The base, the groups, and the candidates

On November 19th, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry published a very interesting cover-story in National Review. They argued that the situation that the party is in is much more dire. First, the diagnosis:

So while Republicans are depressed these days, their condition is actually worse than they think it is. The deepest cause of the party’s malaise is not the inadequacies of the presidential field. It is that the party’s base is out of step with the public. On issue after issue, polls find independents lining up with Democrats.

This is part of the problem. And:

For most of the year, the Republican presidential debates have featured barely a word about health care, the public’s most pressing domestic concern. The leading GOP candidates have belatedly put out plans (except for Thompson, who still hasn’t)—to the seeming indifference of rank and file conservative voters.

More broadly, the key to Reagan’s victory in 1980 (and not, perhaps in 1976 or 1968) was that he offered conservative solutions to contemporary problems. The central issues of the conservative movement matched the central issues of the country.

They don’t now. The central issues of the conservative movement mostly match a bunch of entrenched interest groups in Washington which have grown increasingly transactional. And in the desire to suck up to groups of questionable power, like today’s endorsement of Mitt Romney by David Keene of the American Conservative Union. This results in a truly banal politics:

Giuliani has broken with the base of the party, but only in ways that will not help with the larger electorate. And to make up for those deviations on social issues, he is projecting a bring-it-on bellicosity that conservatives like but that most voters simply do not feel. Romney and Thompson, meanwhile, are fighting over who is the most conventional, paint-by-numbers conservative circa 1987. Creative domestic policy is off the table.

Recognizing the same patterns that I discussed the other day, they see where we can mine for more votes:

For three decades, the Republican party has absorbed increasing numbers of socially conservative working-class and middleclass voters while losing affluent social liberals—until the 2006 elections, in which Republican totals fell among every category of voter except for full-spectrum conservatives. The most plausible path toward a renewed center-right majority involves consolidating and deepening the trend of the decades before 2006: holding on to as much of the existing conservative coalition as possible while adding more downscale voters who lean right on social issues.

Now some people think that this means abandoning free market principles. One staffer for an interest group (of House members) told me today that voting for Huckabee was like voting for a "pro-life Democrat." But I don’t think that this ends up being true. Neither do Ponnuru or Lowry:

That task will force conservatives to explain how free-market policies can address the economic anxieties of this group of voters.

Politically, this will require blowing up the interest groups that protect the status quo. As a long-time campaign operative was telling me today, parties in power always lose ideas. Either they implement their ideas, which we did, or the new ideas fight against the established constituencies. The adoption of the new ideas would, in essence, "defund" the old constituencies. Thus the same staffer that attacked Huckabee attacked John McCain for "ha[ving] no constituency."

Let’s be clear. That’s the kind of attack that people make when someone is going after their lunch money. The problem with the conservative movement is that the people with the lunch money are driving the movement and the party into the ground.

Not let’s step back for a second. Which candidates in the GOP primary are actually trying to address these issues? It is clear that Huckabee is trying to reach out to these voters. Earlier, when Huckabee was beginning to really emerge, I characterized this as "Huckabee vs. the robber barrons." That sounds to me like giving up affluents.

McCain can also speak this language. From a semi-hostile 2005 interview in the WSJ by Stephen Moore:

But Mr. McCain is no antitax supply-sider himself. He grandstanded against the Bush capital-gains and dividend tax cuts and even co-sponsored an amendment with Tom Daschle to scuttle the reduction in the highest income-tax rates. Why? "I just thought it was too tilted to the wealthy and I still do. I want to cut the taxes on the middle class." Even when I confront him with emphatic evidence that those tax cuts have been an economic triumph and have increased revenues, he is unrepentant and defends his "no" vote by falling back on class-warfare type thinking: "We have a wealth gap in this country, and that worries me."

It is hard to imagine the other candidates making these kinds of statements. If Ponnuru and Lowry are right (and me, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Patrick Hynes, and others) there are going to be more and more candidates making these arguments. And they are going to win.

Some of the Dems get this. One of them told me yesterday:

The thing is, I think a McCain/Huckabee ticket would effectively leap frog the painful part of the needed GOP learning process on candidate selection. You’d end up with a new winning formula without having to sit through a Clinton administration.

Wouldn’t it be neat if we could learn that lesson without putting the country through another 8 years of a Clinton? Good for the party. Good for the movement. And good for the country. As it should be.