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Self-Destructive Conservatism

From the look of things, the Republican Party is in danger of cannibalizing itself.

A fellow who oversees lobbying in all 50 states for a major corporation recently told me about a certain Republican U.S. senator up for re-election in 2010, someone generally regarded as fairly conservative who might face a serious challenge from a very conservative fellow Republican. The incumbent has not been tainted by scandal, has never embarrassed himself by making a major mistake, is highly regarded in Washington, and is considered a very effective senator.

I was dumbfounded. Although it isn't hard to see why a moderate Republican such as Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter could face a conservative primary challenge, it is difficult to understand why a conservative Republican would be challenged from the right. This is a party in danger of cannibalizing itself.


The party's contraction and rightward movement have become self-perpetuating.

One can look at the American electorate like a football field. Most voters are fairly centrist, sitting between the 35-yard lines. Democrats are on the left end of the field; Republicans on the right. The theoretical center for each party is roughly the 25-yard line on its side.

The Republican Party dropped from parity in terms of party identification four years ago and now is about 8 percentage points below the Democratic Party. The GOP has narrowed its base and moved to the right. The defections from the GOP have been among its least conservative members. Thus, the center of the Republican Party has moved to the right, between the 15- and 20-yard lines.


This shift means that GOP primaries have become more conservative, putting pressure on incumbents to chart a more rightward course than they would otherwise take. And it means that GOP primaries, particularly in open-seat races, will be even more likely than in the past to nominate ideologues. The party's contraction and rightward movement have become self-perpetuating, and will continue to be until something breaks the cycle.

At a time when Republicans should be starting to think about how they can expand their party to reclaim those who abandoned it, the party is instead lurching ever more to the right, exacerbating its problems. Many people who watched the recent debate between contenders for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee came away thinking that the only memorable moments were when each candidate expressed love and devotion for Ronald Reagan and when all but one bragged about how many guns they own. Not to belittle the importance of Reagan's iconic status or the Second Amendment, but when the only takeaways are about the importance of a political figure who last won an election a quarter-century ago and how big a person's arsenal is, these guys are not hot prospects to chair the GOP's Welcome Wagon, much less to lead the party out of its wilderness.

For anyone who thinks that it is important to our democracy to have two strong, vibrant parties and that having both major parties healthy keeps the system accountable, seeing one of those parties being self-destructive is not encouraging.

Beyond the fact that an inwardly focused Republican Party will have a hard time restoring its lost support, it's hard to embody Reagan's "Big Tent" approach when you are pushing folks who don't totally agree with you out of the tent. Especially for Republicans on Capitol Hill, the narrowing of the GOP presents a challenge as lawmakers try to develop policies to help pull the country out of its horrible economic decline.


With the Federal Reserve Board having dropped interest rates to practically zero, only two other major instruments to fight recession remain: government spending and tax cuts. Democrats tend to think that spending is the way to go and typically aren't wild about most tax cuts. Conversely, Republicans believe that tax cuts are the preferable route and disdain new spending. President-elect Obama is putting together a package that incorporates both, hoping to build bipartisan support and professing his fear that doing too little is more dangerous than doing too much. The fact that neither congressional Democrats nor congressional Republicans are in love with his package suggests that Obama may have found a good balance.

But if Republican lawmakers have to look over their shoulders and worry that backing a balanced stimulus plan would trigger serious primary challenges, they could be intimidated into jeopardizing measures needed to get the country out of the recession, into further isolating their party by making it more extremist, or both.

This article appears in the January 17, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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