The New Nihilism Is Stifling the Republican Party

It's not just Eric Cantor. Reformist conservatives have good ideas, but until they drop the idea that all government is bad, they'll never be realistic.
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Before nonagenarian Representative Ralph Hall lost his seat in a Republican primary in Texas, no incumbent had been defeated in primaries this year, leading to the dominant press and pundit narrative: The Republican Empire Strikes Back. Oops. Now with the stunning defeat of Eric Cantor, we have narrative whiplash: The Return of the Tea Party.

Narratives are nice, clean, and easy, but the world is far messier. Cantor's defeat is huge, but it does not reflect a universal trend; after all, South Carolina's Republicans—who threw out free-marketer Bob Inglis because he was not conservative enough, who gave us Jim DeMint, and who made sure that many local GOP chapters denounced Lindsey Graham as a socialist—also gave Graham a comfortable margin as he cruised to renomination.

Senator Thad Cochran may well lose his renomination in Mississippi, but the batting average for "establishment" Republicans this year will still be over .900. And yet, there are serious and real reverberations here. For one thing, politicians are more moved by vivid example than overall statistics. All it took was one Bob Bennett in Utah to move Senate Republicans significantly to the right in attitude, agenda, and rhetoric. The assault on Cantor as a supporter of amnesty may not have been the main reason for his defeat, but we can be sure that the word "legalization" will not cross the lips of Republicans of many stripes in the months to come, except as an epithet.

The main lesson here may be the populist one. The Tea Party movement is not a Republican movement, or a conservative movement. It is radical, anti-institutional, anti-leadership, antigovernment. It is driven by suspicion of the motives and actions of all leaders, including those in the Republican Party. Cantor's glaringly obvious personal ambition fed those suspicions, but his defeat was a defeat for the broader establishment, which compromises too readily and feeds its own interests first. That attitude, by the way, also is embodied in many of the big donors to candidates and outside groups, meaning it represents an ongoing serious headache for party leaders.

I wrote my post before Cantor's defeat, on the new ideas springing up to give conservatism a new policy foundation, as a vehicle for changing the Republican Party's course. Such a change doesn't have to start with officeholders or party officials. It can instead be led by policy intellectuals identifying with or attached to the party; this was the case with the Democratic Leadership Council and the related Progressive Policy Institute in the 1980s; ideas that flowed from DCL and PPI, and the alliances they built with receptive governors, mayors, and lawmakers, helped provide a mainstream and centrist base for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Now, a group of conservative intellectuals, many at my own institution, are trying to do the same thing for the Republican Party.

The prime salvo here is the recently released Room to Grow, not a full-fledged book with detailed policies but a set of essays by smart analysts that lay out proposals and ideas across a range of policy areas. David Brooks earlier this week called it "the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American Right has produced this century." That is a bit extravagant, but in fact, Room to Grow is a serious document, with a framework to justify the direction of the ideas and a number of interesting and constructive proposals, some of which (on jobs and the long-term unemployment problem) I have written about before.

I am not going to write either a detailed review of the volume or a detailed critique of many of the ideas, some of which are naturally more constructive and plausible than others. What interests me the most at this point is whether this initiative parallels the efforts of the DLC and PPI, and how the ideas have been embraced, or not, by the policymakers and politicians who will have to buy in to the framework and the specifics to make this more than an academic exercise.

A troubling feature of the volume, underscoring the turbulent waters reflecting in Virginia's 7th Congressional District, is in the almost-obligatory way the various authors have to draw sharp, and strained, contrasts with "the left." In virtually every essay, instead of pointing out how the ideas could form the basis of a new center, there is a caricatured portrait of the left that suggests that the conservative ideas are a 180-degree contrast with the opposition, and not approaches along a continuum that can find that common ground somewhere in or near the middle. In fact, as Jonathan Chait and E.J. Dionne have pointed out, several of the ideas championed in Room to Grow, such as an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, have been embraced or supported by Barack Obama, who has operated far more as a pragmatic progressive than a radical leftist. That is a reality ignored, and certainly not championed, in the monograph. Drawing the contrast is a useful rhetorical tool, but also suggests that it is a price the authors decided to pay to gain the attention of partisans and ideologues who have no desire to embrace ideas that might possibly be supported by Obama.

The deeper problem here is that the zeitgeist of the Republican Party has moved so sharply not just to the right, but to a radical stance, with two components. The first is baked into the broader commentary, from cable news to talk radio to blogs—if Obama is for it, we have to be against it. Room to Grow has nothing positive to say about any element of Obamacare, criticizes the Common Core (even as it approves the idea of serious standards), and ignores key policy areas like infrastructure, energy conservation, climate change, and even immigration. But that is reflective of a deeper reaction.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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