“….we have elevated men and political parties to power that promised to restore limited government and then proceeded, after their election, to expand the activities of government.” —Barry Goldwater in The Conscience of a Conservative (1961)
Why is the GOP struggling? This was supposed to be a “wave” election. The money isn’t coming in, says Karl Rove in a cautionary column titled “Why a GOP Senate Majority is Still in Doubt.”
Races that were supposed to be push-overs are suddenly nail-biters. Kansas, that reddest of red states, is in turmoil over incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. In North Carolina, Thom Tillis, the candidate the GOP establishment assured was just the candidate to take Democrat Kay Hagan’s Senate seat, is now behind in the polls. The wave election that was once seen as a certainty is now seen as possibly more like a rain drop election, a splotch of water here, nothing over there.
How can this be? In two words? The Base. The very people who are needed to give the money and especially the votes to elect that Republican Senate are balking. But why?
There are two reasons.
First, for almost a year now in the lead-up to the 2014 election the GOP establishment has been hell-bent on eating its own. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made attacking the Base of the GOP its mission in life. Senator Mitch McConnell boasted that he would “crush” the Tea Party. GOP consultants are running around assailing the very voters their candidates need to win, or making insipid, defensive and timid TV commercials like this one (“Republicans Are People Too!”) utterly devoid of ideology or sharp political elbows like this Reagan commercial run against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
It is always amazing that the idea of deliberately antagonizing and insulting the base of the GOP is seen by the establishment as a sure-fire way to win elections with help from the base of the party. But that’s just for starters.
Second? There is not the foggiest idea out there about a reason to elect a GOP Senate. Opposing Obama? Good. But what are these people for? You won’t have a clue if you watch that “Republicans are people too” commercial linked above. (And by the way, that slogan is recycled from a GOP campaign years ago.) What’s the Contract-for-America-style message on conservative principle? Would a GOP Senate block an Obama Supreme Court nominee? Defund Obamacare? Defund anything? Eliminate corporate taxes? Move to cut the income tax? Abolish the Department of Education or the Department of Energy? Why believe a Senate GOP majority would make any difference? A lot of these Senators went along with expanding the government in the Bush years — and wound up losing control in 2006 and haven’t gotten it back yet. Have they learned anything?
Perhaps the most tellingly illustrative example of why the base is not rallying to GOP establishment candidates is found in the refusal of former Kansas Republican Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker (now the widow of the late Senator Howard Baker of Watergate Committee fame) — a moderate GOP establishment senator while in office — to cut a commercial for Roberts. Why? Last year Roberts refused to vote to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, a treaty that would “forbid discrimination against the disabled” as reported here at the time in the Washington Post. Former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP presidential nominee and ex-GOP Senate Majority Leader, disabled from a severe wound in World War II, had returned to the Senate floor to personally lobby in favor of the UN treaty. Roberts voted no.
Here’s Kassebaum Baker herself, per the Post:
“People thought, ‘Gosh, why couldn’t he have done that for Bob?’” said former GOP senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, whose seat Roberts now holds. Among some prominent Republicans in Kansas, she said, “that just triggered an emotional disappointment with Pat. I think that carried on and has not been changed.”
And there, in so many words, is the divide in the GOP that is holding back money and potentially votes next month for GOP Senate candidates. Those words? “Do it for Bob.”
Not “do it for principle” but “do it for Bob” — which is to say that whatever is at issue is decided based on personality or friendship or sentimentality or popularity or the desire to appease K Street… you name the non-principled reason.
In the case referenced by former Senator Kassebaum Baker, a critical decision of principle — the sovereignty of the United States — was seen at stake. Yet the issue of whether to set the United Nations in a position to be “overseeing a ban on discrimination and determining how the disabled, including children [in America], should be treated” was seen by Kassebaum Baker as nothing more serious than doing a personal favor for “Bob.” There wasn’t a word about principle in her assessment of Roberts’ vote. And heaven knows Roberts has spent the year under assault for far too often, as it were, “doing something for Bob.”
Safe to say there was plenty of opposition to that treaty by conservatives precisely because of the sovereignty principle involved. Namely, the belief that a “yes” vote would give the UN sovereignty over how the U.S. deals with the disabled in its own country. Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum, himself the father of a disabled child, lobbied against the treaty precisely on grounds of principle, the Post reporting the objections of Santorum and conservatives this way:
They particularly worried that the committee could violate the rights of parents who choose to home school their disabled children.
“This is a direct assault on us,” Santorum said.
The treaty failed, fortunately, the “do it for Bob” Republicans not withstanding.
But the sovereignty issue in fact is just one small example of how this internal GOP divide works. Another example of the “do-it-for-Bob” mentality with the GOP establishment?
