The Spectacle Blog

What’s the Matter with Republicans?

By on 7.7.08 | 2:57PM

There was a thoughtful letter in Reader Mail today in response to my June article on the Ohio Republican Party. I'll reproduce it here because I think it has some national implications:

I appreciated W. James Antle III's piece on the Ohio Republican Party, particularly his concession at the end of the piece that 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee J. Kenneth Blackwell, despite striking all the right conservative notes, was swamped by his opponent, Democrat Ted Strickland. I would direct Antle, and your readers, to political scientist John Fenton's 1960s book "Midwest Politics," which branded Ohio's politics as "issueless."

Blackwell ran an issues campaign: He talked about a constitutional amendment that would have limited state spending growth -- that is, before the state's sane moderate wing persuaded him to throw it out because it was disastrously worded -- and leasing the state turnpike. Strickland, meanwhile, ran on a platform that supported grandma, apple pie and the American Way.

Throw out the Democratic tidal wave in 2006; Blackwell never would have won modern Ohio, which, as Fenton noted, likes bland politicians who don't rock the boat. Politicians who, as legendary Ohio GOP Chairman Ray Bliss put it, keep issues out of campaigns. Despite sending two bedrock conservatives, John W. Bricker and Robert Taft, to the Senate in the middle of the last century, the leaders of the Ohio GOP since the 1960s have largely been moderate. Four-term Gov. James A. Rhodes loved big bond issues; George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, Ohio's two recent GOP senators, were decried as "RINOs" -- Republicans In Name Only -- by their conservative detractors in Ohio.

Better a RINO in Ohio, because, here, "true conservative" is a euphemism for "loser."

Obviously, I don't entirely agree with this. My correspondent is right that Ohioans tend to be nonideological, which is why such a nondescript Republicanism was able to gain power there in the first place. But ultimately, the GOP was brought low by its "sane moderate wing." Moderate Gov. Bob Taft was enormously unpopular and every bit as much a liability to Ohio Republicans as the national party. Moderate Sen. Mike DeWine went down to defeat by 12 points, losing to a Democrat who would have been too liberal to win statewide less than ten years ago. Uber-moderate Betty Montgomery lost her race for attorney general, albeit narrowly. Moderate Jim Petro would have lost the governor's race too, and conservative Ken Blackwell won statewide three times before 2006.

That said, there is something to the critique. Most voters aren't ideologues in Ohio or most other places, though many of them may be partisans. Some conservatives, even promising and talented ones, run for office as if it is their mission to implement Heritage Foundation white papers. Blackwell was one such candidate. Steve Forbes was another. There's nothing wrong with Heritage Foundation white papers -- the country would usually be better run if they were implemented -- but people vote for political programs they connect with personally. The average voter isn't an ideologue or systematic political thinker. Campaigns that try to appeal to them on that level are likely to fail.

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