Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Myths of the GOP

Red Dreher wrote this recently:
The ability to maintain ideological discipline on the Right has long been a key to the GOP's success, but now the habits of mind and behavior that served the conservative movement so well for so long are precisely what prevent it from listening to conservative dissidents.
I was going to let it go, but Sullivan showcased it today, so I figured I should say what I thought when I first read it, which is that as far as I know there's absolutely no evidence that "ideological discipline on the Right" has been in any way "a key to the GOP's success."

If we're talking electoral success, I think it's pretty much impossible to find such evidence. Republican presidential takeovers in 1952, 1968, and 1980 all followed Democratic presidential unpopularity; Republicans do well in those circumstances whether they offer up a moderate (in 1952), a straddler (in 1968), or a conservative (in 1980). Republicans retained the presidency in 1956, 1972, 1984, 1988, and 2004 because economic times were good (and, in 1972 and 2004, foreign policy success or apparent success probably helped). I don't see what ideological discipline has to do with any of these cases. I also don't see what ideological discipline has to do with Congressional success in 1994 -- again, that was mostly Clinton's self-inflicted unpopularity.

You may notice that I omitted 2000. I'd agree that there's some evidence that Republicans outperformed the conditions of the nation that year. But is it an example of ideological discipline? I guess I don't know what that phrase means in this context. In 2000, movement conservatives didn't seem to mind that George W. Bush ran on a combination of phrasing intended to sound moderate to swing voters while signaling "one of us" to conservatives. If that's ideological discipline, then Republicans had it that year, and it might have helped them, although I don't know that. On the other hand, if all "ideological discipline" means is that conservatives have generally avoided committing the kind of electoral suicide that Nader voters achieved in 2000, that's certainly an accomplishment.

If he means legislative success, as opposed to electoral success, I'm going to find the same thing: very little of Republican legislative success can be attributed to ideological discipline, largely because Republican legislative success has been limited to eat-dessert-always measures. That's not ideological discipline; it's a reelection strategy that has nothing at all to do with ideology.

Now, it is true that Republicans in Congress and Republicans in the electorate have tended, over time, to be more unified than have Democrats in Congress or Democrats in the electorate. But that's not a question of discipline; it's a function of internal diversity, especially during the years of the Democratic solid (but largely conservative) south and the long decades of slow realignment, when many Democratic incumbents in Congress relied on Southern Democratic voters who had long since abandoned the party in presidential voting.

I suspect, however, that what Dreher is actually talking about is the ability of Republicans to keep conservative yakkers on the same page, reading the same talking points. It's probably true that Republicans talk show hosts, bloggers, and columnists have been more unified, especially when there's a GOP president for them to support, then have their Democratic colleagues (even when there's a Democrat in the White House). I don't recall ever seen an empirical study to actually document the effect, or characterize its size, but I'm open to accepting that it's probably true.

But to what effect? Has it been "a key to the GOP's success?" I don't think so.

In fact, I think it's very likely that the opposite is true. One can, I believe, make at least as strong a case that lockstep Republican ideological behavior postponed Congressional success, preventing a takeover of the House until 1994 (years after Republicans were able to win the presidency), and then hurting Republican chances for a more impressive majority in several elections (especially 1998 and 2004) before costing them both houses of Congress in the 2006 and 2008 debacles. Moreover, Republican "ideological discipline" generally plays out as deference to the president or, in the mid-1990s, deference to the Speaker, and Republicans were poorly served by that instinct in 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006, and 2008 (not to mention 1974, which was a long-lasting setback to conservatives and Republicans in the House).

The two most notable disasters there (again, three if you want to count Watergate) were the march to impeachment in 1998 and the stay-the-course strategy in Iraq in 2004-2006. In each case, ideological discipline made it that much easier for a president (or for the Speaker) to plunge ahead with an ill-considered strategy.

In short: without such strong ideological discipline, it's very likely that Republicans would have done as well or better in elections over the last forty years, and it's likely that they would have passed at least as much, and perhaps more, conservative legislation during that time.

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