Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Ruination of the American Conservative Movement

America has a two-party system, and neither party is going away. If the Democrats keep winning the Presidency, the Republicans will keep winning the mid-term elections. The Republicans have also come close to gerrymandering their way into a permanent majority in the US House. And thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Republican candidates will never run short of money. Republicans and the conservative movement at large should be thanking their lucky stars that they can't really fall much farther than they already have. Because in terms of its leadership, organization, punditry, spending, recent accomplishments and popularity with public, the conservative movement could not be more of a total train train wreck than it is today.

Last month during the "fiscal cliff" budget battle in Washington, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow took a look at the Republican side of the fight and observed the following:

“Do you want to know what just happened, with Congress just unexpectedly imploding and the Republicans in Congress dissolving into a huge internal fight including screaming matches within their own caucus? And then all of a sudden, they’re just turning off the lights and abandoning what they were doing and nobody really knows why, nobody really knows what happens next?” 

“What’s going on?... We liberals have spent a generation, we’ve spent all this envious time studying the strength and depth and singular focus of the conservative movement, like they’ve got themselves so together. And then days like this, you pull back the curtain and it turns out it’s just this little tiny guy going, ‘I’m the big, powerful Oz! I’m the big powerful Oz! Somebody find the curtain!’”

Rachel Maddow made these comments after the American people were treated the spectacle of Republican House Speaker John Boehner introducing his "Plan B" solution to the fiscal cliff, only to see it rejected by the Republican House caucus. And this after Boehner had purged three freshman representatives from top committee posts as a warning to other members not to go against the party leaders on a fiscal cliff deal. And the show was not over. After the Senate voted 89 to 8 for its version of the fiscal cliff bill and sent it to the House, the GOP House caucus still couldn't get themselves together. Although the bill passed 257 to 167, the majority of Republicans voted against it.

And the chaos continues. Earlier this month when the House failed to vote on federal assistance to victims of Hurricane Sandy, Republican Congressman Peter King said,
"Anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee should have their head examined." Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that a "civil war" is being fought between northern and southern Republicans. But let's take a look at some of the many other ways that the conservative movement has become Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition.

1. The Republican party's popularity has hit rock bottom
Yesterday, conservative-leaning pollster Frank Luntz wrote in the Washington Post,

"Congressional Republicans are currently defined as nothing more than opponents of the president and friends of the powerful. This isn’t my opinion — it’s America’s opinion. My polling firm asked voters nationwide on election night to identify who or what the GOP was fighting for. Twice as many said “the wealthy” and “big business” than “hardworking taxpayers” or “small business.”"

"Their image is even worse today. The congressional Republicans’ message during the “fiscal cliff” debate last month was confused and chaotic."

"Just saying “no” to the president has its limits. House Republicans, since they have a megaphone that Senate Republicans don’t, will continue to be diminished until they start defining and stop being defined."

Let's take a look at some numbers. Regarding public perception of the fiscal cliff battle, this week Mark S. Mellman of the Hill observed,

"Republicans, no doubt, thought that the public ambivalence about the plan created space for them to oppose it. It didn’t, and the GOP ended up with a big black eye. According to Pew, voters disapproved of the way Republican leaders handled the issue by a vast 66 percent-to-19 percent margin. Gallup pegged disapproval of the Republicans’ efforts at 67 percent. That means even some GOPers failed to rally to their party’s defense.

The GOP’s own polling confirms the failure of the Republican strategy. My distinguished Republican colleague, David Winston, found the image of Republicans in Congress sinking to its lowest level in at least a year, as 61 percent offered unfavorable evaluations of the congressional party overall, compared to only 30 percent who hold favorable views. Moreover, what voters had heard recently about the GOP (mainly material related to the fiscal cliff) made them feel less favorable by 57 percent to 32, again the worst in over a year. The generic vote followed suit, with voters giving Democrats their biggest margin in the last year and a half."

Just how unpopular are congressional Republicans? A recent PPP poll pegs their approval rating at 15%, compared to 38% for Democrats. A Gallup poll this month also shows that the number of voters identifying themselves as Democrats is rising, while the number of self-identified Republicans is falling.

