distracts attention from the unmistakable overall rightward shift of the GOP since 2008. After all, the "moderate/Establishment" candidate Romney has by any measurement moved to the right since his 2008 campaign as the "true conservative" alternative to Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, when he received no significant guff for his Massachusetts health care plan; embraced nothing so radical as the "cut-cap-balance" fiscal plan; was under no particular pressure to support the most extreme measures available to permanently outlaw abortion and gay marriage from sea to shining sea; and was defending his hawkishness on the old war with Iraq rather than agitating for a new war with Iran.

But on the other hand, perceptions within the GOP of the candidates, strange as they may seem to outsiders, really do matter. The main reason the GOP has moved to the right since 2008 is that a revisionist view of the recent history of that party has taken hold with a tremendous degree of unanimity. Lest we forget, George W. Bush won the 2000 Republican presidential nomination as the overwhelming favorite of "movement conservatives." The congressional Republican leadership of the early Bush years, with Tom DeLay in the driver's seat, was at the time considered the most conservative in history. Yes, there was some right-wing opposition to No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Rx Drug benefit and Bush's rhetoric on immigration, and a bit more on overall domestic spending levels. But for the most part conservatives accepted such heresies as strategic measures engineered by Karl Rove to create a "conservative base-centered" long-term conservative majority in the electorate without significant ideological concessions. Stan Greenberg memorably referred to Rove's novel approach as a "51% strategy" that represented the best conservatives could do given an inherently unpopular policy agenda.

At the time of the 2004 elections, Bush was being widely touted in serious conservative circles as a great world-historical figure. In early 2005, when he began his campaign for partial privatization of Social Security, estimation of W. on the right reached perhaps an all-time high.

Then Bush 43 and the congressional Republican Party committed the unforgivable sin of becoming very, very unpopular, and by 2008, conservatives were mainly absorbed with figuring out how to absolve themselves from any responsibility for that political disaster--a task that became even more urgent when the economic calamity of 2008 hit. And so, with remarkable speed, the idea spread that Bush and Cheney and DeLay and the whole push of 'em were never really conservatives to begin with. This historically unprecedented "move right and win" argument gained enormous impetus from the 2010 midterm election results, which leads us to where we are today.

I'm covering this familiar territory in order to make it clear that even though "movement conservatives" and their various issue and constituency groups have in most important respects become the GOP "Establishment," their own mythology requires them to keep finding and demonizing "RINOs" and "sell-outs," and presenting themselves as a party undergoing some sort of populist revolution. Moreover, in this new GOP there are newly powerful factions--the repeal-the-New Deal "constitutional conservatives" and quasi-dominionists in particular--who really are committed to driving their party in directions that would have been considered well outside even the "movement conservative" mainstream just a few years ago. Hence the strength and respectability of Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, whom virtually no one took seriously in the recent past, and the broader popularity of extremist rhetoric throughout the GOP.

From the perspective of these intra-party dynamics, perceptions of ideology and Establishment-status like those Nate illustrates really do matter in the struggle for control of the party. And they are often wielded as weapons by the specific "Establishment" groups Jonathan accurately describes as major players in the nomination battle. To be sure, it's a dangerous game that Republicans are playing, but to the extent they have bought their own spin about the rightward drift of the electorate, and/or think Barack Obama is doomed to defeat due to objective economic conditions, it's one a lot of them are willing to play.