Jonah Goldberg: The GOP betrayed its base

BEFORE I JOIN in the sport of post-defeat Republican recrimination, allow me first to indulge in a rare moment of bipartisanship.

Philosophers and partisans will debate for years the question of whether Democrats deserved to win the 2006 elections, but let us agree that the Republicans deserved to lose.

Through its own crapulence, jobbery and malfeasance, the Grand Old Party lost the House of Representatives, the jewel of the Republican revolution, the engine of conservative policy reform and home to the much-maligned freedom fries. The Democrats needed 15 seats to capture the House, and they passed that mark handily, like a running back carrying the ball straight past the end zone, into the bleachers and all the way to the concession stand — where they ordered a hot dog. Then, shortly before this column went to press, the Senate finally fell into the Dem column like one enormous hanging chad.

Let’s take the Democrats at their word. They wanted this election to be a referendum on President Bush and the GOP. And despite valiant efforts by the Republicans to make the election a choice between two parties, the Dems succeeded in making it thumbs-up or thumbs-down on just one: the GOP.


And so the Republicans were doomed. The cliches are no less true for being cliches. The GOP came to power in 1994 promising lean government, and it has become the party that needs to unbuckle its pants and loosen its belt two notches after every lobbyist-paid meal. The GOP once had the reputation of being able to run the government like a business and wars like a finely tuned machine. But under compassionate conservatism, government became a faith-based charity.

As for the war(s), the finely-tuned machine is clogged with Iraqi sand. The Democrats think the only solution is to “redeploy” the whole kit and caboodle out of there for repairs. To Bush’s credit, he understands that wars, particularly this one, need to be won. But, alas, the Democrats won the argument at the polls.

Now, let’s get back to the important business of pointing fingers and assigning blame. Conservatives have been sharpening their bayonets for months, just waiting to inaugurate the first great intramural bloodletting of the new millennium. Libertarian types think the fault lies in too much social conservatism. Social conservatives see too much worldliness. Both see too much compromise. Moderates, squishes and other RINOS (Republicans in name only) see too little compromise. Realists and isolationists see too much war; neoconservatives and other hawks see, if not too little war, certainly too little commitment to do everything it takes to win the ones we’re in.

Of all these arguments, the only two you are likely to hear ad nauseam are: too much social conservatism and too much war.

Why? Because that’s the view of the liberal establishment that for 40 years has been arguing that if only conservatives were more liberal they’d be more successful, even as the conservative movement has been the most successful political enterprise of the last half a century.

Philosophically, reasonable people may differ about whether there’s been too much social conservatism, but, politically, this is idiotic. As Ramesh Ponnuru notes in the National Review, Christian conservatives give the GOP as many votes as labor and blacks combined give to the Democrats. As shocking as it may sound, it’s to the Republicans’ electoral advantage to take positions that shock the conscience of Rosie O’Donnell.

It’s also true that the Iraq war is unpopular; that’s because it’s not going swimmingly. If it were otherwise, Iraq would be a political boon to the GOP. Now, you might say, “Yeah and except for the brief unpleasantness, Mrs. Lincoln had a wonderful time at the theater.” But the fact is that it is not the conservative position to botch wars. And contrary to the slanderous codswallop you’ve heard for the last year, conservative principles do not require flooding New Orleans. And while we’re on this point, corruption and cronyism aren’t core planks in the conservative platform either. Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) lost his seat because of an alleged personal scandal, but I can assure you that there’s nothing in the works of Edmund Burke that says a good conservative should try to strangle his mistress.

In other words, just as the Democrats insisted, the GOP’s drubbing had more to do with competence and scandal than program and ideology.


Indeed, if the conservative base hadn’t been disgusted with Republican management, and if so many Democrats hadn’t run as social conservatives, the GOP might have done just fine in this election.

Republicans lost because they behaved like self-indulgent politicians, not purists. Conservatives care a lot about ideas, so that’s where we’ll try to assign blame. But the ideologues aren’t to blame. The Republicans are.