The Establishment vs. The Tea Party; Or, Why Word Choice Leads to an Irrational Narrative

The lion’s share of internecine Republican warfare rests on a problematic assertion: That there’s a qualitative difference, ideologically, between the Tea Party and the so-called Establishment.

I’m not so sure that there is.

What’s the major difference between Tea Party and Establishment Republicans? Only one real distinction comes to mind: Experience.

The Tea Party is upset because they see what they believe is an America under siege by the forces of collectivism and fiscal profligacy. Agree or disagree, but their lament is at least coherent. They want change, and they want it now, and they don’t want it watered down.

The Establishment, by contrast, is probably more Right than Center, but years of observing the Buckley Rule — achieve the most conservative candidate or position that’s possible and don’t die for lost causes — has opened them up to compromise and incrementalism. You might not, for example, get an immediate change in entitlement spending, but you might get a bending of the curve downward with folks like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell in charge.

Thus, the struggle between Tea Party and Establishment is probably less about ideology — I think everyone’s fundamentally on the same page — than it is about tactics. The Tea Party folks, because they’re mostly not accustomed to holding significant elective office, fail to understand that you can’t just stomp your feet and get your way. The Establishment folks, because they’re more interested in playing chess with the Democrats than checkers with their co-partisans, seem tone-deaf to the implications of sacrificing an occasional pawn.

It’s convenient to fan the flames of internal discord by alleging a difference in value systems between these two wings of the GOP. In truth, the differences aren’t all that significant, and with a bit of time and good will, we could end up with a GOP that’s got a passionate base with a bit more wisdom, and an elected class with a bit less risk aversion.

As long as we stop letting MSNBC and The Nation set the terms of the discussion.

Of Bread, Circuses and Ovaries

The 99 percent. The 47 percent. Sandra Fluke. Cardinal Dolan versus Secretary Sebelius. Single women giving 68 percent of their vote to Barack Obama. Each of these talking points waltzes around a thorny problem for American governance: The challenge of entitlement reform in a culture with far too many fallen soldiers in its “little platoons.”

The GOP consultant class, diving into the post-election crosstabs, are trying to make rain for themselves by noting “unexpected” electoral trends, like the rate of single women going for the Democrats. Although I certainly applaud their zeal to keep themselves employed, their potential future employers ought to ask, How did you clowns not see coming a trend as old as the Roman Empire and as evergreen as Tocqueville?

It’s a commonplace for economists to claim that people are fundamentally rational. In the aggregate, people tend to make prudent short- and long-term choices that redound to their own advantage. That’s why economics works fairly well as a predictive theory.

Concurrently, sociologists have lamented since the Moynihan Report the fracturing of the American family. The two-parent family, with a working father and a homemaking mother and a typical family size above the population-replenishment rate, is transitioning. Single parenthood, divorce, the sociocultural legitimization of same-sex attraction — these pressures have modified the political and economic calculus that the average citizen must factor. Cultural conservatives have done much to decry these shifts but precious little to change them apart from sitting on the sidelines offering boos and hisses.

Thus, the question: If it’s culturally and economically viable for a single female to thrive on her own terms — as promiscuous or as chaste as she wishes; married or unmarried; barren or fecund; straight or gay; obligated to her family or not — then what’s her Plan B when family and network support aren’t up to the task?

I’m not talking about the morning-after pill. Human society has always emphasized intergenerational support as a mechanism for protecting against illness, injury or old age. Within kin networks, in your youth you relied on your parents and grandparents, and in your old age you relied on your children. Extended family helped, too, and in many places affinity groups — churches, benevolent associations, labor unions — pitched in to cover gaps. Once upon a time we called these institutions “civil society.”

The atomization of the family and the turn toward more robust and unhindered individualism turned this model on its head. For many, many people — and most especially, single females — Plan B isn’t family or a social network, but the promise of baseline support from the government.

