Tuesday, October 27, 2009

But What Does "Conservative" Mean?

Bill Kristol is urging the Republican Party to continue its hard tack to the right, pointing to a Gallup poll in which 40% of Americans described themselves as "conservative". Um... as if there's only one definition of conservative, and any person who self-describes as "conservative" lacks even an ounce of moderation? And what does that mean for the future of the Republican Party?
That nominee seems unlikely to be a current officeholder. Right now, the four leading candidates for the GOP nomination are private citizens. In a recent Rasmussen poll, the only candidates with double-digit support among Republicans were Mike Huckabee (at 29 percent), Mitt Romney (24 percent), Sarah Palin (18 percent) and Newt Gingrich (14 percent). These four are running way ahead of various senatorial and gubernatorial possibilities.
I have never been particularly impressed with the concept of Newt Gingrich as a man of ideas - at least if we're limiting the discussion to good ideas. But really, he's running behind Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, two candidates whose prior national campaigns suggest that if either came up with an idea it would be very, very lonely.1 As for trying to pick a candidate a couple years in advance of the start of the next Presidential campaign, potential candidates people have heard of do better in the polls than potential candidates most haven't heard of. News to Kristol, perhaps, but no real surprise to anybody who actually pays attention to these things.
Indeed, I suspect that the person most likely to break into this group of front-runners would be a businessman who stands up against President Obama's big-government proposals, a retired general who objects to Obama's foreign policy or a civic activist who rallies the public against some liberal outrage.
Where are Al Haig and Ross Perot when the Republican Party needs them? A civic activist? Surely he's not thinking of Sarah Palin (despite his undying crush) - a "civic activist" sounds like somebody Palin would describe as having no real responsibilities. What might we expect from a Palin candidacy? Angry, bitter, mean-spirited devolution into self-parody, and perhaps an electoral vote count favoring the incumbent that would make Reagan's 1984 landslide look weak by comparison.

On to the next poll:
One reason is that many Republicans lack confidence not just in Congress but even in Republican members of Congress. In last week's Post-ABC News poll, a plurality of respondents disapproved of Obama-type health-care reform. In other words, they agree with the Republicans in Congress. But when asked how much confidence they had in congressional Republicans to make the right decisions for the country's future, only 19 percent of respondents expressed much confidence in the GOP -- well behind the confidence levels in congressional Democrats (34 percent) and Obama (49 percent).
Well, no. Imagine that the Democrats proposed painting the Oval Office blue. And the Republicans angrily insisted not only that the Democrats were going to use green paint, but that it must be painted red. An opinion poll might show that a number of Americans opposed the color choice of blue, and others were confused by the Republican Party's misinformation and were adamantly against the color green. But that doesn't mean that they prefer red or, going back to healthcare, a mysterious, undisclosed Republican alternative to the current healthcare system or reform ideas. (Could Kristol really be so dense as to believe what he's writing?)
The center of gravity, I suspect, will instead lie with individuals such as Palin and Huckabee and Gingrich, media personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and activists at town halls and tea parties.
He's comfortable with that?
The lesson activists around the country will take from this is that a vigorous, even if somewhat irritated, conservative/populist message seems to be more effective in revitalizing the Republican Party than an attempt to accommodate the wishes of liberal media elites.
The strange thing is Kristol was able to name two Republican media elites, and cheerlead the angry, often hate-filled rhetoric and misinformation they (and Sarah Palin, another "leader" he again singles out) use to "lead" the Republican Party. But when he drops in a bromide about "liberal media elites" he's unable to name even one - let alone one of any real influence.

If nothing else, he's made clear which party is being run by grown-ups.

Kristol's fantasy of a conservative movement uniting behind a Sarah Palin, or some other "leader"2 who represents only one faction of convervatism (religious right conservatives / social conservatives, economic conservatives / free market conservatives, foreign policy conservatives / interventionists / non-interventionists... there are factions within the factions). That's the same sort of foundation upon which Ross Perot built his Reform Party - not so much "vote for us" but "don't vote for them". And when the Palin/Gingrich ticket brings in 19% of the vote....3
1. I don't want to be unfair to Romney, who was once a successful corporate raider (who now prefers "venture capitalist"), but the image he seemed intend upon presenting during the last campaign was that of an empty head propped on top of a stuffed shirt.

2. Palin has demonstrated little ability to lead those who aren't already in lockstep with her message. While the modicum of leadership she demonstrates by telling her devotees what they want to hear may qualify her as a "leader" in Kristol's book, her failure as an executive both at the state and local level may give others pause.

3. While Kristol was heartened that 40% of Americans deem themselves "conservative", he somehow forgot to mention (or perhaps failed to read) that only half of that number (20%) describe themselves as "Republicans".

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