Winning Politics

Ezra Klein has an article out in response to the Jonathan Chait profile of Josh Barro. I read Chait’s profile as an extension of the conversation in the liberal blogosphere about the about the “conservative reform movement.” I don’t want to actually jump into the debate about the extent to which a conservative reform movement actually exists (I think that depends significantly on the author and policy in question); instead, I like to highlight an important element in the conversation that I think all of the authors have missed.

Klein talks about how policy experts in the GOP have basically 2 options:

You can take the approach of Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru and evince a continual disappointment that the Republican Party doesn’t embrace more new ideas and be constantly on the lookout for glimmers of hope that never quite seem to herald the coming of dawn. Or you can take the approach of Barro, or David Frum, and hammer the Republican Party for ceding so much important ground. Either way, the underlying problem is that today’s Republican Party, from a policy perspective, occupies a much narrower space than even 2005′s Republican Party.

I think Klein makes a big mistake here because he is conflating party politics with policy outcomes. The implication here is that moderate GOP policy wonks are ‘lost’ if their chosen party vacates the policy positions for which these authors advocate. However, to the extent that these authors actually believe in the positions that they hold, I’m not sure that the rightward march of the Republican party is such a terrible thing–I think Klein illustrates this point without even realizing it:

If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.

So, the GOP has abandoned the policy position of the moderate republican policy wonk. But, the rightward march of the GOP has led to a subsequent moderation in the democratic party; you have a Democratic President implementing Romney’s/the Heritage Foundation’s market-oriented universal health care plan, advocating for cuts in Social Security, slashing domestic discretionary spending to the lowest level in 60 years, and locking in Bush-era tax cuts for all but those making over $400,000/year. If I were a GOP policy wonk, I would be encouraging my party to run as far to the right as possible, because the democrats seem willing to continue to ‘move to the middle,’ regardless of where that middle actually ends up being in terms of actual policy outcomes. Republicans have figured out how to win at politics without winning elections–and, although the “reform” conservatives may scold the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP on political grounds, in terms of actual policy outcomes, I imagine we have been moving closer and closer to their preferred policy outcomes over the last 20 years.


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