Yes, many Republicans mouth their outrage at this turn of events. Yet whether the sound bite is Romney’s 47 percent remark or Rush Limbaugh’s idea of a “nation of takers,” the reality is that a sizeable proportion of the population has no other reliable catastrophic fallback. No savings, no spouse, too small of a family. Only Big Government is positioned to fill the gap, and without that backstop, a person’s just one step away from the abyss with no safety net at the bottom.

And you know what? This trust in providential government is rational. Trusting the government to care for you, when you have no one else who will, provides psychological comfort. It’s also economically rational. Thus, voters will support politicians who protect their Plan B.

The conservative talking-points on Big Government ring hollow with folks who trust Uncle Sam to catch them if they fall. Part of this disconnect might be simple cognitive dissonance: People support “caring government” for others as a sign of enlightened social compassion without acknowledging that their support is partially selfish. Sometimes — look, for example, at the Occupy nonsense — a trust in government is a convenient outlet for envy.

In any case, a message of “smaller government” that “gets out of your life” appeals to people who follow the older life plan of larger families, connected local networks and wealth-building thrift. If you don’t have that infrastructure behind you, all you’re hearing is “we’re taking away your safety net, you leeches.” Appeals to fiscal restraint become too academic, too coldly calculating to resonate — especially when the “other side” argues that that the cost savings will simply revert to the wealthy.

The Republicans have a real rhetorical deficit on this point. I worry, though, that the Democrats have an even worse problem: Eventually, someone’s going to have to pay the bill. When you offer bread and circuses on the public dime, the public is going to demand that you get the dimes from somewhere. When the sources dry up, so also does the public benefit. When that happens ….

Democrats have been disingenuous about entitlement reform. It’s as if they believe they can find ways to fund a generous welfare state indefinitely, contrary to the experience of social democracies across Europe. Raising taxes on the wealthy won’t cut it, and they know it, but just like the Republican refuse to concede that that they’ve lost the culture war, the Democrats refuse to concede … math.

We’re therefore facing the odd problem of two major political parties cum ideologies that could be positioned to take up a reform mantle within their scope of interest, but instead pick incoherent fights with straw men.Republicans should probably lay off the moralizing about the shift away from the Eisenhower-style family. Democrats should probably stop lying about entitlement spending.

Either way, the next few decades will prove fascinating. The premise of American government rests on intermediary institutions and federalism to check the popular excesses that appear at the federal level. The more we take knock down those barriers, the more likely it is that our worst impulses will be unimpeded by our best instincts.

Post-Election Reflection: 10 Ideas for Conservative Renewal

Another election, another set of mixed messages from the electorate at large. And another round of self-flagellation by the Conservative Commentariat coupled with ill-advised gloating from the Left.

Core message: No cause for alarm, but there’s clearly opportunity to ponder course corrections and work on infrastructure. We need to get past the “America’s a center-right Reaganesque country” wishful thinking and take seriously the challenges presented by contemporary progressive ideology. We also must heed John Paul II’s sage counsel at his own election: Be not afraid. For with John Boehner in the House, the relative risk of untrammeled liberalism remains low. We didn’t get the win we wanted, but we did get status quo.

The comments that follow are shaped, in large part, from reading the last few days’ commentary from sources as diverse as FireDogLake, NRO, RedState, Salon, Talking Points Memo and Weekly Standard. The two Jays — Cost and Nordlinger — and The Three Wise Elders of Moe Lane, Peggy Noonan and George Will have contributed disproportionately to the analysis that follows.

