The Corner

Bearers of Bad News

A very insightful friend recently shared his suspicion that Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight is not the doctrinaire liberal or partisan Democrat that Republicans imagine him to be. Rather, his argument goes, Mr. Silver spent 2012 telling Republicans what they did not want to hear while telling Democrats what they did want to hear, which is to political partisans more important than the fact that his forecasts turned out to be consistent with the actual electoral outcome. Now that Mr. Silver is predicting that Republicans will take the Senate majority in the 2014 elections, the Democrats feel a little wounded, thus this cheesed-off missive from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee regarding his predictions.

Nobody likes the bearer of bad news.

I sympathize with Mr. Silver. I was recently asked whether Senator Rand Paul’s libertarianism is likely to make it more difficult or less difficult for him to be elected president in 2016, and my answer — that his views, with which I am broadly in accord, present substantial political difficulties — was denounced as a “smear job,” an “Establishment hatchet-job,” a “hit piece,” etc.

I sometimes think that the two most formidable opponents conservatives face are pop culture and our own wishful thinking, with the Democrats coming in a distant third.

Conservatives operate at a permanent political disadvantage, because conservatives are forever in the position of running against handouts, and handouts are popular. For example, Republicans are right to oppose minimum-wage increases, but it is politically costly to do so:  A solid majority of voters, including a majority of Republicans, support the minimum-wage increase. Republicans who are serious about balanced budgets and entitlement reform — and Senator Paul is serious about those — face hostile political realities. There is no way around that. Jude Wanniski’s two-Santa theory is a victim of its own success: With so many voters paying so little in federal income taxes, the political power of tax cuts has been played out. Instead, conservatives have to win either on personality, which is not always in great supply in Republican ranks, or on policy, which is complicated by the fact that the long-term benefits of a more dynamic economic and fiscal rectitude are preceded by necessarily painful adjustments. 

There is a reason, I think, why successful conservative candidates such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee always seem to me to be head-and-shoulders more impressive than their Democratic opposite numbers: because they are. The political headwinds being what they are, conservatives have to be twice as good to succeed. Our more energetic conservatives have no love for Speaker of the House John Boehner, but stand the man next to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and he looks like Cincinnatus.

Conservatives need advocacy, and they need activists who can drop the hammer on Democrats. But they also need to face unpleasant realities from time to time, even if that means that our hopes must be qualified. And that, I think, is the fundamental divide between the populists and the so-called Establishment GOP. It’s not that the Republican leadership is not  conservative, it’s that it occasionally has to concede realities that the populists are not inclined to hear.

The encounter with reality is also what distinguishes those presidential candidates who have been governors from those who have been senators, which should be of some concern for those with an eye on 2016. Governors have to do governor stuff — they have to govern — whereas it is relatively easy to defend one’s ideological purity during a stint the Senate minority. The GOP is currently enjoying the services of one of the best crops of governors the party has ever had, but not one of them — not one — would pass careful scrutiny from the ideological purists, certainly not from the ones who were denouncing Rick Perry last time around as a squish and Mitt Romney as an abomination. 

“Compromise” is a word that many conservatives are not excited about hearing, and I get why that is. But another word for “compromise” is “negotiate,” and I think it odd that a movement full of market-oriented thinkers has so little regard for negotiation. Sure, we get a lot of bad deals, but not every deal is a bad deal, and the occasional show of hostility toward the idea of negotiation itself is worrisome.

And that’s going to be Rand Paul’s conundrum, I think: If he signals much willingness to compromise, his own people will denounce him as a sellout. If he tries to be ideologically consistent, he’s going to run up against a great many powerful electoral appetites, one of which will probably eat him.

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