Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The GOP Establishment vs. the GOP Coalition

David Brooks picks up on the vast disconnect between the McCain-hatred (and for that matter, Huckabee-hatred) in the GOP establishment and McCain's performance with the actual GOP voters. He points out that despite McCain's deviance from Republican orthodoxy on arbitrary litmus test issues, he manages to have by far the highest second-choice approval ratings of any Republican candidate. Of course, amongst the GOP establishment class, he likely has by far the lowest approval ratings (other than Huckabee of course). Indeed, McCain's support in South Carolina was solid almost across the board.

What this all shows is that the old remnants of the GOP "coalition" still exist - they just no longer have much respect for the GOP establishment as an arbiter of what is best for them. The GOP establishment has pandered to certain elements of its coalition on issues like immigration and the Terry Schiavo case, expelling Republicans who failed to support the party on those issues as RINOs. But issues such as those were wedge issues not only nationally, but also within the elements of the GOP coalition. By placing those wedge issues front and center, the GOP establishment arrogantly forgot one of the rules of interest group politics:

"Political parties are merely vehicles for the election of interest groups who have chosen to unite under a single coalition. They have no independent ideology of their own; only the collective ideologies of coalition members."

While illegal immigration may have been a top priority issue for one of the GOP's constituent groups, by going along with that group's top priority, the party ignored the fact that a good chunk of its members are actually pro-immigration, and always have been. Indeed, even in South Carolina, as orthodox a Republican state as you can usually find, just about half of Republicans in exit polls favored either a guest worker program or a path to citizenship.

The party establishment figured that immigration supporters would either go along with the chosen orthodoxy or at least ignore it. They were wrong. But instead of backing off on the immigration issue, the attacked Republicans who supported it, calling them RINOs, squishy moderates, etc. In the process, they didn't just make the party smaller by alienating so many of these Republicans; they also made their hold on the remaining Republicans weaker.

McCain and Huckabee have both drawn the continual ire of Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, and more, yet have suffered not at all from it.

The GOP's problem in recent years is that it figured it could tell its voters what to think. Perhaps this is because, as I've argued, the party's constituent interest groups no longer have much in common, and so almost every issue became a wedge issue within the party. As a result, the establishment cannot cobble together a united coalition on many issues at all; indeed, the party's attempts to do so lately have resulted in official Republican orthodoxy being completely incoherent, requiring a level of doublethink heretofore unheard of, which I have dubbed "pu-pu platter" partisanship. That still, however, does not excuse the extent to which it has attempted to use intimidation, name-calling, and purges to keep its constituency in line.

By contrast, when the Republicans swept into power in 1994, they did so on a platform that was based on its supporters telling it what to think. The Contract with America was successful as a political strategy precisely because it avoided wedge issues while focusing on issues upon which nearly all Republicans already agreed. It was a matter of building consensus, even if that consensus was largely just within the party. To accept the principles of the Contract with America did not require massive amounts of doublethink, and so orthodoxy was relatively easy to find.

The attempts at enforcing orthodoxy within the party in recent years have left the Republican establishment badly weakened, and the party as a whole rather smaller in number.

More reactions at memeorandum.