  1. Don’t blame Romney.  Mitt Romney wasn’t a bad candidate. He ran a decent campaign. Some on the Right didn’t like him — such is an inevitability — but his campaign wasn’t a disaster. So don’t blame the Romney/Ryan ticket for losing. They ran a solid and honorable race. The GOP cannot move forward if scapegoating the nominee substitutes for genuine soul-searching.
  2. State-level organizations need fresh blood and a healthy dose of pragmatism. The GOP’s U.S. Senate holding in 2013 will consist of 45 seats. Conventional wisdom is that had Lugar not been successfully primaried by Mourdock, Indiana would have been a safe Republican seat. Had Akin not put his foot in his mouth, he probably would have easily trumped McCaskill. In 2010, the GOP put forth exceptionally weak candidates in Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and Christine O’Donnell. With better candidates, the GOP could easily have tied or even eked out a slender majority in the Senate by this point. The problem in these races isn’t the alleged “Establishment Republicans” intervening but rather of weak conveyors of candidates at the state level. For every satisfactory challenger to the status quo like Marco Rubio, you get the self-proclaimed witch that’s Christine O’Donnell. Worse, there’s every sign that that Tea Party has simply tried to insert itself into local politics at the precinct level, working their folks into the GOP’s base, so the GOP will continue to field subpar candidates as long as seasoned veterans and neophyte firebrands continue to battle in a way that leaves the Buckley Rule in tatters. State leadership really needs to recruit strong candidates and get them on a pathway to nomination victory early. Internecine warfare at the state level gives us a candidate-selection system that’s basically a giant Roulette wheel: You might get good, you might get bad, but no one knows until the primary’s over. (And like any game of Roulette, the House — the DNC — has an edge.)
  3. Nurture local volunteers. GOP efforts on election day, frankly, sucked — for the second presidential cycle in a row. The GOTV effort was dwarfed by the Obama campaign. This problem starts at the precinct and county levels. Too many Republicans prefer faux grassroots office over actually doing the hard work of building coalitions. When my own county GOP organization refuses to return phone calls and emails, and campaigns that do call (thank you, Pete Hoekstra) nevertheless don’t seem to align skills/experience with the nature of their requests, the question is: WTF? Maybe it’s a West Michigan thing, but it really seems like we have a substantial barrier at the grassroots level, with local GOP potentates acting complacent in their self-importance while the Dems run organizational circles around them. Case in point: My paperwork to be a precinct delegate this year “didn’t get filed” because I’m in the same precinct as the county chairman and he wanted to cast a ballot for his wife for some nominated office or something. But in our precinct, there was no effective GOP presence. No flyers, no door-to-door, no one to challenge Democrat yard signs in public easements. You’d think the precinct with the county chair could at least maintain a degree of visibility despite our overwhelming +D territory.
  4. The consultants deserve the boot. The scandal over Project ORCA and dumbfounded reaction of the RNC and the Romney campaign over actual voting results — when the Dems were basically dead-on accurate — suggests that the Republicans need to set aside the self-proclaimed smarter-than-thou campaign consultants and assemble leadership teams more nimble and less prone to score-settling. The performance of folks like Rick Beeson and Zach Moffatt this cycle, and Rick Davis and John Weaver for McCain, is beyond shameful. We don’t need consultants, we need candidates who know what it takes to win.
  5. The GOP needs better data scientists.  I pity Neil Newhouse, the veteran GOP pollster; he seems like a sharp fellow but he hasn’t kept up with the times. Polling science isn’t what it used to be, and the GOP has clearly fallen far behind — they can’t even gauge the nature of the electorate, let alone its behavior. Mike Flynn argues that the institutional blindness of the Romney campaign came from its focus on metrics irrespective of the world behind those numbers. I find his point persuasive. Team Obama put its data scientists at the heart of the campaign and built everything else around them; Team Romney put the consultants at the heart and they cherry-picked the polls to meet their metrics and in so doing, lost sight of the real dynamic within the campaign.
