Conservatism Needs a Future

Are Moderate Republicans Useless?

The Claremont Review of Books has opened a rich discussion about the tensions between conservative and moderate Republicans. The discussion was opened by a review written by William Voegli of books by Geoffrey Kabaservice, Steve Hayward, and me. The editors invited Kabaservice, Hayward, and myself to comment. The full discussion can be read at this link. I’ll append my answer as it appears on the Claremont site in full below.

Frum: This is a very rich discussion, and all participants are to be congratulated: William Voegeli for initiating, Steve Hayward for joining, and Geoffrey Kabaservice for the important book that inspired it all.

Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin laments a vanished strain in Republican politics. Call it moderate Republicanism, Eisenhower Republicanism, the Eastern establishment—under whatever name, it exerted great influence on national politics in the mid-20th century, but has since faded utterly away.

Voegeli and Hayward say “good riddance.” But they both have to note something: the new and more thoroughly conservative Republican Party is not a healthy beast.

Some data points:

In the six presidential elections of 1968 through 1988, the GOP averaged 52.5% of the vote. In the six presidential elections of 1992 through 2012, the GOP crossed the 50% mark only once.

The grand Republican win of 2010 was the product of unusual circumstances: more than one third of all votes cast were cast by voters over 60, the oldest electorate in any election since 1982. That circumstance was unlikely to repeat itself in 2012, and it didn’t.

In 2012, the GOP ran on the most conservative platform since 1964. It lost the presidency by almost 5 million votes, just under 4% of the popular vote. It lost the Senate. It held a diminished majority in the House only grace to gerrymandering: Democratic House candidates won more total votes than Republican candidates.

Predictions are difficult, especially about the future. But we can say this. Republicans draw their voting strength from categories likely to shrink in the years ahead: voters born before 1952, non-Hispanic whites, voters without a college degree.

The new, immoderate Republican Party is therefore unlikely to succeed better in the near future than it has in the recent past. William Voegeli and Steve Hayward can see these facts as well as I can. Yet instead of scaling back their political ambitions in the face of an obdurate reality, they are escalating them.

Voegeli: “A key task of statesmanship in the 21st century is to mold public sentiment to incorporate this reality-based sobriety, undoing the impress that 80 years of New Deal-Great Society wishful thinking has made.”

But here’s an ironic truth: the Republicans of the rejected moderate era succeeded much better at undoing the excesses of the New Deal and Great Society than the immoderate Republicans of today. Between 1969 and 1983, they repealed New Deal regulation of civil aviation, trucking, shipping and railways; New Deal regulation of consumer banking and finance; and a vast swathe of controls of energy production and pricing. They stopped the construction of public housing, replacing it with Section 8 vouchers. They closed Great Society programs like the Office of Economic Opportunity and Model Cities.

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What have the immoderate Republicans of the Tea Party era accomplished? Bupkus.

What went wrong? Many things, but start with this: Tea Party Republicans terrified the country. In 2011, they came within inches of forcing an entirely unnecessary government default. In 2012, they campaigned on a platform of ending the Medicare guarantee for younger people (while preserving every nickel of it for the Republican-voting constituencies over age 55) in order to finance a big tax cut for the richest Americans. Through the whole period 2009-2012, senior Republicans engaged in strident rhetoric of a kind simply not used by major party figures since the demise of Burton K. Wheeler and Alben Barkley. “Death panels” and “Ground Zero mosques”; Michele Bachman, Herman Cain and Donald Trump taking turns as the Republican front-runner; speakers of state legislatures praying for the death of the president and a former speaker of the House denouncing the president as a Kenyan anti-colonial alien to the American experience—we could fill this page with examples of important Republicans currying favor with their voting base by behaving in ways that the non-base would regard as reckless, racist, or just plain repellent.

I concur with Voegeli and Hayward about the need to restrain the growth of government. A preference for leaner, more efficient government is the concern that unites all Republicans. But it is more than a coincidence that the more ferociously and apocalyptically Republicans talk about government, the less Republicans actually do about it.

Here it seems to me is the core problem: the big winners under the American fiscal system are the elderly, the rural, and the affluent—Republican constituencies. It’s not easy to balance the budget or shrink government spending to any significant degree in ways that don’t pinch Republican voters much harder than they pinch Democratic voters.

To escape that reality, some conservative thought leaders have constructed an alternative reality. In this alternative reality, “welfare” not Medicare is the number one social spending cost.

In this alternative reality, government employment has not fallen by more than 500,000 since 2008.

In this alternative reality, half the country is deemed not to pay any tax—because this alternative reality refuses to count payroll taxes, excise taxes, and state and local taxes as taxes.

In this alternative reality, Medicare is counted as a program that is “paid for” by its beneficiaries contributions while unemployment insurance is not—even though the latter statement would be much closer to true.

In this alternative reality, we are in imminent danger of losing our freedom—even though, as a matter of daily experience, more Americans of all races and both sexes face fewer legal constraints upon their ability to live as they please than ever before in the nation’s history.

Inside this alternative reality, conservative thought leaders have substituted culture war for normal politics. They have succeeded only in isolating themselves from the country in which they live. Conservative politics and the Republican Party are on the wrong track. The particular traditions so learnedly detailed by Geoffrey Kabaservice are dead for good. But the spirit of empiricism, prudence, and inclusion that animated them is the only spirit that can revive limited-government politics for the 21st century.