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November 03, 2009

Thoughts on the Republican "Civil War"

This continues to be a major point of contention on blogs, with long threads bursting out whenever the topic is brought up.

I thought maybe I would try again to address this.

Sorry; I posted an unfinished version of this earlier, by accident. To be honest, it still isn't "finished;" it is merely abandoned, as they say. I give up in writing it.


First of all, allow me the use of the terms "maximalists" and "pragmatists" as the terms of discussion. Words like "Purist," and, on the other side "RINO" and "sell-out" aren't appreciated by anyone of the receiving end of them. I don't know if "maximalist" or "pragmatist" are also bad terms, but I'll assume provisionally they're okay. I'm just trying to find non-offensive words for this stuff.

I do not think these two camps are as far apart as their proponents seem to think. It is often the case that maximalists accuse, or suggest, that pragmatists aren't interested in electing more conservative candidates, or of supporting more conservative primary challengers to confirmed RINOs. And it often the case that pragmatists (including myself) seem to talk as if the maximalists are unaware that a Tom Coburn type candidate wouldn't fare so well in liberal New Jersey or arch-Democratic Maryland.

To the extent the positions of each respective side get parodized and turned into straw-men, let us have less of that. The maximalists have to stop, stop treating anyone who mentions a legitimate practical-world concern to a maximalist slate of candidates as some sort of sell-out "without principle" and "without integrity." (Having been on the receiving end of that sort of thing, I can tell you: Insults are not persuasive, and actually only harden one's position against you.)

And on the pragmatist side of things, we can stop with the bait-ish expressions like "fantasy world" and other statements that imply the maximalist is less than lucid.

More on that later, though: I do think that some of the maximalists are in fact simply dismissing electoral reality as an inconvenience easily ignored, and almost as easily overcome, and we do need to discuss that. But we need more constructive manners of expressing that, I guess, as "fantasy" is taken as offensive.

To get back to the "we are not so far apart thing:" There is hardly any question, in my mind, at least, that ideological conservatives, including myself, the cobloggers, and even a hated "RINO" like Allah (PS, he's not a RINO), agree with the maximalists that we should exert pressure, through dollars, agitation, and primary challengers, to push the GOP slate of candidates broadly to the right, and to try to enforce more conservative voting-discipline on them all.

I think in substance, we agree. We are talking, chiefly here, about tactics and strategy: The pragmatists, too, want to see a more conservative GOP. (Actual conservative pragmatists, I mean, as opposed to people like David Frum, who simply want a more left wing party.) What we are disagreeing on is how much is possible.

If I don't think it's possible, for example, that a 100% pro-life candidate can get elected in suburban New Jersey, I'm not being a sell-out or trying to actively thwart the pro-lifers. My belief is not an ideological one: I can root for the Giants, but when they play the Eagles, as they did yesterday, my strong hunch is that they're going to lose badly. (As they did.)

I think the maximalists are confusing two sets of people:

1. People like David Frum who make claims about what is or what is not electorally possible, because he wishes to push the party to the left. His claims about electoral viability are in fact pretext: He uses this excuse to push his own substantive liberal agenda, under the guise of "viability." But in fact, viability is an afterthought: He wants a more leftwing party because he's a more leftwing guy, and at the end of the day, he doesn't really care which is actually more electorally viable. He just wants a liberal Republican Party and he's using any argument at hand to achieve that.

2. People like me who really do want a more conservative GOP, but really are concerned that if you push this too far, if you push candidates that are too far out of sync with their districts, you're going to wind up with a more conservative slate of candidates, but a much more liberal government and much more liberal America, because a great candidate who's good on the issues but who loses an election gets no vote.

If the GOP were to lose further seats in the Senate, for example, health care would have already passed -- the problem the Democrats have is that they have a filibuster-proof majority in theory, but several of their members are wobbly. Add in five or six more Democratic Senators and I think you'd be able to cobble together a real filibuster proof majority, even with five defectors, with enough liberals to push anything through the Senate, and any Supreme Court nominee too.

I really think a major problem here is that the maximalists think the pragmatists are lying, that what we really crave is a more liberal GOP, and we are using this phony argument to contend for indirectly what we don't have the guts to contend for directly. That we want liberal Senators and Representatives, but we don't have the guts to say so, so we are conjuring up phony fears about losing elections.

I can only give you my word this isn't true. For one thing: Well, I'm not the the most ideological conservative guy, but I have demonstrated on most occasions I am in fact more ideologically conservative than the squishes in the GOP. I don't like the squishes. I say so on a daily basis. Why would I attempt to push for more of them?

For another thing, I have attacked David Frum and Ryan Sager for always dressing up their own policy preferences -- "global warming," gay marriage, etc. -- as necessary electoral strategies. Again and again I have pointed out that the traditional marriage position (anti-gay-marriage, I mean), for example, is either a net-vote-winner or a wash, and not, as David Frum and Ryan Sager contend, some sort of albatross dragging the party down.

So in that example I have specifically called out people that I think are dishonestly disguising their own political preferences as what is supposedly necessary for the good of the party, pretending that they're just telling us "the way it is" when in fact they're really trying to tell us "the way we would like it to be." And I guess that doesn't mean I'm immune from the charge that I'm doing it too, but... well, I think it sort of shows that I'm not. Maybe not conclusively, but it's certainly evidence of that.

