Coalition Politics and the Rejection of Steve King

Rep. Steve King speaks during a town hall in Primghar, Iowa, January 26, 2019. (KC McGinnis/Reuters)
Dumping him is an act of both political and moral hygiene.

The Republican primary voters of Iowa’s fourth district finally sent Steve King packing last night by a margin of almost ten points, in favor of more conventional conservative Randy Feenstra. As NR’s editorial today notes, this is a welcome and overdue move. King had become openly toxic in too many ways, and dumping him is an act of both political and moral hygiene. It follows on the heels of Alabama Republicans deserting Roy Moore in this year’s Senate primary, and the Kansas Republican Party getting Susan Wagle to drop out in the hopes of unifying the party behind Roger Marshall against a Senate run by 2018 gubernatorial loser Kris Kobach. King himself had, in January 2019, been stripped by House Republican leadership of his committee assignments, a step just short of expelling him entirely from the caucus, and with the same effect on his political standing.

One lesson here is that Republicans find over and over again that Trumpier-than-Trump candidates are losers who turn off a critical segment of the party’s voters. Another is that the party remains capable of the sort of collective action among voters and party elites that was used in the early 1990s to chase David Duke out of the GOP, and that led to impeachment campaigns by Republican legislatures that forced the resignation of Republican governors of Missouri and Alabama within recent years.

The harder question is exactly when Republicans should have kicked King to the curb. A lot of people argue as if this were an easy question: Either political parties should always protect their own side and never give an inch to criticism, or political parties should relentlessly police their ranks to cull bad members by the dozens. What makes “bad members” here can run the gamut: ethical lapses, sexual misconduct, stoking racial resentments, taking appalling stances on foreign policy and/or civil liberties, giving off too many gaffes, or just breaking too often with the party.

Both extreme stances, however, lead to bad places. A majority national political coalition needs to take its voters where it finds them, and that includes a certain amount of tolerance for the people they elect, even if those people are morally, ideologically, or ethically suspect. Once you start down the road of demanding rigorous application of purity tests of any or all kinds, you find yourself rapidly burning your coalition down to an unworkable minority.

This goes double for the House and state legislatures, which from the Founding have always been recognized as unruly places with more than their share of cranks. It’s no longer routine for House members to bring guns and dogs and chewing tobacco to the floor, but it is still a place full of people who reflect rather than lead the voters who elected them. The standards for who is acceptable as a biennially reelected legislator should be lower than the standards for who is acceptable as an executive or a judge.

My view of coalition politics is still influenced by Abraham Lincoln, the man who first turned the Republican Party into a national governing party. Lincoln understood that public sentiment in the 1850s and 1860s — including voters the Republicans needed — included a lot of anti-black racism. His party was forged, from the beginning, by an alliance with anti-immigrant Know-Nothings; Lincoln privately despised them, but he bit his tongue, spoke not a word against them in public, and accepted a former Know-Nothing into his cabinet as attorney general, just as he accepted slaveholders alongside immediate abolitionists. Lincoln accepted other disagreements as well: For example, he had little interest in enforcing his own party’s platform equating Mormon polygamy with slavery. His original secretary of war was — like some of his generals and congressional allies — ethically shady. The important thing, to Lincoln, was that the party stand for big, important causes and accomplish them: save the Union, limit and later abolish slavery, build the railroads, expand the frontier to homesteaders, etc. His party is judged by where he led it, not who followed him there.

On the other hand, taking a “never take sides against the family” approach is just as dangerous. Too many dissenters from the party’s stated ideals or positions is one way you get an insurgency such as Donald Trump’s 2016 primary campaign, which depended more than anything on the sense that Republicans had been lying to their own voters for too long about what they actually proposed to do in office. Too many ethical failures in one place is how you get Watergate or other scandals. And too much tolerance for race-baiters ultimately ends up making a mockery of the party’s long-professed ideals, drives away voters who believe in them, and emboldens even worse people to step forward for public office. That, too, is part of the lesson of the rise of Trump: a lack of guardrails in what kinds of conspiratorial and race-baiting rhetoric went around various segments of the Right.

King has been in Congress since 2003, but for at least the first half of those years, he was little known outside his district, and mostly appeared — when he attracted attention — simply as a guy who got periodically overheated in ranting about immigration. To some extent, that appears in retrospect as a failure to look too closely at the man. Still, while he’s not whom I’d want representing me in Congress, as one of many, the party put up with him. One reason he rose in prominence, of course, is the first-in-the-nation status of Iowa, which compelled national Republicans to court his support in ways that they would normally not do for a rank-and-file House member. Ironically, given his identification with some of the worst aspects of Trumpism, King’s anti-establishment bent led him to oppose Trump in the 2016 primary, backing Ted Cruz (who won the Iowa caucuses that year) while a good deal of the state’s Republican establishment saw Trump as preferable to Cruz’s anti-ethanol stance. Since about 2013, King has both attracted a larger profile and grown progressively more reckless in his public remarks. His growing seniority would also have put him in more prominent positions on key committees. Regardless of exactly when he should have been renounced, it should not have taken until Republicans lost the House in 2018 to finally cut the cord.

The argument against effectively excommunicating King is, basically, that Democrats don’t do this: They don’t turn on their own in the way Republicans do, and instead tend to just pretend that there are never any bad members in their own ranks. They’ve been acting this way more or less consistently throughout the entire history of the Democratic Party. As to racial and cultural resentments, they’ve changed over time whose resentments they cater to, but never dropped the practice. But that ignores two things. One, the fact that Democrats act a particular way is an argument against it being right, not for it. Two, Republicans are just structurally different as a party. Republicans depend, for their support, on being seen as the party of respectable, married, job-holding, church-going adults, because that has always been the core of who votes Republican. That longstanding identity requires a certain level of responsibility — and means that Republicans pay a greater political price than Democrats do for certain kinds of bad behavior. The increasing difficulty that downticket Republicans have in escaping the political costs of Donald Trump’s antics is an illustration of this.

While there is no perfect mathematical formula for deciding whom to disown and when, a political coalition is wise to engage on a regular basis in pruning the weeds: cleaning out its worst offenders, the people who are doing the most to damage its image and integrity. That means drumming out some people for extreme or toxic rhetoric, some for ethical lapses, some for being disloyal squishes who undermine the party agenda. Those may not all be morally equivalent sins, but they are all equally politically damaging. The longer you wait to remove the worst offenders, the more likely you are to instead encourage a broader revolt or a schism that breaks the party into shards.

Focusing on a handful of bad actors each electoral cycle also sends a useful message to the rest of the party to take pains not to end up on that list. Recall Voltaire’s old line about the English: “In this country, it is thought wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” For several years now, Steve King has been one of the worst. Hopefully, his political demise will encourage the others.


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