2. The "Tea Party" has been a total disaster for the Republican party
Democrats currently control the Senate 55 to 45. That five-vote margin exactly equals the number of Senate races that Tea Party activists have cost the Republicans. In the Colorado, Delaware and Nevada races in 2010 and in the Indiana and Missouri races in 2012, the Republicans had likely nominees who would have been highly favored to win in November. In each of these races however, the moderately conservative candidate was beaten in the GOP primary be a more more conservative candidate with Tea Party backing. All five teabaggers went on to lose in the general election. Worse, in 2012 the candidates in Indiana (Richard Mourdock) and Missouri (Todd Akin) helped drag down the entire Republican ticket by marking bizarre comments on rape.

3. The party leadership refuses to lead, and congressional Republicans refuse to do their jobs
It must be fun to be a Republican congressman. If a candidate wins election on the idea that government doesn't work, all he has to do is nothing. That way he both proves his point and fulfills his mandate. But the public will sit still for leaders who refuse to lead and legislators who refuse to legislate for only so long. As Frank Luntz noted above, just saying "no" to the President has its limits. 

Consider the health care debate in 2009-2010. President Obama offered to compromise on his goals, while Republicans refuse to even articulate what concessions they might want or be willing to make themselves. This past year, the solutions on national policy issues offered by the Romney-Ryan campaign were sandwiches with no meat in them. They suggested that government might raise more revenue by closing tax loopholes, but refused to say which loopholes they were talking about. The New York Times also noted that, "Although Mr. Romney has said he wants to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, he has provided few details on what he would replace it with." More recently, in the fiscal cliff battle, congressional Republicans suggested that entitlement reform must be part of any agreement. Ah, but what sort of entitlement reform? According to a White House negotiator, the Democratic team went to Republicans and said, "This is what we want on revenues on the down payment. What’s your guys’ ask on the entitlement side?" And they keep looking back at us and saying: "We want you to come up with that and pitch us."" Perhaps Republicans were following the advice of their own Senator Lindsay Graham, who earlier in the month suggested that they "be quiet for a while," and wait for Democrats to make an offer on entitlement reform. The lackluster nature of the the GOP leadership in Washington was apparently so frustrating to South Carolina's Senator Jim DeMint (a favorite of conservatives) that he's resigned his office. In his farewell speech, DeMint said we should be, "willing to set aside the pressure groups." Right. And where's DeMint going now? He's becoming head of the Heritage Foundation, the most odious pressure group of the last several decades. But at least he leaves behind a record of legislative accomplishment right? Actually, surprise surprise, DeMint never sponsored a single piece of major legislation in his eight years in the Senate.

4. They raise a lot of money, but don't know what to do with it
Karl Rove runs a super-PAC called American Crossroads. If you give them money, some of it they'll pocket for their bloated salaries. But the rest they'll spend on vicious advertisements attacking Democrats. I won't often quote Donald Trump, but here's what he tweeted on election night: "
Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million cycle. Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money." And while Karl Rove was blowing $400 million, President Obama's operation was winning the ground game. By election day, in order to help get the vote out the Obama campaign had opened 755 operations offices compared to only 283 for Romney. This disparity of depth in field operations led John Avlon of the Daily Beast to observe that he'd heard from Republican operatives, "that the Romney campaign is insular and isolated from the national Republican apparatus."

5. They live in a fantasy world of spin
The Romney campaign: "insular and isolated." If that sounds familiar, perhaps you've heard the strangest story of the 2012 campaign, Romney's "Project Orca." In what sounds like a sci-fi story, the Romney campaign created a computer program that (1.) was designed to direct the campaign's field operations, but did not in fact work because if was never tested properly and (2.) was designed to predict the outcome of the election, but at the same time also programmed to tell the campaign what it wanted to hear, so that it predicted a Romney win on election night.

Now about that false prediction that had Mitt Romney believing he would be the next President. It seems that conservative operatives and pundits were very annoyed that throughout the campaign season, New York Times statistician Nate Silver continuously predicted an Obama win, based on his analysis of the polls. So Republicans convinced themselves that if the polls didn't show that Romney was going to win, the polls must be skewed in favor of Obama. The reasons Republicans offered as to why the polls were skewed were the height of hilarity. Dean Chambers, the creator of, asked the public to note that Silver is a, "thin and effeminate man" and called his predictions, "extremely biased in favor of the Democrats," but did not explain this "bias" in any detail. The National Review denounced "those on the center and on the left laughing at those on the right 'unskewing' the polls or questioning the partisan breakdown in the polling sample," because "it's unfair to conservatives to simply mock them for questioning the partisan breakdown of polls." Ok, still no explanation of why the polls are wrong. Oh, wait a minute, conservative pundit Peggy Noonan explains it all! Forget the polls, Romney is going to win: "There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same." Case closed!

