It’s true that, throughout the fall budget debate, nobody said they wanted a shutdown. Reporters would press conservatives in the Capitol: But aren’t you worried that shutting down the government will backfire? We don’t want to shut down the government, they would say, we want to fund everything in the government except Obamacare.
In that sense, Bevin’s proclamation of his opposition to shutting down the government is not remarkable. Another part of his analysis is also more or less routine: He points out that Republicans in Washington didn’t press the issue until September, far too late to win the public’s hearts and minds. “Even [Utah senator] Mike Lee’s letter” — organizing members against including Obamacare money in the next government-funding bill — “came out I believe in July,” he noted in the interview. A number of conservatives have made similar complaints about how the GOP leadership handled the shutdown episode. If they had been beating the war drums to defund Obamacare throughout the summer, the thinking goes, the battle might have been won.
It’s Bevin’s broader indictments of partisanship and intransigence that are difficult to square with his public image as a conservative alternative to McConnell — specifically, his statement that “this idea of us being bomb throwers, being zealots who ‘it’s my way or the highway’” is “craziness.” One way to take Bevin’s remarks is as a rejection of the labels that liberals use to criticize conservatives. Matt Hoskins, the head of the Senate Conservatives Fund group that has been strongly backing his campaign, says: “Matt Bevin was pushing back against the language used by Mitch McConnell and the Democrats to attack conservatives. We aren’t bomb throwers and we never supported a government shutdown. Conservatives have a system of principles that we believe should guide public policy because they will empower Americans to live free and prosperous lives. Matt Bevin is right to push back against these false labels.”
But still, whom was he referring to as “bomb throwers”? Whom is he directing his criticisms at?
Not Ted Cruz, not Mike Lee, not Rand Paul, Bevin told me. “I applaud them for taking a principled stand. An informed stand. A representative stand. Because what they were doing was representing and fighting for the will of the people.”
“I wasn’t naming specific people,” he said. “I can think of one example that I’m not even going to throw out there because it’ll get spun into its own little orbit of misinterpretation. There have been people who will just take a stand and will not move off of it regardless of how ill-informed that stance is. . . . That was not the case in anything involved in the budget debate, or the funding of Obamacare.”
Bevin also explained his thinking on Reagan more fully. Reagan and O’Neill both understood they needed to “focus on what is in the best interest of the country, and of the people, and not specifically what my ideology or party are telling me to do,” he said. “Now in reality — and now I’m just being partisan here, but I’m telling you — when people focus on reality, and pragmatism, and when they focus on what is in the best interest of the country, they do move towards conservative thinking. I’m biased, but I’m telling you. That’s how Reagan got it done, because O’Neill was smart enough to appreciate that Reagan was right. And he wasn’t such a stubborn zealot that he wouldn’t compromise on that.
“Do you think Harry Reid would have done anything as remotely statesmanlike as Tip O’Neill? And believe me, I’m not a fan of Tip O’Neill. Gracious. But, that said, do you think that Harry Reid would have done anything as remotely statesmanlike? I don’t. He is a man who will dig his heels in and throw a little temper tantrum. . . . He’s been getting away with it because McConnell gets played like a sock puppet by Harry Reid. Repeatedly.”
At the end of our conversation, Bevin vowed to stick to principle if elected to the Senate.
“If 100 people are saying ‘x’ and I know that ‘y’ is the right thing to do, then ‘y’ is what I’ll do. If a hundred are zigging, and zagging is the right thing to do, then zagging is what I’ll do. I have always been this way, and this is exactly how I’ll be as a senator,” he said.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.