5 Reasons Why the GOP Can't Nominate a Reliable Conservative

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For more than 20 years they've been searching for another Ronald Reagan. Electing one will take more than better politicking.

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Over at The American Spectator Jim Antle attempts to answer a question that is plaguing right-leaning politicos: How can conservatives overcome their losing record in Republican primaries? "Movement conservatives have captured the Republican nomination during a competitive primary process only twice: Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. After Reagan won two terms as president -- by landslide margins both times -- many assumed the conservative takeover of the GOP was complete," he writes. "These assumptions proved ill founded." As he sees it, this is partly because " a divided conservative vote spells doom for a conservative insurgent." Perhaps he's right. As Election 2000 showed, however, a unified conservative vote hardly guarantees that a reliably conservative politician is going to win the presidency.

Daniel Larison and Ross Douthat add canny analysis of their own. But the GOP requires a lot more than a genuinely conservative candidate and a political strategy that avoids intra-movement divisions if it hopes to put a modern Ronald Reagan equivalent into the White House.  

Other obstacles include the following:

1) Conservatives aren't very good at gauging the conservatism of GOP candidates. Asked whether Sarah Palin or Jon Huntsman has a more conservative governing record, for example, a lot of Republican voters would give the former Alaska governor the edge; a lot of southern conservatives somehow persuaded themselves that Newt Gingrich was the right conservative champion; and in 2000 the whole conservative movement rallied enthusiastically behind George W. Bush. It cannot be emphasized enough: cultural cues matter more than governing record. And it's easy to fake cultural cues. The conservative base needs to rethink how it chooses its champions.

2) Many of the problems President Reagan was elected to solve are no longer with us. The hostage crisis ended. The Soviet Union was defeated. Inflation was whipped. Welfare was reformed. Tax rates are lower now than they were then, and even most Democrats agree that they should stay at post-Bush tax cut levels for all but the highest earners. Various industries have been deregulated. Given Reagan's outsized popularity and unique charisma, there is little reason to think the agenda items at which he failed -- shrinking the size of the federal government, reducing deficits -- are going to be easily accomplished by a conservative politician today, even if one manages to win a presidential election. But these are the things that conservatives say that they care about. And while I buy their critique and stated priorities, I have no confidence in their ability to craft sound policy responses or to persuade moderate voters of their virtues. 

3) George W. Bush's presidency and the ongoing success neo-conservatives have had influencing the right's foreign policy have helped destroy the advantage the right once enjoyed on the subject. The result is that even as conservatives have persuaded many Americans that the War on Terrorism is an existential struggle, sort of like the Cold War, a growing number of conservative voters think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the primary conservative response to global terrorism, were either egregiously mismanaged or entirely mistaken enterprises. Meanwhile, President Obama has broken the promises he made to his supporters and adopted almost all of the politically popular parts of the Bush-Cheney approach to fighting terrorism -- and demonstrated that he can successfully target and kill terrorists basically anywhere.

4) The field of what Republican voters take to be earnest conservative insurgents is likely to keep swelling with Donald Trumps and Herman Cains and maybe even Stephen Colberts in the future due to the quirks of the market for political infotainment, wherein someone can use presidential contests to build their brand and monetize it in the television, radio, or publishing industry.

5) The activism undertaken by the grassroots right is often weirdly disconnected from what conservatives say are their biggest priorities. Andrew Breitbart and the causes taken up by his associates and the sites he left behind when he died are good examples. For weeks on end, a lot of conservatives were obsessing over subjects including a) ACORN b) the possibility of racism at the NAACP c) an obscure settlement between the USDA and black farmers d) whether or not Census workers were earning their pay; e) voter fraud f) the New Black Panthers. To what end?

President Reagan's election was an anomaly. He's the only conservative insurgent in modern times to win a Republican primary and the White House, and he spent years prior to that election honing a coherent philosophy, policy knowledge, persuasive skills, and a winning message. Having done so, he squared off against an opponent, Jimmy Carter, who'd lost substantial support even in his own party. Today, would be Reagans with less charisma, less executive experience and less time spent honing their thinking and communication skills are somehow expecting to succeed even as they operate in a less advantageous political environment. Of course it isn't happening. And it's no wonder conservatives are divided in who they support. Better to start addressing the underlying causes of division than recommend earlier consensus on the flawed pols on offer. An unqualified conservative is of less use to the right than a moderate.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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