By election day, every big-name conservative in the country was predicting a big Romney win, in contradiction of the polls, and this "unskewing" of the polls was programmed into Romney's Project Orca. This culminated in one of strangest moments in tv history, when, late on election night, on Fox News, Karl Rove continued to insist that Romney might carry Ohio even after Fox News itself had called the state for Obama. Fox host Megyn Kelly finally confronted Rove on his dismissal of the Ohio results: "Is this the math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?"

6. They're losing everyone but old, allegedly heterosexual white men
The percentage of the voting populace that is Latino is climbing fast. And how are Republicans doing with Latino voters? ABC News tells us:
"According to the national exit polls, Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote while Romney won 27 percent. That's an improvement over Obama's 2008 performance when Latinos backed him 67-31 percent over Republican John McCain and the largest Democratic margin since 1996. To give you an idea of how badly the GOP's Latino support has eroded, just eight years ago, George W. Bush won around 40 percent of the Latino vote. "

2012 also gave us the Republican "War on Women,"  which I'm pleased to say the Republicans lost, and quite badly. The War on Gays, not going well either. Obama also won 60% of the vote of those under 30.

7. The Libertarian party is eating the Republicans' lunch
The fractious nature of the various wings of the Republican base has naturally given rise to some voters abandoning the party's nominees in favor of third-party candidates; most typically Libertarians. These "protest votes" from conservatives who feel that the Republican party's candidates are not sufficiently orthodox or something are another reason the party is losing races it might otherwise win. In the Montana Senate race last year, incumbent Democrat Jon Tester was widely expected to lose. Tester however won reelection in a race that saw Libertarian candidate Dan Cox get 6.6% of the vote. If  a little more than half of the Cox vote had instead gone to the Republican nominee Denny Rehberg, Tester would have been defeated. Democrats also won by a smaller margin than the Libertarian vote in the Montana gubernatorial race, the Indiana Senate race, and in six US House races.

The same thing nearly happened last year in the Presidential race in Florida. Barrack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by only 70,309 votes out of 8.5 million cast. The candidate with the next largest vote total was Libertarian Gary Johnson who received 44,726 votes. Had the election been any closer, Johnson would have cost Romney the win. Now imagine the race was closer nationwide. If Florida had decided the election, as it did in 2000, support for the Libertarian candidate in Florida would have cost Romney the Presidency.

8. Conservative institutions are on the ropes
The Christian Conservative movement, which propelled every big-name Republican candidate from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, seems to have run out of steam. Dr. James Dobson, the founder of "Focus on the Family," recent said of the 2012 election, "Nearly everything I have stood for these past 35 years went down to defeat." Support for Romney by the powerful evangelical christian bloc was reluctant at best. Meanwhile, Maggie Gallagher, head of the National Organization for Marriage (which is really the National Organization for Hating Gay People) has announced that she is terminating her syndicated column because apparently no one wants to read it. And what the heck is gong on at the conservative "think tank" FreedomWorks, where CEO Dick Armey was recently fired and paid $8 million to go away? According the the Washington Post, “just as campaign season was entering its final frenzy,” Armey “walked into the group’s Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.” The Post went on to report that Armey’s $8 million departure fee was paid to end Armey’s alleged coup and return the ousted FreedomWorks employees to their jobs.

9. Ron Paul, Ron Paul, Ron Paul
It's hard for Republicans to get organized and win elections when they're busy strangling each other. Bill Schickel, the co-chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, recently criticized the dominance of supporters of former Congressman Ron Paul within the state party. "The words are fine about reaching out and opening the doors of our party, but when are our chair, our executive director, our communications director, our finance director are all from the Campaign for Liberty that sends a message that is disenfranchising to many, many of our Republicans."

Regular Republicans really hate it when libertarian supporters of Ron Paul get too uppity. So much so, that they're prepared to throw democracy out the window. Nevada Republicans shut down their convention rather than allow Paul supporters to be elected as delegates to the national convention in 2008, and Arizona Republicans did the same in 2012.

and finally... 

. Democrats don't suffer from these same problems
In winning elections in 2012, Democrats outperformed expectations. Some Democrats are disappointed in President Obama and/or the party's congressional leadership, but they're not turning to third parties. Democrats aren't broken into bitter factions that turn the party into a circular firing squad. President Obama and Congressional Democrats have a strong record of legislative accomplishment. The fastest growing voting blocs are going Democratic.

Good night, and good luck.