I am not lying when I say I doubt that a pro-life candidate could ever be elected in most districts in New Jersey. Perhaps a couple of the more rural districts in the south and west of the state -- but the bulk of the state is urban and suburban, and gets its social mores from New York City and Philadelphia. (Most of populous New Jersey is in fact just suburbs of those big cities, of course.) It is not a con when I tell you, having grown up there, and having watched New Jersey turn from a gettable Republican state in 1992 to a deep blue Democratic state in 2008, New Jersey is mainly liberal, especially on social issues, and there is just no chance of getting a strongly pro-life candidate in most of the districts there. The best you can do is a pro-choice-with-restrictions kind of candidate... who doesn't even advertise those views very loudly, except (say) to point out his opponent's support of partial birth abortion.

There are opinions and there are facts. And there is ideology and then there is electoral reality. And these issues keep getting confused, together I think, by some (but not all) in the maximalist camp. I keep saying stuff like New Jersey can't elect more than one or two pro-life Representatives, max; and the odds of a pro-life Senator running statewide getting elected are either grim or none. This is purely a statement about electoral reality and strategy, not about the substance of the issue at all.

A lot of the time the response is about how, on the substance of the issue, abortion is a moral wrong that everyone should be against, and we need to just persuade people of that. Well, may be; but that doesn't address the point made. Most voters in New Jersey disagree with that proposition and are, in fact, as certain of their pro-choice stance as pro-lifers are of theirs. Given that, do we run a pro-choice-with-restrictions candidate or the pro-life one in liberal leaning but not impossible-to-win districts?

I just think that two distinct issues keep getting jumbled up as if there is no real distinction between them: politics, also known as "the art of the possible," and philosophy, also known as "the art of the truth." Philosophy obviously strongly influences politics, but the two things are distinct; politics is more than, and less than, philosophy. It's not just about what is ideal. It's about getting what is closest to the ideal, or, if that is impossible (check out our current president and Congress), what is at least tolerable.

What the maximalists don't seem to acknowledge is that pragmatists like myself are on their side, in the main, as regards philosophy. But I do in fact distinguish between the ideal, the merely good, the merely tolerable, and the absolutely intolerable, and I am worried that all this agitation in favor of the ideal is going to risk bringing us not even the "merely tolerable," but the absolutely intolerable.

That is my fear. I think the maximalists are talking up their hopes -- best-case scenarios -- while pragmastists are talking their fears -- worst-case scenarios. Personally, I'm in favor of trying for the best-case scenario most times it's within reach (see my previous support of Pat Toomey), but I do in fact fear the worst-case scenario that if you push too hard for your political ideal, make things a bit too ideological and too clear, voters will reject that for liberal candidates who talk in gauzy, feel-good platitudes that seem to eschew ideology... and then vote like liberal motherfuckers once in office.

Sound familiar? Sound like someone you know?

I restate the age-old imperative of politics: Do not make too many clear commitments, unless they're plainly popular ones commanding 60%+ support, because every time you do, you alienate another segment of the voting population. If you become too clear and too precise about your intentions and philosophy, and you will not be rewarded for it, but punished, because the guy with the vaguer, less honest platform will win the election. Vague platforms win elections, because they induce large numbers of people to think that that candidate agrees with them; he has been vague enough that many people are deceived into thinking he's on their side.

Very specific, very clear candidates tend to lose, because their honesty is actually a detriment: They announce loudly and clearly and forthrightly to a large number of people I disagree with you; I'm not going to con you here and pretend we share common ground on this issue: I flat-out, honestly, forthrightly disagree with you, and will vote against your preferences on these issues. They are upfront about it, and they are subsequently punished for their honesty.

Again: Barack Obama.

My fear is that there is a campaign afoot for what could be called "honest philosophy," with conservative candidates laying down iron-clad guarantees about where they are on each and every issue, and this is precisely contrary to sound politics -- which in fact tends to involve a great deal of dishonesty.

I don't want all these pledges and cast-iron guarantees on divisive issues. I want a little bit more flexibility for the candidate. Not necessarily because I want him to get into office and vote more liberally, but because I fear he cannot be voted into office at all if he vows a very specific, very honest conservative position on all divisive issues.

This is my fear: Some are pushing "integrity" and ideological soundness not only at the expense of electoral strategy, but sometimes without even considering the latter, almost dismissing such concerns not as frivolous, but as something close to immoral.

I say "immoral" because when I make this case I am often told I lack integrity and so on. So we seem to be having here a discussion not really about politics per se, but of political morality.

I don't think that is the way to win elections. Politics is fundamentally, at its heart, a dishonest game. It is. It always has been and it always will be, and I don't really think there's much point talking about whether it should be this way. It is this way. No should about it.

It is a game -- a game -- with big real-world consequences, but it still observes the rules of a game. And in a game, like poker, you don't go all-in every hand, and you don't put a lot of money on bad bets. That way lies bankruptcy and an early exit from the table. Resources are finite, some bets are good, while others are indifferent, or bad, or positively disastrous, sometimes taking a big romantic death-or-glory chance makes sense but often it doesn't.

But never in poker should you ever begin to think "I will make this big bet because I should win it; I have greater integrity in this game, and therefore I deserve win."

As Clint Eastwood said, "Deservin's got nothin' to do with it."


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posted by Ace at 03:09 PM

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