Can Conservatives Sell Smart?

The Republicans want to be the party of ideasThe New York Times tells me so. Now if only Republican leaders could just get Republican voters to cooperate with the plan.

So far, voters in Republican primaries don’t seem so keen on the idea. Eric Cantor, of late the House Majority leader (the number-two spot for the Republicans in the Congress), was one of the most public advocates of trying to move the party towards rediscovering polysyllables. He was also, alas, a terrible campaigner, and got his head handed to him rather notoriously in an open primary earlier this year.

So Cantor’s out, and the Tea Party nearly collected another victory in Mississippi, and the even-more-right wing is challenging the results of that near-miss in court. (I’m old enough to remember when Republicans mocked Al Gore for asking the judiciary to, y’know, adjudicate.)

It’s true that it hasn’t been a particularly great primary season for the Tea Party, but that mistakes the actual purpose of Tea Party groups, and the money that flows to them. Victory isn’t the victory condition: it’s simply, but profoundly, to move the GOP incrementally to the right every primary season. Cantor, who helped blow up the debt ceiling talks in 2011, was beaten by someone to his right. Anyone want to guess at what lesson GOP legislators around the country are taking from all this?

How the Republicans are going to try to become a serious policy-making organization in the midst of what amounts to institutionalized civil war every two years is an amusing hypothetical question. What’s less hypothetical is that the most fervent Republicans, the ones backing those Tea Party challengers in all those primaries, have little to no interest in serious policy work. This is the party where modifying your truck to spew diesel smoke at people in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars is considered a valuable form of social protest.

Here in Canada, we had a recent example of a conservative who tried the policy-heavy route out of opposition into government, with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives releasing a slew of policy papers more than a year prior to the 2014 election. In the end, many of those policies (including arguably more popular ones, like liberalizing Ontario’s liquor laws) got locked in a cupboard and forgotten for a pledge to reduce the public sector by 100,000 positions. Presenting a different policy agenda became, in the end, code for trying to win an ideological contest.

If only there were a conservative leader to whom political observers could point—one with a record of electoral success, who showed how the right could be true to its principles without imploding under the weight of its own internal tensions or its crusading zeal.

Oh, wait—that’s Stephen Harper. Indeed, Canada’s contribution to the North American political culture may be to show conservatives the value of not scaring the crap out of people. That has, manifestly, been Harper’s objective since becoming the leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002.

As Paul Wells details in The Longer I’m Prime Minister, Harper understands that controlling the government is more important than being seen to win an ideological battle. Which isn’t to say that Harper isn’t ideological, or that he doesn’t enjoy winning those battles, but he’s been relatively successful at keeping his battles from endangering his hold on the Prime Minister’s chair.

(The notable exception, of course, is the 2008 coalition blow-up, where Harper nearly let his desire to rub the opposition’s face in it ruin the entire game. Six years later, Harper has at least one more year of majority government ahead of him, and every one of the coalition leaders of 2008 is out of the picture.)

It’s worth remembering just how much effort Harper put into locking up the crazier parts of his party’s own coalition in the early years. The prime minister rather emphatically won’t let his party get distracted by abortion bills, but he’s been fighting this battle within the party since 2004. He even lackadaisically forced a second vote on Canada’s legalization of gay marriage, knowing that it would be defeated by the opposition parties (and some MPs in his own party).

Harper, then, is the incarnation of the notion that it’s more important to win than to be seen beating your enemies. (Your enemies usually take care of that for you, it turns out.) Bizarrely, it’s the same lesson George W. Bush could have taught Republicans, if his policies were even remotely palatable to 2014’s existing GOP. It may be best in life to see your enemies driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women, but it turns out to be lousy politics in a modern democracy.

Maybe the GOP will manage to walk the line others have tripped over, proposing interesting policies without, Narcissus-like, gazing too deeply into a reflecting pool of their own failures. But given the record of the last few years, you’d be safe to put your money on any serious attempt to deal with real-world problems as being intolerable collaboration with the Kenyan usurper and whatever Democrat succeeds him in 2016.

And, if the Republicans keep on this path, 2020.

Image via Gage Skidmore/Flickr