The GOP Coalition Wants More Than Just Limited Government

The idea that cutting is the glue that will hold the party together ignores the clearly mixed priorities of Republican voters.
georges bush.jpg
Reuters

Ben Domenech, editor of The Transom, has taken to Real Clear Politics to participate in the perennial debate about the Republican Party, American conservatism and their intertwined futures. "What's truly essential is that the party leadership rid themselves of the notion that politeness, great hair, and reform for efficiency's sake is a ballot box winner," he argues, "and understand instead that politicians who can connect with the people and deliver on their limited government promises -- not ones who back away from them under pressure -- represent the path forward."


There's a lot more to his analysis.

If I were to pinpoint one flaw in it, it would be the telling way he tries to distill the right's mission earlier on in the article: "The goals of limited government, fiscal responsibility, traditional values, and strong defense have been an ever-present litany of bullet points from Republican politicians -- but talking about limited government and actually delivering on it are two very different things."

Did you see what happened there?

Before the long dash, there was a list of several conservative priorities, some of which come into conflict with one another. But then, after the dash, they all got conflated into "limited government."

How come?

The Republican coalition certainly encompasses limited government conservatives. But part of the right's challenge, going forward, is the fact that "limited government" is a tertiary priority for some in the GOP, and directly at odds with certain policy desires others in the coalition care about most. The aging cohort of Republicans who want government to keep its damned hands of their Medicare are in tension with limited-government conservatives. So are the neocons who favor an ever-larger military budget and more interventions than the average Republican does.

There are limited-government types, like Rand Paul, who find that many in their party are perfectly comfortable with expansive domestic surveillance as part of the ongoing War on Terrorism. There is also a tension between Republicans who oppose all tax increases on limited-government grounds and fiscal conservatives who regard a balanced budget as a higher priority, and no longer believe that Grover Norquist and "starve the beast" will ever achieve it. And traditional-values conservatives? They're keen on spending more money than limited-government types if it means more financial incentives for having bigger families or policies meant to achieve a substantial decrease in abortions (with the added social spending that would entail). Plus they disagree with limited government types on gay marriage and the drug war.

Finally, immigration divides conservatives every which way.

I don't mean to suggest that there aren't important factors helping to hold the GOP coalition together. Its members often agree with one another more closely than with the Democratic Party. But lots of factors that used to help hold the GOP together, like the charisma of Ronald Reagan, crime as a salient issue, and the Cold War, aren't any longer factors in national politics, and the outsized influence neoconservatives wield in Washington, D.C., and the ill-fated war they championed and mismanaged in Iraq has destroyed the GOP's traditional advantage on foreign policy.

Benghazi isn't going to bring it back.

The 2016 election will perhaps pit politicians as different as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush against one another, with no clear frontrunner or figure whose "turn" it is to win, resulting in a nominating contest bound to raise big questions about the best direction for the party. It would therefore be a mistake for conservatives interested in the party's future to reflexively assume, at this early date, that limited government will remain the glue that binds. Few conservatives admit as much, but limited government is in tension with fiscal responsibility, traditional values, and strong defense (as some Republicans understand it). The GOP cannot succeed if it fails to grapple realistically with those tensions.

I, personally, hope that the tensions are resolved in a manner friendly to limited-government types. But George W. Bush*, the last Republican to win the presidency since 1988, and the last one to be reelected since 1984, was not a limited-government type on spending, civil liberties, or foreign policy. Nor were the winning Congresses of those years limited-government Congresses. They backed away from limited government under pressure, and won for a long time doing it. Where, then, does Domenech get the idea that the key to electoral success for Republicans is to "deliver on their limited government promises"? It seems like wishful thinking to me, and if the GOP nominee in 2016 is a statist whose commitment to limited government is dubious and goes no farther than rhetoric, I expect Republican voters will support him or her overwhelmingly.

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*I wonder if Domenech would prefer four years under Bush or a Republican characterized by "politeness, great hair, and reform for efficiency's sake."

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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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