The Republican special election loss in Mississippi (and Illinois and Louisiana) is evidence of a much larger problem than just a broken and dysfunctional Republican party. In many respects, the electoral defeats of the purportedly conservative party demonstrate some problems with the conservative movement in general.
Let’s take ’em one by one, the most important first: The limited-government core of the center-right coalition, historically the single largest part, has left it.
Read the commentary, read the excuses about why Republicans lost, and you keep seeing things like “the Democrats won in Louisiana and Mississippi because they ran conservative candidates,” meaning pro-life and pro-gun. That’s all it takes to be a conservative today? Really?
Pro-life and pro-gun fall into the “necessary but not sufficient” category. The problem is, Republicans have so badly bungled or abandoned so many limited-government issues — spending, health care, education, Social Security, and tax reform to name a few — that they have very little left with which to appeal to the largest part of their governing coalition.
Limited-government voters just don’t see a difference between Republicans and Democrats on so many of these critical issues, and our voters don’t turn out for Coke vs. Pepsi. Our voters show up and get engaged when there are big issues and big differences between the two sides. This explains the election losses as well as the massive deficits in enthusiasm and money the Right faces.
But the life/guns dynamic masks a larger problem, bringing us to point two: Even when there are contrasts on life and guns, it shouldn’t be seen as a panacea for Republican candidates. We must put an end to interest-group conservatism.
During his acceptance speech at the ’84 Republican Convention, President Reagan chided Walter Mondale for his interest-group liberalism, noting that Democrats saw people only as members of groups; we see them as individual Americans. We’re now where the Democrats were in ’84. Republicans put folks in neat little issue and demographic groups — guns, life, taxes, women under 40, men over 55, etc. — then go down the list checking boxes and think they have them in their camp.
Republican candidates come to election time and believe they’re going to be successful because they sent a pro-life mail piece to their pro-life list. The candidates forgot: The voters are Americans. They have hopes, fears, dreams, beyond any interest-group box any candidate wants to put them in.
Though voters may well be pro-life and pro-gun, in many cases those issues are not their voting issues right now. In 2006, millions of strongly pro-life and pro-gun Americans voted for very liberal Democrats, and they are poised to do so again in 2008. Concerns about Iraq, the economy, Republican scandals, incompetence, and overall lack of principle are winning out.