The Corner

Russ Vought Jousts With Phantoms

Over at RedState, Russ Vought criticizes a column of mine and what he takes to be my general approach to politics. In the column that moved Vought to write his post, I argued that Republicans wrongly concluded that their party’s electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008 were the result of excessive moderation and had made counterproductive decisions on the basis of this mistaken analysis. For example, in several Senate races they rejected electable conservative candidates because they wanted ideologically pure candidates — who then lost.

Vought spends most of his time doing battle with someone he calls by my name but has very different views. Because I said that being too far left isn’t the reason Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008, he assumes that I must think that they were too far right. But this view does not follow from what I said at all; and the reason I have never said it is that I do not think it.

Because I criticized a few candidates associated with the tea party, such as Sharron Angle and Ken Buck, Vought assumes that I’m against the tea party and that it’s a great blow to my case to note that Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey were successful candidates associated with the tea party. But I’m not against the tea party: I’m for making distinctions where they’re appropriate. The case for Rubio over Crist or Toomey over Specter was much more compelling than the case for Buck over Norton or Angle over Lowden. Crist and Specter were well to the left of the bulk of the Republican party. Norton and Lowden were conventional conservatives who were rejected for the less compelling reason that they were considered too establishment-oriented — and rejected for weak general-election candidates.

More generally, I think Vought falls prey to a tendency I’ve written about before: the assumption that self-appointed spokesmen for the tea parties accurately represent the broader phenomenon of the tea parties. Listen to those spokesmen, and you’d assume that “the tea party,” singular, opposed the House Republicans’ spring budget deal and seethe with anger toward Speaker Boehner. But most tea-party affiliated congressmen supported it and like Boehner. None of them seem to face serious political trouble at home as a result, whatever the activist groups who claim to represent the tea partiers say. If you look at the tea partiers as all those voters who place a high priority on cutting government down to size, it’s a large and influential group. If you look at them as all those voters who think that most Republican politicians are sellouts who need to be replaced by real right-wingers, it’s a tiny but vocal group.

Vought writes, “Ramesh has long wanted an agenda that focuses on issues such as wage stagnation, traffic congestion, and student loan costs that appeal to middle class voters, not middle class entitlements that are bankrupting the entire nation.” This isn’t true, and the link he provides doesn’t support it. My actual view is that Republicans need to explain how limited government and free markets can (for example) lead to higher wages and better health care. That doesn’t mean that they should ignore foreign policy, social issues, the courts, or Medicare. I think having something compelling to say on those issues would strengthen their hand on all those issues. (A country where rising health-insurance premiums keep wages from rising is not going to reform entitlements or liberalize trade.)

In my column I pointed out that if Republicans had suffered politically because they had moved left, you’d expect to see them to have lost support disproportionately among Republican-base voters — and that this isn’t what happened. In 2006, 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. Republicans got slaughtered among independents. Vought claims that it’s more important to look at voters’ professed political philosophy. Alright, let’s do that. In the strong Republican year of 2004, conservatives made up 34 percent of the electorate and voted 81 percent for Republican House candidates. In the disastrous Republican year of 2006, they made up 32 percent of the electorate and voted 78 percent for Republican House candidates. Whether you look at it in terms of party affiliation or political philosophy, the results look the same: There was some slippage on the right but not a huge amount. Nor can one assume that this conservative slippage was caused exclusively by Republican squishiness — note, for example, that the vast majority of conservative voters favored the prescription-drug subsidies Vought excoriates. Maybe some of them were upset about Iraq, corruption, etc., too.

It seemed to me that a big part of the Republican response to those election defeats should be to do a better job of applying conservative thought to voters’ concerns, to be competent, and to be clean. To think of our options solely in terms of moving right or moving left is to have a stunted view of politics.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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