As most know who have been following the race, the result of the special election in New York’s congressional district 23 was that the Conservative candidate, Doug Hoffman lost in a safe Republican seat to Democrat Bill Owens, even though the official Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, had withdrawn. At first sight, this ‘civil war’ among the right bodes poorly for conservative chances in 2010 and beyond.
But I contend that in the long run it bodes extremely well for conservatism. For what the events of NY 23 show is that a grass-roots conservative movement has developed in the US that is separate and distinct from the Republican Party.
This is good because, for an ideology to progress, it needs both partisan and nonpartisan wings. The partisan wing - a political party – is needed for the obvious reason that they are the ones who will enact the agenda. But a nonpartisan wing – the ‘movement’ – is also just as necessary. This is because a politician’s most important priority is re-election, not issues.
The movement is important because the popularity of issues with the electorate changes over time. When an issue, say deregulation, is popular, the conservative politician is happy to embrace it. But when it is unpopular, he will, in the interest of self-preservation, drop it like a hot potato. This is where the movement comes in. The movement advances the issue in good times and defends it in bad times. In the long run, one of the biggest factors in getting a policy adopted and accepted by society is persistence. Movements do persistence well, politicians don’t.
While the politician cares very deeply about who gets to be driven around in the ministerial limo, the movement doesn’t care at all about that. The movement cares about issues and principles. It doesn’t care which party affects the desired changes. In fact, a right wing leader of a left wing party can sometimes be preferable to a left wing leader of a right wing party. One movement that ‘gets’ this is the NRA. If both candidates in an election race are pro-gun, the NRA doesn’t get involved. Ditto if both are anti-gun. They don’t have a dog in those fights. But if the Republican is pro-gun and the Democrat is anti-gun, the NRA will step in. But - and this sometimes happens – if the Democrat is pro-gun and the Republican is anti-gun, then the NRA will support the Democrat over the Republican. That is because the NRA is pro-gun not pro-Republican.
The possession of a ‘movement’ is an advantage that the left long held over the right – until recently. The Democrats were always kept faithful to their left wing principles by a constellation of left wing activist groups. With the exception of the NRA and anti-abortion groups, the Republicans aren’t kept in line by anyone, which is why GOP politicians tend to start out conservative and drift leftwards in the time they spend in Washington.
With the rise of the conservative and libertarian blogosphere, talk radio and the tea party movement, this is changing. There is now a force out there to keep the GOP true to its small government principles. The mainstream media, obsessed with trying to paint the Tea Partiers as the activist wing of the Republican Party, have completely missed this critical development. A number of Republican politicians who supported the stimulus bill were booed when they tried to speak at Tea Parties over the summer. It was the same Tea Partiers who pushed the stimulus-loving Arlen Specter out of the GOP. And of course, it was the conservative movement who revolted when the unprincipled backroom boys in the New York Republican Party decided that a RINO, who was well to the left of her Democrat opponent, be the GOP candidate in NY 23.
In the short run, this situation can create problems. Arlen Specter’s vote would have been nice to have now that Obamacare is entering the Senate. And it would have been good to see a Republican elected to NY 23. But it is much more important for the Republican Party to respect conservative principles. In the long run, not only will this result in many more conservative policies being implemented, it will also result in more electoral success for the GOP.
The reason for the GOP’s decline in 2006 and 2008 was that they strayed too far away from their roots. The Republican dominated Congress passed the free speech threatening McCain Feingold campaign finance reform bill. It also passed pharmacare and the No Child Left Behind Act. And it also tried to amnesty illegal aliens. Republicans also failed to reign in the Community Reinvestment Act, at a time when they held the Presidency and both houses of Congress, which was the central cause of the 2008 financial meltdown. They failed to act because unprincipled party strategists thought ‘affordable housing’ was a winner of an issue. So how much of a winner do they think it is it now? Republican congresscritters also became addicted to pork, resulting in things like Ted Steven’s famous Bridge to Nowhere.
None of this would have happened if the Republicans in Washington had not been corrupted by expediency and a go-along-to-get-along attitude. In all probability, if a conservative movement had existed all along to keep them honest, the Republicans might have remained in power to this day.