The Best-Laid Plans of Moderates and Mavens

Karl Rove spells out in the Wall Street Journal two factors that might hamper GOP efforts to take the Senate this November, despite a political climate favorable to Republicans: Democrats have raised more money than Republicans and have purchased more dollars in television advertising. To tilt the scales back in their favor, Rove implores Republicans to "open their wallets to candidates whom they may have never met, and, if they live in a battleground state... clear their calendars to volunteer to identify and get out the vote.”

Donating money and getting out the vote (GOTV) are the water and air of any campaign’s success. But this advice -- while sound, time-tested, and offered by a respected political maven like Karl Rove -- will not, in and of itself, solve the GOP’s money and GOTV problems because it fails to address why -- in a political and economic environment that is advantageous to Republicans and puts a Senate majority within its grasp -- there is a shortfall in fundraising and volunteerism for the GOP. 

Rove’s admonition is a mere band-aid and not the cure for this malady. Professionals with a lifetime of experience can indeed enlighten the masses, wielding their expertise to inform a naive laity about the mystifying machinations of campaigns and electoral politics. But, generating millions in small donations and mobilizing boots on the ground can determine an election’s outcome, so we must ascertain why potential donors and volunteers are not meeting expectations. Simply trying to cajole or browbeat them into participation is an exercise in futility. Republicans will have a better chance of enticing critical supporters back into the fray once they know what lies at the bottom of their disengagement.    

To glean the answer, all one needs is a finger on the pulse of the conservative grassroots -- the actual donors and volunteers who will not precinct walk or phone bank and have withheld donations. I am not convinced that the GOP leadership is at all in touch with the grassroots. Fundraisers, book tours, speeches, luncheons, meetings, and conventions are important events that connect candidates and leadership with cash-rich constituents. But millions of supporters are foreclosed from participating in such events. Their only outlet is the occasional town hall, the rare publication of a “letter to the editor,” and, if they’re lucky, a once-in-a-lifetime 20-60 second comment on talk radio. These are the conservative voices lost in the wind.   

For those with their ears to the ground who have been listening to persistent grumblings among the grassroots, there is no mystery here. Grassroots conservatives feel marginalized, underappreciated, mocked, and, all too often, denigrated by their own party. They do not feel they have a place in the big tent. They do not have access to leadership, candidates, or their elected representatives unless they have deep pockets or connections. They worry they are being used -- good enough to raise needed funds and do the scut work of walking, calling, canvassing, manning booths, and attending rallies, but not good enough to have their views and input respected or taken seriously. They sense that more moderate forces in the GOP regard them as extreme, radical, wacko, and unyielding, and that their principles -- although in alignment with the great thinkers of conservatism -- are outdated and offensive to the youth, single women, the impoverished, and Hispanics. They see a GOP that is willing to cultivate these new votes at the cost of antagonizing, if not killing off, the grassroots. Worst of all, they have an uneasy feeling that “the Party” knows what’s best for its constituents and not the other way around.

It is unclear how their small donations will be used -- to support candidates or issues at odds with conservative principles? They are reluctant to walk for candidates who are playing fast and loose with the party platform or say one thing to get elected and do another once in office -- biting the very conservative hand that feeds them.    

Deep down in their core, grassroots conservatives want desperately to participate because they understand the stakes. And they understand the game -- turnout and dollars matter; vote for the most electable conservative Republican because he or she is better than any Democrat. But their reluctance is born of a lack of trust that has mounted over the years. Enough have decided not to contribute their very precious time, energy, and money to the cause -- enough that it warranted an article by Karl Rove. Take heed. Come November, most of them will vote for Republican candidates -- even those they don’t support. But it might behoove the leadership, the mavens, and the entrenched Republican politicians, to offer some gratitude every once in a while instead of blaming the grassroots for defeats suffered because of their commitment to, of all things, conservatism.

In a word, they feel burned -- whether the powers that be agree with this or not is irrelevant. This is how a huge swath of conservatives feel and it can no longer be swept under the rug. They know their dollars and time are needed and they know why. Mavens and experts can write, sing, talk, jump up and down, and smash their fists on the table about it, but it won’t do any good -- they no longer want to donate or volunteer. It is up to the establishment, GOP leaders, and elected officials to seek some kind of reconciliation to move forward in order to decimate the opposition.  

Moderates, elites, and establishment Republicans might argue: We’ve been ruled too long by a small cadre of social conservatives imposing their moral views on the rest of us. We’ve had to hold our noses and vote for staunch conservatives whose ideas we didn’t agree with. We’ve put up with extreme conservatives who are out of touch with the culture and tolerated a parade of wacko Tea Party presidential primary candidates. It’s time for the GOP to evolve and become part of the changing face of America. The country is tacking towards the middle.  No one cares about G-d. Values are mutable. We will never get the young vote with antiquated principles; the female vote with a platform of life; or, the Hispanic vote without a path to citizenship. We are not our father’s GOP. You Moral Majority types have had your reign. You Tea Party types gave it a fair shot in 2010. Now, it’s time for the Moderates to take center stage.

Admittedly, grassroots conservatives haven’t always been the easiest to get along with. Some can’t see the forest through the trees as they ride their principles over a cliff. But they function as the de facto conscience of the GOP.  From social conservatives, to tea partiers, to traditional members of the base -- grassroots conservatives have had their Todd Akin moments, insulted fellow Republicans with the “R” word (RINO), and, granted, some talk radio hosts stir the pot and gin up the crowds.

But the transgressions of the grassroots and those of the Republican establishment are not equal:  the base doesn’t have the power, the money, the access to media, or the influence to set the course. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the hostility and condescension leveled at the Tea Party by too many in the GOP.     

