The Briefing: Issue XXV

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso, editor, Conservative Intelligence 

  • GOP Moderates promise $8 million war on the Tea Party.
  • How conservatives took over the GOP.
  • How they can keep it.
  • Obamacare and consequences.

Republican Party

The Empire Strikes Back: Former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, has promised to raise $8 million to defeat the Tea Party wherever he can. “Hopefully we’ll go into eight to 10 races and beat the snot out of them,” LaTourette told National Journal. “We’re going to be very aggressive and we’re going to get in their faces.”

LaTourette’s chief aim with the Main Street Partnership’s new Super PAC is to protect moderates in Congress from attacks by outside conservative groups. The only ally named so far is Idaho’s Mike Simpson, who faces a Club for Growth-backed primary challenger in Bryan Smith.  

The fact that LaTourette is now the “liberal” Republican is a reflection of two underlying realities: First, regarding LaTourette himself, he quit the House last year in a huff because of a disagreement with leadership over committee assignments. His own personal views, always somewhat moderate, seem to have shifted to the Left since he left office. For example, once an A-rated NRA congressman, he has since taken the mic to trash the gun rights movement and the cause.

Considering that LaTourette was never really an Arlen Specter type, how did he end up becoming the face of RINO-ism? That’s a reflection of a more important development over the last 15 years of Republican history. Namely, that conservatives now dominate the GOP in a way they haven’t in decades. And with conservative dominance comes backlash — which could prove either to be a muted and ineffective backlash, or a well-moneyed and successful one.

The rise of the conservatives: Rep. Matt Salmon, R, who returned to Congress this year after a decade’s absence, shared his memories with Politico:

First elected to Congress in the mid-1990s and elected for a second stint in 2012, Salmon remembers the days when the bicameral conservative caucus could have been crammed into a minivan. Now there are sufficient numbers in the House majority to tank House leadership’s best-laid plans if deemed necessary…

This is obviously now a demonstrated fact, after the recent government shutdown. As big a farce as it might have been, conservatives demonstrated with the defund strategy who runs the show — at least for the moment. 

It seems like just yesterday that things were dramatically different. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was viewed as the party’s only hope. In the House, Tom DeLay — a nominally more conservative House leader than John Boehner — pulled out all the stops to implement the big-government-conservative vision by ramming through No Child Left Behind and Medicaid Part D, over the strenuous objections of the conservative base. Earmarks reigned supreme in those days, and anyone voting for or proposing spending cuts would be severely punished by leadership with a loss of pork. The holding of the presidency was viewed as an end in itself by Bush-era Republicans, and so they turned the Congress into an instrument for protecting George W. Bush from having to issue any embarrassing vetoes.

In those days (and not coincidentally) there was also a significantly larger number of moderate-to-liberal House Republican members and a much smaller number of staunch conservatives. At the very least, the moderates were more liberal. The Jim Greenwoods, Marge Roukemas, Connie Morellas, Jim Kolbes, Jim Leaches, Nancy Johnsons, Wayne Gilchrests and Mike Castles of the world (to name a few) have mostly disappeared from House GOP ranks for one reason or another — replaced either by conservatives or by Democrats. In those days, a unanimous GOP vote against something like Obamacare would have been an impossible result. The 2011 debt ceiling deal — the one forcing either targeted spending cuts or sequestration cuts — would have been unthinkable then.

The story is much the same in the Senate, where the conservative minority is now more powerful than it was when Republicans had a majority in the late 1990s and again after the 2002 election. In those times, GOP leadership was constantly being held hostage by a caucus of honest-to-goodness liberal Republicans — call it the Specter/Jeffords/Chafee/Snowe caucus. No one of their liberal pedigree remains today — the closest by far is moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-who is still well to the right of any of them.

The moderates’ loss of influence in both chambers came about for many reasons: retirements, party-switches, polarization within states (Rhode Island was no longer interested in sending any Republican to the Senate, for example, and many southern states lost their taste for moderate Democrats), and conservative primary challenges.

This last category was a new and exciting feature of the battle for the soul of the GOP during the Bush era. There had been many conservative challenges before (think of New York’s sainted Sen. James Buckley, for example), but conservative groups organized to approach these races systematically. The Club for Growth was the forerunner and early exemplar.

The rallying cry was Rep. Pat Toomey’s spirited but unsuccessful 2004 challenge of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. But the Club — and in later years other conservative figures and conservative groups as well — have made the biggest difference in open-seat races. The Club became involved in competitive open-seat House primaries in solidly Republican House districts in a great number of states, including Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, South Carolina, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, Michigan, Kansas, Maryland, California, and Ohio. In all cases, they sought to guarantee that red districts be represented by conservatives, not just Republicans. In most cases, they succeeded. 

Add this work to a rightward trend among the Republican rank-and-file — especially in the Obama era — and conservatives suddenly find themselves with great sway over the GOP.

Terms of the argument: The conservative-versus-moderate battle consists of two somewhat misleading and muddled arguments. On the one side, Republican establishment types (not all of whom are unsympathetic to conservative goals) argue that Tea Partiers have cost the GOP five Senate seats in recent cycles — in 2010, in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado; and in 2012, in Indiana and Missouri.