  6. Conservatism needs to move beyond binary policy preferences. The very chaos of the Democratic coalition is, in a sense, also its biggest strength: You can deviate more from the party platform and still be a “good Democrat” to much greater degree than within the GOP. Nowhere is this trend more obvious than on gay marriage: The Dems favor it, by and large, but opposition isn’t a disqualifier (q.v., black preachers); on the GOP side, vocal opposition seems to be something of a litmus test, especially among the cultural conservatives. What galls about this is that “strengthening marriage” as a campaign slogan is exclusively about gay marriage — whereas in truth, the problems with marriage as a sociocultural institution run far deeper than that and are rooted in shifting norms among heterosexual youth such that gay marriage isn’t even a dot on the radar screen. Or take environmentalism: Many like to dismiss global warming as a “hoax” but why bother picking a fight about science when you could follow Roger Scruton’s brilliant advice about promoting conservation rooted in loving where you live? If the GOP adopted Scruton’s advice wholesale, we’d probably neutralize “environment” as a political issue within a fortnight. Policy positions should not be distilled into a false binary-choice slogan about about some isolated aspect of a larger and more complex issue.
  7. Think carefully about turnout in light of state and local ballot proposals.  People who are less inclined to vote for individual politicians may nevertheless be induced to vote because of specific ballot initiatives and referenda. In Michigan, for example, we had six significant proposals that drew voters, and Grand Rapids — the state’s second-largest city — included a controversial marijuana-decriminalization proposal that ended up passing. Gay marriage won at the ballot in four states. Guess who showed up to vote? Republicans really need to get ahead of ballot initiatives.
  8. Articulate a coherent, positive message. It feels like the GOP is the party of “no” — no new ideas, no bold policy innovations, no willingness to work for the best interest of the common treasury. Conservatism in the Goldwater-Reagan era, bolstered by National Review and Firing Line, rose to the defense of a conservative movement that articulated bold visions and the polices to execute them: Defeat the Soviet Union, lower taxes from 70-percent highs, deregulate massive investments like telecoms and the airlines. Yay for us, we did it: The Soviet Union has been consigned to the ash heap of history, many industries have deregulated and tax rates are relatively low. So what’s next? No one knows. A vision that’s “smaller and smarter” doesn’t actually mean anything in the real world. A vision to defeat America’s enemies abroad in 2012 doesn’t mean staring down Brezhnev, it means fighting dozens of terrorist movements across the globe, but no one wants to do the work that such an effort would entail. Lowering taxes incessantly does have a minimal ceiling given that we can’t effect a zero-percent rate. So, what’s the vision? What’s the reason to vote for Republican’s that isn’t, fundamentally, a reaction against a progressive initiative? When will Republicans define their own platform instead of defining it against the opposition? The GOP can’t win when it’s presenting to the electorate nothing more than a referendum on progressivism without any real, substantive, positive alternative.
  9. Evacuate the bubble. Having despaired of the left-leaning influence of major cultural institutions like the mainstream media and Hollywood and the Ivory Tower, conservatives opted to erect something of an opposite number. Instead of moderating the left-wing pull of these institutions, we built our own in opposition. Thus, instead of pulling the major news networks and newspapers more toward the center, we relied on Fox News and The Washington Times and the WSJ editorial board to serve as balance. Instead of fighting for conservatism within the classroom, we built Ave Maria University and Liberty University. Instead of mainstreaming Republican sensibilities within Hollywood, we get 2016: Obama’s America. The inevitable outcome is that too many conservatives don’t need to fight for their beliefs anymore — they can just sit in the echo chamber. Of course, the rest of the country still gets left-leaning content, so we really haven’t solved the problem. I’d rather see MSNBC and Fox News both go away if it meant that the mainstream press operated from a more fundamentally balanced perspective.
  10. Stop giving shade to irrational policy preferences under the Tree of Conservatism. I’m still at a loss to understand why some particular policy preferences are considered conservative. It seems like certain groups — like evangelicals — have had their beliefs canonized, despite the very legitimate problems that these beliefs incur vis-a-vis pure conservative principles. For example, it’s more conservative to reform the institution of marriage (possibly, to include same-sex marriage) than to hold to a sectarian vision from the Eisenhower years that clearly doesn’t hold any longer. It’s more conservative to focus on fair-use conservation than to reject all environmental policy. It’s more conservative to tax at the “right” rates than to play a screwy game of tax tiers and sundry credits and deductions. It’s more conservative to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of immigration through smart regulation than to demonize “illegals” with a broad brush. It’s more conservative to bolster federalism and local control than to consent to the federalization of policies that some conservatives favor. The GOP, as the conservative party, must elevate conservative principles — but those principles shouldn’t be retrofitted to legitimize policy preferences that aren’t authentically conservative just because coalition members favor them for non-ideological reasons.

