Russ Vought’s Continuing Confusions

by Ramesh Ponnuru

As I wrote yesterday, Russ Vought wrote a confused piece attacking me on the basis of things I don’t believe and have never said. Rather than admit that he got anything wrong, he’s digging in.

The column of mine that started this discussion argued that many Republicans have adopted the view that it was excessive moderation that caused the party to suffer electoral losses in Bush’s second term, that the evidence does not support this view, and that it had led Republicans to make some mistakes. Vought does not seriously challenge any of these claims, but instead throws up side issues. I’ll take the points he raises in turn.

1) My column noted that Republican House candidates won “roughly” the same share of votes from the party base in 2006 that they did in 2004 but got “slaughtered” among independents. In my post yesterday, I said that “Republicans turned out at roughly the same numbers they turned out in 2004 and voted for the party’s candidates at roughly the same rate,” and add, “There was some slippage on the right but not a huge amount.” Vought treats this as a major change in my tune. I don’t see how saying the same thing with almost identical wording constitutes a change, but I’m happy to let others judge the matter.

2) Vought thinks it’s misleading to compare House exit polls from 2004 to House exit polls from 2006 when you’re trying to figure out how voters moved between 2004 and 2006. It makes more sense, he thinks, to compare 2006 to 2010 because they’re both non-presidential-year elections–which matters for some purposes, but doesn’t matter in any obvious way for the purpose of this dispute. If we do the only available apples-to-apples comparison we’ve got–exit polls from 2004 and 2008–it largely bears out the pattern I’ve already mentioned: Conservatives remain the same share of the electorate in the 2008 presidential race that they were in the 2004 presidential race (34 percent in each case), although their support for the Republican candidate slips; the drop-off among moderates costs a larger number of votes.

It is certainly true that in response to two years of unchecked liberalism from the Democrats in 2009-10, voters grew more likely to identify as conservatives and conservatives grew more likely to vote Republican. It’s terrific that conservatives and independents united against unchecked liberalism. And as I noted in the column Vought is going after, Republican opposition to the Obama legislative agenda was key to those electoral victories. But it remains true that Republicans did not lose power because they alienated conservatives by supporting big government too much. (It’s also true that it’s trickier to unite conservatives and independents in an electoral majority when you don’t have unchecked liberalism as a foil, which is, let’s hope, going to stay true for some time to come.)

3) Vought objects to my statement that “the vast majority of conservative voters favored the prescription-drug subsidies.” He writes, “I’m not sure where he is getting his proof, but I suspect he is conflating conservatives and Republicans again.” Vought’s argument, here as elsewhere, relies heavily on making false assumptions. See question 13b in this 2001 survey, which finds that 88 percent of the public favored having the government either provide prescription-drug coverage for seniors itself or subsidize private coverage, with only 6 percent opposed. Such figures–and this wasn’t the only poll to find similar ones–have to include the vast majority of conservatives, as I said. The ABC/Washington Post poll Vought cites is not at all on point. It finds much lower levels of support for the Republican prescription-drug bill, which Democrats were at the time trashing for, among other things, insufficient generosity to seniors. (The highest disapproval scores in the poll Vought cites came from Democrats, who were not cheering for limited government.)

4) “Ramesh now claims that he was just criticizing ‘a few candidates associated with the tea party,’ when he cited Sharron Angle and Ken Buck, and not the tea party as a whole.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t just criticizing a few candidates–he was criticizing ‘conservative primary voters [who] rejected two electable, conventionally conservative candidates’ and preaching to similar voters across the country.” Vought is misreading here. To say that conservative or tea-party voters were wrong to nominate Angle and Buck is not to say that conservative or tea-party voters were wrong in every primary choice they made, or that they’re what’s wrong with the Republican party. This really shouldn’t have to be said. Vought goes on to complain that I called Buck and Angle weak general-election candidates. Sorry: I’m not going to say that they were terrific candidates, and no other Republican could possibly have done better.

5) Vought maintains that he knows better than I do the kind of politics I have long favored. His basic error here, besides sheer chutzpah, is to assume that the amount of time I spend on a subject in one article represents how much attention I think Republicans should give it. So, if in an article I urge Republicans to pay attention to middle-class wage stagnation and don’t say anything about regulation, that must mean that I want the Republicans to focus most of their energies similarly. This is obtuse. Do I really need to spell out why?

6) “And of course, Ramesh is well-known for his foot being firmly on the brake of entitlement reforms.” Yes: After a dozen years of making the case over and over for entitlement reform, I argued that the best way for the new House majority of 2011 to move forward was to go after first Medicaid, then Social Security, then Medicare. Naturally, that constitutes support for big government in Vought’s world.

Stubbornness can be a useful trait. I wish Vought would apply his constructively–perhaps to an argument that someone has actually made?

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