The Uses of the Smoke-Filled Room

by Kevin D. Williamson

Rush Limbaugh is a little bit concerned about tomorrow’s election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, as indeed are many other conservatives.

The seat was considered safely Republican for years and has been vacated by Tom Price, a physician who is now serving as secretary of health and human services in the Trump administration. (An excellent choice. If nothing else, the Trump administration has shown itself very able in filling senior leadership positions.) The problem, as Limbaugh points out, is that the Democrats have rallied around one candidate: 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, who is moderate enough on paper and is by most accounts a talented campaigner. Meanwhile, Republicans remain divided among the eleven GOP candidates in the race. Out-of-state Democrats and their media friends have rallied to Ossoff’s cause, with the Democrats desperate for a win that will allow them to claim, however ridiculously, that the political tide has turned against the Trump administration.

Limbaugh says that this situation represents a “real failure of foresight and planning” on the part of Republicans.

Indeed it does. Maybe Republicans should think a little bit about why that happened.

Question: What would we call a group of unelected party leaders and political insiders who maneuvered to keep candidates, including some very conservative candidates, off the ballot and out of the race in order to concentrate resources on a consensus standard-bearer selected — behind closed doors, in all likelihood, in a room with a nicotine-impregnated atmosphere — by a bunch of political calculators who care more about holding the seat than they do about the conservatism of the candidate himself?

I believe we would call that the local “establishment.”

Republicans, especially the talk-radio and cable-news populists among them, cannot quite decide whether they want to smash the establishment or whether they need the establishment to save them from . . . well, from democracy, which is to say, from themselves. Note that Ossoff is not the only Democrat in the race: There are four others. But in spite of the disappointments of Bernie Sanders and the blockheads who share his deeply dopey view of the world, Democrats still take the business of running a political party a little more seriously than do Republicans. There was one Democratic leader in recent memory who proudly described himself as an “organizer.” Republicans do not do that. Not really.

While fighting for reforms such as closed primaries would not do anything to help in a kitchen-sink special election like the one in Georgia (where Republicans may very well be saved by the fact that Ossoff is likely to fall short of 50 percent, which will lead to a runoff in which there will not be eleven Republican candidates), giving the party leadership a stronger hand in selecting candidates and in shaping policy would have its benefits. Republicans probably wouldn’t be biting their nails in Georgia if there were a consensus Republican candidate in the race. The bill to repeal Obamacare would not have proved an ignominious failure if there was in the party a leader (or a group of leaders) strong enough to forge a consensus program well before the bill goes to the floor. A Republican state-party chairman once boasted to me about how he was fighting “the establishment,” as though a state-party chairman were anything but the establishment. A party that despises the idea of a party is going to have trouble. 

Which is to say: If you really want to smash the establishment (to the extent that such a thing actually exists), then you ought to consider what happens next. One of the things that might happen is handing over some safe Republican seats to Democrats who are better-organized, because they are less at war with their organization.

I think of the Republican leadership the way I thought of the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg: There are a million and one things to hate about it, but you’ll still miss it when it’s gone — because you probably won’t like what comes next. 

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