Ten theses. Ten ideas for course correction for the GOP and the conservative movement. I make no claim to being a Wise Guy who knows what’s best. I do pay attention to many different sources and see too much sophomoric reasoning substituting for informed policy-making and too much inside-the-bubble wishful thinking substitute for honest analysis.

I don’t think the GOP is in decline. I don’t think the Dems are on a long upswing. I think right now, the GOP has ample opportunity to fine-tune its operations and re-think some pernicious policy preferences that don’t really belong to conservatism.

More than anything, I think John Paul the Great was right: Be not afraid.

Local Politics: An Exercise in Depression

I’ve mostly kept my powder dry about some of the drama going on in local politics. Time now to loose the fusillade.

  1. The ongoing drama about the Anuzis vs. Agema race for national committeeman vexes the mind. The state party remains fairly weak, a problem that plagued us during the Granholm years and shows no signs of abating. Although I appreciate Saul’s record, Delegate-gate (masterfully recorded by the folks at RightMichigan) is a big deal. Michigan is a bluer state than it ought to be in part because we have a bad track record of leadership at the state-party level, a problem that trickles down to candidate selection. I bear Anuzis no ill will, and I really don’t have a solid opinion either way about Dave Agema, but one thing I do know is that the old guard of the state party needs to be retired in favor of solid but pragmatic conservatives who will be more aggressive in the pursuit of the low-hanging fruit that Michigan offers but the leadership can’t ever seem to pluck. (Note: At this weekend’s state convention, Agema beat Anuzis — so Agema and Terri Lynn Land will serve as the state’s committeemen.)
  2. I exercise cautious optimism that the Kent County Republicans will get their act together. For years (roughly, the Joanne Voorhees stewardship) the county party felt more like a country club than a political organization, a place where well-connected people connected with each other. Several attempts to get involved, including phone calls and emails to various people in the county apparatus, were met with silence. And in the interim, we let folks like Justin Amash (Ron Paul’s heir apparent in the House) put MI-3 at risk of a Democratic pick-up. Word on the street is that the new leadership at the county level will be more open and engaging, but time will tell. I never had trouble getting involved directly in Kalamazoo or Ottawa; Kent’s impenetrability makes no sense.
  3. I submitted paperwork to run for precinct delegate. I’m not sure if it was received and properly processed — stay tuned. I’m told that Tea Party types have been quietly running for precinct delegate slots so that they can build a critical mass to “take over” at the county convention; surely, their efforts paid off with the Anuzis upset this weekend at the state convention. Usually, precinct delegate races are quiet non-events. The Tea Party makes it more interesting.
  4. The Rev. George Heartwell, mayor of Grand Rapids, recently made waves with a pro-Planned Parenthood spiel. Most of it didn’t make a lot of sense, and I understand that he’s apologizing at least for his tone because of pressure at the city commission meeting. It’s not clear why hizzonor felt the need to advocate for PP in the first place.

Never a dull moment. Major lesson: Political leadership, no matter how high or low, is a public trust, not a personal endowment. So be responsive stewards.

Election Review: We Remembered November, Now What?

The Republican Governors Association encouraged us to remember November. We listened; after the midterm elections, the GOP picked up more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives, six seats in the U.S. Senate, a majority of governorships, a majority of statehouses, and — for the first time since the 1920s — an absolute majority of state legislators.

In Michigan, the GOP kept the offices of Attorney General and Secretary of State and, in a landslide, our “tough nerd” Rick Snyder reclaimed the Governor’s mansion for the first time since John Engler. In addition, Republicans took the state House, picked up two U.S. House seats, and earned a majority-conservative state Supreme Court. The Republicans have a solid lock on all three branches of state government and a majority of the state’s Congressmen (nine of 16). The lone ranking Democrats are the state’s two U.S. Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. And lest we forget, Michigan had a Republican Senator as recently as 2000, when Spencer Abraham — a good Senator but weak campaigner — lost his re-election bid to “Liberal Debbie.”

So now what?

