Ross Douthat notes that the trouble with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s efforts to get congressional Republicans to embrace a more pragmatic, problem-solving agenda is that it is vulnerable to a small number of defectors:
[T]o do anything genuinely innovative on policy, Eric Cantor (or any other member of the leadership) doesn’t just need a majority or a supermajority of his own caucus: He needs almost every single vote, which he can’t get so long as there’s a political premium to being “purer” than the leadership for conservative representatives from safe-as-houses districts. And of course the Catch-22 is that this problem would diminish if the G.O.P. had a larger House majority — but it’s hard to win a larger House majority if your policymaking is held hostage by a “no retreat, no surrender, no innovation” rump.
And so this purist “rump of a rump” can effectively set policy, which makes it more difficult for the GOP to secure marginal seats or to win popular vote majorities in presidential elections. Purists claim that moderates have been discredited by the failures of Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Bob Dole as presidential candidates, and that conservatives are likely to have more success by touting a more rigorous anti-tax, anti-spending message. Back in 2011, Ramesh Ponnuru explained the distinction between establishment-oriented candidates and moderate candidates as such. In recent decades, establishment-oriented candidates have moved to the right on a wide range of issues, particularly those where conservative activists have intensely-held views:
The officials, donors and operatives who make up the Republican establishment are much more conservative than their counterparts of two decades ago. They are more likely to be pro-life, more firmly opposed to tax increases, and more skeptical of environmental regulation. And these positions are typically held sincerely, if not always passionately.
This Republican establishment is more likely to favor comprehensive immigration reform and same-sex unions than rank-and-file conservatives. But it is also more likely to favor reductions in entitlement spending and tax reform that prioritizes reductions in the top marginal tax rate over the child tax credit, stances that are not particularly popular among self-identified Republicans and conservatives in the electorate. A Pew Research Center survey from 2011 found that 47 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters favored prioritizing keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are over reducing the budget deficit, a share that climbed to 53 percent among GOP voters earning between $30K and $75K and 62 oercent among GOP voters earning less than $30K. GOP voters earning over $75K, in contrast, favor prioritizing deficit reduction by a similarly substantial margin of 63 percent. Note, however, that establishment-oriented candidates like Mitt Romney tend to fare well among Republican primary voters earning more than $75K. More recently, in February of 2013, the Pew Research Center found that while 21 percent of self-identified Republicans want to decrease Medicare expenditures, 24 percent would like to increase them. On Social Security, 35 percent of Republicans favored increasing spending while 17 percent favored decreasing it. Support for spending increases on education, combating crime, and veteran’s benefits was substantially stronger in this group. So the GOP establishment vs. conservative insurgent narrative suffers from a serious problem: both establishment-oriented candidates and purists endeavor to appeal to the same relatively high-income constituency, while middle-income and low-income Republicans have few visible champions who are trying to reconcile a defense of the safety net with a growth-oriented agenda.
Ross has suggested that Republicans would be much better off if there were GOP lawmakers willing to filibuster in defense of the now-expired Social Security payroll tax cut as well (or instead) of on issues relating to gun rights and civil liberties. The purist rump of a rump pushes congressional Republicans in one direction. Yet as of yet, there is no countervailing populist rump that is pushing for Brown-Vitter-style banking reform or an expansion of the child credit or Social Security reform aimed at increasing retirement incomes or expanded work programs as an alternative to the expansion of means-tested benefits. Part of the reason is that the constituencies these Republicans might represent, in the middle-income suburbs of the Midwest and the big coastal cities, have in some cases fallen out of the reach of Republicans. Another could be that while a party-centered campaign finance system would allow national parties to back populist candidates without substantial fundraising networks in winnable seats, our candidate-centered campaign finance system is arguably biased in favor of purists. This is a challenge.