Yet, tea partiers, social conservatives, libertarians, and the Republican base invariably vote for Republican candidates they often don’t approve of because they understand the long game. But these folks really don’t have a seat at the table, do they? And occasionally, when they do break through the glass ceiling of party politics, they are expected to toe the party line and are publicly shunned when they don’t. Consider Ted Cruz.

Disagreement is not anathema to conservatives and Republicans -- it’s part of that Jeffersonian marketplace of ideas. But those disagreements should be kept behind closed doors. Democrats rarely, if ever, speak ill of one another. Has Nancy Pelosi ever called Joe Manchin a traitor on the environment? Has Manchin ever labeled her the extremist she is? In fact, they rally around each other no matter the lies, corruption, or cheating.   

But when powerful Republicans use the same tactics as Democrats -- intimating that fellow Republicans are “racists” because of their views on immigration; implying that they are “haters,” “intolerant,” or “homophobic” because of their views on abortion or marriage; calling them “radicals” or “wacko birds” when they stand on principle even if it is not the preferred middle ground of moderates or mavens -- it breeds resentment, disaffection, and malaise. 

This requires a change in attitude towards the grassroots by party elites, leaders, and power brokers. The grassroots will come through, but they have to have a seat at the table, and their candidates must be treated with respect.      

The conservative grassroots is comprised of Tea Party activists, social conservatives, some libertarians, some independents, and the Republican base. Traditionally, the Republican base supports GOP policies and candidates no matter what, but that has changed in the last 6-8 years primarily because (1) the Tea Party has demanded that candidates adhere more closely to conservative principles and the constitution; (2) the patent push for moderation -- especially on social issues and immigration -- has forced many party loyalists to speak out against leadership and candidates; and (3) party leadership at the national level, particularly in Congress, has disappointed the base by failing to promote, explain, and defend conservative principles and policies presumably out of fear of recriminations from the left. The base wants the leadership to be proudly conservative and not always seek the compromise position, which they believe has contributed to the mess we are in economically, militarily, and culturally.  

These are the people the GOP is losing. 

Is their aversion to moderation misguided? Should Republicans promote moderates in liberal venues like California? Many of the string pullers in the California Republican Party and their carefully-placed adherents in the central committees certainly think so. So does Michael Medved, who recently suggested in his Commentary article, “Open Up That Golden Gate” that California’s Republicans would be wise to replicate the strategy of Arnold Schwartzenegger -- the last GOP candidate to win a gubernatorial race in California -- who won votes across all demographics and parties by running as a moderate: 

What drove his remarkable success as a California candidate for office, and what lessons could Republicans take away for seizing the Golden State’s golden key to future national victories? Schwarzenegger swept his state because he portrayed himself as precisely the sort of nonpartisan, independent-minded, pragmatic problem-solver California voters have always preferred. Among the 44 percent of 2006 voters who described themselves as “moderate,” the governor won by 20 points (58 to 38 percent); with the 25 percent who identified as “independent,” he prevailed by an even more lopsided margin of 59 to 33 percent.  [Italics added.]

Schwartzenegger is probably more of an anomaly-outlier than a moderate role-model with a winning strategy to be duplicated. His popularity among conservatives dwindled dramatically after he put four propositions on the ballot in November 2005 that were voted down because of his ineptitude in making the case for them, which was followed by his political nervous breakdown that resulted in Arnold governing like a Kennedy. Conservatives voted for his second term in 2006 out of party loyalty and nothing else -- he was considered an abysmal failure and traitor even by those instrumental in the recall and his recruitment. 

The Governator is hardly an example of a moderate Republicanism we should emulate. Nor is Meg Whitman, whose liberal stance on social issues, immigration, and the environment left her with scant support from grassroots conservatives when she ran for governor in 2010. Neel Kashkari is the third iteration of a moderate Republican seeking the California governorship. This time, we’re told, it’s different because he is a charismatic, highly-educated Hindu who worked for GWB and voted for Obama.

If this new type of Republican does not prevail, can we finally bury the call for moderation and accept that sacrificing committed votes from the grassroots for potential votes from independents is probably a wash, doesn’t guarantee a win, and is not the way forward?  

If Neel Kashkari and a host of statewide moderates prevail, I would concede that this could very well mark a turning point for Blue California and might offer battleground states with similar demographics a winnable strategy. This is a viable solution only if we take a page from Nancy Pelosi’s playbook. In 2006, she ran a pack of blue dogs, got them elected in conservative districts, then bludgeoned them with her liberal gavel, dealing out KP and latrine duty to those who didn’t toe the party line, rewarding those who did with cushy positions, and vowing not to fund anyone for re-election who did not vote with her.    

If Republicans can get moderates elected in liberal districts, then “persuade” them to govern like blood-red conservatives, I’d say let it rip. At this point, however, all we can do is wait and see what happens to the third moderate canary being sent in to test the air in California’s electoral coal mine. If past is prologue, I’m not holding my breath and I don’t think the canary can either.         

Conservative gains in 2010 were invigorating. The presidential loss in 2012 dispiriting. That is the ebb and flow of politics. Many took a hiatus after the Romney defeat.  For those who haven’t come back, it isn’t because of the 2012 hangover. What knocked the wind out of the sails of so many conservatives is the insistence on Republicanism-lite from the establishment and the concomitant antipathy towards social conservatives, Tea Partiers, and members of the Republican base who advocate for more, not less conservatism -- the very people GOP leadership is asking to open their wallets and clear their calendars.   

What is it they say about the best-laid plans? They often go awry.

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