Back when Kassebaum Baker held the Senate seat Roberts now holds, she was one of 41 Republicans who voted to confirm President Clinton’s nomination of the far left-wing Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. So too did her seat mate from Kansas — Bob Dole. And now-Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell voted for Ginsburg as well. These votes came a handful of years after Republican Court nominations by presidents Reagan and Bush 41 — for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas — were turned into massive partisan battles of principle by Senate Democrats and their left-wing allies. When the shoe was on the other foot, these GOP moderates simply folded on the Ginsburg nomination. No filibuster, no fight, no nothing. Three years later, with a record as a leading GOP establishment moderate safely under his belt, Bob Dole lost the White House to Bill Clinton. No Reagan-style landslide against an incumbent Democrat president for Bob Dole.
These two episodes illustrate the question that is undoubtedly at the core of the trouble in these various Senate races and in the lack of cash flowing into GOP coffers. Too many in the Base want to know an answer to a question — an answer they believe they already know. What, exactly, is the difference between establishment Republicans and Democrats? If establishment Republican senators would vote yes to a UN treaty that was seen as giving up U.S. sovereignty or yes to an extreme left-wing Supreme Court nominee — why bother voting for these people in the first place? Pat Roberts is hardly seen by conservatives as a conservative. He almost went under to a Tea Party candidate in his primary. Yet here he is being pummeled by Kassebaum Baker of all people for actually standing for principle and rejecting the idea that he was in the Senate to “do it for Bob.” What does this say?
Among other things it says this isn’t 1964 anymore. In 1964, for the very first time a major GOP figure — Barry Goldwater — made the case that liberal Republicans were little better than Democrats. Goldwater defeated establishment hopes Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton, respectively the GOP governors of New York and Pennsylvania — the Chris Christie and Jeb Bush of their day. The GOP was on its way to bringing the GOP back to its Lincolnesque roots, making the idea of limited government once again a serious political force. Yes, Goldwater lost. In the wake of JFK’s assassination Lyndon Johnson was riding high and Goldwater himself knew he — or any other GOP nominee — would lose. America wasn’t ready for a fourth president in four years. But the Goldwater nomination set the GOP on the road to winning seven of the next ten presidential elections. The Base responded. But not without the political equivalent of childlike foot-stomping from moderates.
Quickly on display was the reality that moderate/RINO Republicans love to talk the “party unity” talk — unless something doesn’t go their way. This pattern surfaced most obviously way back there in 1964. After losing the GOP presidential nomination to Goldwater, Rockefeller petulantly refused to support the conservative Goldwater in the general election. So too Mitt Romney’s Dad George, the Governor of Michigan. In 1980, after losing the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan, liberal GOP Congressman John Anderson bolted the GOP to challenge Reagan as a third party candidate. After campaigning for a GOP Delaware Senate nomination in 2010 by pledging party unity, Congressman and ex-governor Mike Castle — the party establishment favorite — sat on his hands after losing in an upset to Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell. In Alaska, after losing to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, incumbent establishment Senator Lisa Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate and defeated the GOP nominee. And there are other examples over the years. Just yesterday comes this story over at the Daily Caller revealing that House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t spoken a word to Texas Senator Ted Cruz — in the entire two years since Cruz was elected in 2012. The petulance is stunning — but typical of the “do it for Bob Republicans.”
In other words, what rank and file Republicans — aka “The Base” — correctly understand is that the GOP establishment is a believer in unity — unless they lose a primary or convention. And if they do win an election, they never hesitate to vote the liberal line, just a little less so for a little less money. Kassebaum Baker herself voted for Ginsburg for the Court and clearly wanted Roberts to vote for that UN treaty. And in each case what she was doing was voting against principle in favor of non-principle. Ginsburg was a woman, the treaty was a big deal for Bob Dole, etc., etc., etc.
Over at Reuters Reagan biographer Craig Shirley notes the question exactly for conservatives. If the GOP establishment is going to take office simply to be, in Goldwater’s words, voting for a “dime store New Deal” — then the base of the party has a problem.
Now that problem is showing up in polls and the lack of cash.
Can the wave still happen? Sure. Events — many of them the direct result of the action, inaction, or incompetence of the Obama White House — are coming (pardon the phrase) fast and furious. The best asset the GOP has this year is President Obama himself, which is exactly why he’s as popular as Ebola in states where Democrats are trying to hang on to Senate seats.
But the GOP’s real problem is The Base. In Craig Shirley’s words: “Republicans may gain control of the Senate, but to what end? To simply deny power to the Democrats?”
The other night in Washington at the Media Research Center’s Gala ’14, talk radio host and bestselling author Mark Levin was awarded the William F. Buckley Jr. Award for Media Excellence. In accepting, Mark quoted Ronald Reagan’s wisdom that “a political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised for political expediency or simply to swell its numbers.”
Put another way? The real question this November is whether the GOP will return to being a party of “fundamental beliefs” — or whether it will be the party of “do it for Bob.”