On a national level, the House Republicans are sounding the best possible note. No triumphalism. No gloating. No elephants parading down Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, John Boehner is making all the right moves, opening the door to compromise but making it clear that the major mandate the GOP possesses is to fix the problems that originated in Democratic profligacy. Marco Rubio’s victory speech was dead on — the GOP didn’t get a resounding endorsement, it got probation. The next two years will decide whether this probation is eligible for early termination or whether the Elephant goes back into solitary confinement.

On a state level, I sincerely hope that Rick Snyder’s election signifies a change of tone within the state GOP. Michigan is an easy win for Republicans who carry the Reagan Democrat banner, so the state party’s decade-long push for hardcore conservative candidates has been simply wrong-headed, and prior election results proved it. Don’t misunderstand; I want a solid conservative victory. But when the state still has strong UAW membership, conservatism must be taught, not imposed by fiat. The Michigan Republicans have not been up to the educational task these last few years. Ron Weiser’s tenure as chairman has been better, but the whole enterprise still feels a bit inbred and tone-deaf.

Nowhere does the dysfunction of Michigan Republicans play out more clearly than in Kent County. Access is circumscribed unless you have a membership to an Ada country club, or so it seems. There is something significant that this cycle, my three phone calls and emails to the county GOP never merited even a form response, yet both Hoekstra’s primary and Snyder’s gubernatorial campaigns eagerly contacted me to help. This is a sharp contrast to my experiences in Kalamazoo County, where a friend and I were eagerly welcomed into the Executive Committee during our undergrad days as officers at the WMU College Republicans, and my brief stay in Ottawa County, where the chairman asked me to coordinate youth activities for the county party. There are too many big-name, big-dollar fish in Kent County to turn it into anything other than an exclusive club, and that’s a damned shame. As long as the Kent County GOP remains the preserve of the elite, opportunities to expand the Republican message will surely be missed.

Of course, navel gazing gets us only so far. The midterm results suggest a few points worth considering:

  1. Republicans should keep in mind that this election was a referendum on Democratic incompetence and over-reach, and not a rousing endorsement of  a specifically Republican platform. Rubio is right: The GOP is on probation, and public-opinion polling supports this perspective.
  2. America is a center-right country. The ideals of the Tea Party resonate strongly with a disaffected mass in the center and right. Republicans should take care to incorporate Tea Party ideas — which, in fairness, are overwhelmingly conservative principles — into the GOP governing paradigm. Why? To avoid a third-party challenge in 2012 that would almost certainly restore the Democrats to power. We cannot risk a second Obama term because we couldn’t stop the next Ross Perot from grabbing a chunk of the disaffected electorate.
  3. The GOP owns Michigan. We must not fail in effecting the transition from a manufacturing economy. Snyder is saying the right things about innovation. We must work very hard to deliver on his promises if we want Michigan’s electoral votes credit the GOP presidential nominee in 2012. In particular, we need a new message to help bring rank-and-file union members back into the GOP.
  4. Republicans across the board need to do a much better job at candidate recruiting, starting at the local level. Justin Amash, the newly elected Congressman from the 3rd District, is a great example of the worst possible candidate earning the nomination. State Sen. Bill Hardiman and Kent County leader Steve Heacock split the “adult” vote in the primary, leaving Amash — a 30-something bomb-thrower who had his state House seat purchased for him by his parents — grabbing the nomination. But Amash, besides his lack of qualification, doesn’t speak to the tenor of Kent County. Amash would fit better in a solidly Republican district; I fear that in coming years, this seat will become vulnerable to takeover by a center-right (instead of far-right) candidate. I hope the Congressman-Elect will pay careful attention to why Ehlers, Henry and Ford did so well here, and why Kent County is not a solidly red county. And don’t get me started on Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller and Sharron Angle.
  5. Republicans at all level, while retaining their humility about their probationary status, must also govern like conservatives. Center-left candidates were tossed out on their asses all across America. Although some compromise will doubtless be necessary from a purely political standpoint, Republicans simply cannot tax, spend and lobby their way to indolence like they did earlier this decade.

The next two years will be interesting.