The withdrawal of Dede Scozzafava from the special election for Congress in upstate New York has predictably set off another wave of media-led hand-wringing about the health of the GOP. (See here
, for example.) These stories are like crack for reporters, especially those with a hard-left slant. It is always framed as a battle between ‘conservatives’ and ‘moderates,’ but the focus is actually much narrower.
To Big Media, conservatism comes in only one flavor, social
conservatism, namely anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage and a smattering of other issues that would fall flat over canapés and seltzer (liberals don’t seem to drink anymore). That Dede was pro-choice and pro-gay marriage fits the narrative perfectly for the media. End of story.
But, the media, and political leaders would be wise to dig a bit deeper into the story. Yes, Dede was pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, but she was also pro-government spending, pro-taxes and pro-Big Labor, to name just a few other issues. When a Republican candidate regularly seeks out the endorsement of ACORN and wins the endorsement of DailyKos
, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that large segments of the party might have some misgivings about supporting the candidate. (And they would be right, since she has now endorsed
the Democrat in the race.)
The media and the national Republicans who backed Dede are furiously spinning her withdrawal as meaning that pro-choice and pro-gay marriage candidates ‘need not apply’ for the GOP ticket. The media is warning that, unless the GOP nominates, ‘moderates’ the public will reject the party’s candidates and condemn it to perpetual minority status. Right, the media is worried
about this. I find it is generally wise to be skeptical of advice given me by my opponents.
Both the media and national Republicans are overstating the relevance of social issues at a time when most voters are fearful about keeping their jobs. Many people may care about these issues, but they aren't driving their political activism. An highly-energized large block of voters are actually really concerned that government has grown too big, too fast. They're not clinging to 'gods and guns', as candidate Obama famously sneered opined
; they're clinging to their wallets.
Every year at CPAC, the annual conference of grass-roots conservative activists, they take a straw poll of attendee’s political views and priorities. One question asks whether the movement’s focus should be on “limiting the size and scope of government” or “protecting ‘traditional’ values.” For the last three years, attendees split roughly 50/50 on the question. This year, almost 75% of attendees voted that limiting the size of government was their top priority
. Keep in mind, attendees at CPAC are generally the heart of the social conservative movement.
This year, the Washington Post
—the most effective arm of the Virginia Democrat Party—thought it found the silver bullet to kill the gubernatorial campaign of republican Bob McDonnell. They unearthed a 20-year old thesis McDonnell wrote in college that contained some pretty embarrassing statements--at least by today’s standards—about whether, for example, families are better off if the wife doesn’t work outside the home. The Democrats based almost their entire campaign, and the Post
based most of its coverage, on McDonnell’s thesis. It must chill them to the bone that McDonnell is set to win by one of the larger margins in state history. It isn’t that the public, or even McDonnell today, agrees with what’s in the thesis; they just don’t care.
The GOP ignores this lesson at their peril. It is entirely probable that, in today’s political climate, a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Republican candidate who also opposed increased government spending, favored cutting taxes and rejected the demands of Big Labor would have romped to victory in upstate New York. Hoffman’s insurgent campaign wasn’t fueled by tapping into social conservatives, per se
; it was fueled by tapping into the tea party movement. A movement that still perplexes the GOP, it seems.
Starting Tuesday, however, the American public is set to start handing back to the GOP huge swaths of political power. (I think it is better than even money the party sweeps VA, NJ and the special election in New York 23. Hell, they’ll probably even come relatively close in a special election
for Congress in the San Francisco Bay Area!) I don’t think even the mandarins running the national GOP are incompetent enough to prevent this.
Well, actually, there probably is something they could do to prevent this; continue to misread the national mood and political zeitgeist. Just as generals risk fighting the last war, national Republicans risk fighting the last election cycle. I think the national party leadership, cocooned in DC, saw a district in upstate New York that was carried by Obama and then went searching for a Republican who was pro-choice and failed to look any deeper into other issues. In other words, they took the advice of Big Media. I know from personal experience that the GOP in DC doesn’t fully appreciate the grass-roots movement that has erupted around the country this year. They continue to look through a political prism calibrated on one or two formerly hot-button issues. They don't appreciate how much the political landscape has changed. That is the real source of their missteps in New York.
I leave to others the task of asking whether those responsible for the Dede campaign should be allowed even within the same time-zone of future political campaigns, but I think it bears repeating—perhaps screaming—that the GOP spent almost $1 million on a candidate who then proceeded to drop like a stone into third place. (She might have fallen further but for the fact that there are only three candidates in the race.) It does not inspire confidence that these individuals are ready for prime time. Republicans are appropriately calling for audits of ACORN. They might want to audit the NRCC as well.
While piling on idiotic national Republicans is a fun parlor game, there is a lesson here for the tea party movement as well. Just yesterday I received an email from a congressional candidate who has decided to pull out of the GOP primary and wage a third-party 'conservative' campaign next November. This candidate is drawing the wrong lesson from New York’s 23rd
District. First, New York has unique election rules that have allowed third parties to prosper. The dynamics in play in New York simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. There were many variables, beyond those that have been generally reported, that will make a repeat of the Hoffman phenomenon elsewhere difficult.
By forgoing a primary, this candidate is missing an opportunity to reform the GOP. Worse, by channeling the tea party movement into some kind of angry, Perot-inspired third party, there is a real risk that the left will get a reprieve from the voters’ boiling-over anger. Dede certainly deserved opposition from anyone who claims any belief in limited government. But she is also, likely (hopefully), a special case. The tea party movement should be careful, however, that it doesn't evolve into some kind of politburo, forever patrolling for apostates and conducting purges. I'm a big believer in bitter primary fights, as long as the fights stay within the family.
Because, even if we don’t like it, the GOP is probably our last, best chance to reverse course and regain some personal liberty and economic prosperity. Maybe not the GOP as it is now, but as it was and could be again. I’m old enough to remember a time when the party had an institutional aversion to using government to ‘solve’ our problems. I remember when the party gave a lot more than lip-service to the notion that adults should be free to make their own choices, both for good and ill. I remember a time when Ronald Reagan said the heart and soul of the conservative movement was libertarianism
The tea parties and summer townhalls have proved the public is ready again for this message. More than that, the public is demanding this message. They are far ahead of the national leadership of the GOP. (The national Democrats are simply hopeless and are marching lock-step into a political buzzsaw.) As in upstate New York, the public may even force the GOP to adopt/return to this message. Hopefully, the GOP will seize the opportunity that has been handed to them. Hopefully, the tea party movement will give the GOP the chance to do it. At the end of the day, the political enemy is over on the left.