The charge may in fact be valid with respect to Delaware, where the conservative candidate, Christine O’Donnell, was so plainly unprofessional and so laden with baggage (her absurd insinuations that her primary opponent was having a homosexual affair led even Erick Erickson to drop his support for her) that her defeat was inevitable, whereas the moderate former governor and Rep. Mike Castle, R, has a strong chance of winning.

But with respect to the other races, this is a weak argument, despite its widespread acceptance. In 2012, Republicans performed poorly across the board, and some of the most disappointing candidates — George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Rick Berg in North Dakota — were establishment choices who lost winnable races. (And, oh yeah, Mitt Romney.)  Richard Mourdock‘s loss in Indiana is comparable to these.

Tea Partiers did not nominate the disastrous Todd Akin in Missouri (Tea Party groups actually split between his two conservative primary opponents), but it is true that he got the nomination because conservatives failed to unite behind one candidate — so perhaps they deserve some blame for that. 

In 2010, the GOP establishment’s choice to take on Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada, Sue Lowden, did herself in early. In Colorado, Ken Buck lost by running a poor campaign in a year where the state party also suffered a series of devastating blows up-ticket in the governor’s race. It was a losing combination, but Buck never demonstrated himself to be some kind of unelectable wacko.

So the case that conservatives are destroying the party’s viability are overstated. At the same time, conservatives should take a lesson from their critique: If conservatives want to elect their own, they need to find stronger candidates to carry the flag. If they do, the Steve LaTourettes of the world are no threat at all, because there is never a grassroots groundswell for Country Club Republicanism — except when conservatives behave so badly that the public is repulsed by the idea that they might take power.

Which brings us to the other side of the argument. A new trend becoming almost alargmingly mainstream among conservative activists is to find RINO-ism in every shadow. The football equivalent would be to characterize anything short of a pick-six on every play as a defensive failure. As we have noted here previously, this is a paranoid reaction to bad Republican behavior in the Bush years. The fact that the conservative base can be sold on this idea at all is the result of establishment sins as much as it is the fault of the carnival barkers currently selling it.

During the period of divided government that began in 2011, Republicans in Congress have had no choice but to make deals with the Obama administration. A lot of conservatives in the business of railing against the establishment (for principle or profit) are willing to frame any deal as a sellout, even in cases where the best possible deal was obtained. This is certainly true both of the debt ceiling deal that brought about sequestration and the one that avoided “taxmageddon.”  

In the recent shutdown, there wasn’t even a deal to be made. Obamacare was already in law and funded for the long-term, with or without a government shutdown. But a small handful from among the conservatives in Congress worked very hard to sell the base on the idea that it wasn’t — that GOP leaders were leaving something on the table and that Republicans who disagreed with them were “funding Obamacare,” even though it simply wasn’t true.

This is what caused the shutdown showdown, and it may yet create backlash for both Republicans and conservatives. This is probably the only thing that can blunt conservative momentum within the GOP at this point — to make Republican primary voters think twice before they’ll support a conservative.


Meanwhile, as Republicans squabble amongst themselves, the public is finding out what was in Obamacare. With millions of individual market policies being cancelled, people who were promised they could keep their health plan if they liked it now face massive hikes to their insurance premiums and deductibles. Public interest in exchange-qualified plans appears to be negligible so far even in states where computer glitches aren’t preventing everyone from signing up. Nationwide, only 330,000 people have even so much as shopped plans, according to the IRS. This is the upper bound for enrollment, although it is probably much closer to the lower bound of 33,000 confirmed enrollments.

The Obamacare website is also a mess and will remain so for weeks. This matters, because low enrollment could sink the whole program. This has vulnerable Democrats begging for a delay, but this is unlikely also because any any delay of the coming deadline for enrollment could also sink the program. The freak shutdown of the data hub on Sunday only adds to a much larger mess.

Some conservatives have argued that entitlements are never repealed, so Obamacare could never be stopped once implemented. That may be true of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, but this view fails to appreciate what Obamacare really is at its heart — a complicated regulatory scheme that is costing millions of people a lot of money on net, and in many cases leaving them paying more for inferior coverage with a lot of extra benefits they have no use for. One reason a similar program worked in Massachusetts is that Obamacare’s most damaging reforms — community rating and guaranteed issue — had already been implemented a decade earlier, causing exorbitant prices that RomneyCare was intended to solve. Obamacare introduces the disease and the cure at the same time.

Social Security is still around because it didn’t confiscate anyone’s retirement money. A system like this one, however, can be unwound, if the will is there and the right people are elected in the next two election cycles.

The merits of the program aside, the possible consequences of this law are important politically. If the individual insurance market collapses, leaving everyone clinging to whatever employer-based coverage remains, it is quite possible that 2010 levels of of voter anger will return in 2014. It will not help at all that Obamacare contains a bailout for insurers in the exchanges in case that happens — something most people are probably unaware of. Obamacare is just entering the woods now — it is by no means out of them.