A funny thing happened to the Republican Party on the way to the next election.
Conservatives have started expecting Republicans to actually do the conservative things they say they are going to do. When even the suspicion exists that a Republican politician is going to let them down, conservatives make their lives a living hell.
Consider the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has to worry even a little bit about primary challenger Matt Bevin. (Though maybe not too much, if the latest Republican poll is to be believed.) McConnell may not be the second coming of Robert Taft, but there are few obvious blemishes in his voting record from a mainline conservative perspective.
The reason McConnell’s challenger has even the faintest ray of hope? Some conservatives fear the Senate Republican leader won’t pull out all the stops to get rid of Obamacare. They worry that the secret Republican plan to repeal Obamacare McConnell has touted to credulous Washington journalists will turn out like Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam war.
Less than a decade ago, conservatives couldn’t successfully primary a Republican as liberal as Arlen Specter. Specter was out of step with the party base from A to Z, on everything from abortion to zero-based budgeting. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican senator who made Nelson Rockefeller look like Barry Goldwater, beat his conservative primary challenger two years later.
By 2010, Specter had to return to the Democratic Party. Charlie Crist followed him out the door. Republican incumbents with lifetime American Conservative Union ratings in excess of 75 percent, like Robert Bennett and Richard Lugar, were thrown out of office. Even Mitch McConnell has to look over his shoulder, hiring a guy who ran campaigns for Ron and Rand Paul to manage his own re-election bid.
Everyone from the mainstream media to the Republican establishment hates this. They think it is reckless. But there is a dirty little secret that provides some necessary context: Republicans frequently don’t keep their promises to conservatives.
Remember former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith? A great lumbering bear of a man, he was a conservative who reached this unhappy conclusion a decade before the tea party existed. He left the Republican Party to become an independent, but not before reading the party platform aloud from the Senate floor to point out how little of it the GOP Congress had actually tried to enact.
There was no effort to abolish the Departments of Energy, Education, Commerce or Housing and Urban Development, Smith observed. No attempt to defund the Legal Services Corporation or the National Endowment for the Arts.
Think of those last two budget items in the context of today’s Obamacare defunding debate. The NEA and Legal Services Corporation are two tiny expenditures. Between the two of them, they don’t cost Uncle Sam $1 billion a year. Among their direct beneficiaries are lawyers and people who soak crucifixes in jars of urine, not uninsured kids with cancer.
If you can’t defund the Legal Services Corporation or NEA, how can you hope to defund Obamacare?