Are Republicans Leaning Left — Or Just Getting Smart?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at RealClearPolitics, Bill Scher is out with a column arguing that “Republican candidates in the year’s most competitive Senate races have begun their fall sprint to Election Day, not by embracing Tea Party-fueled conservatism but by defensively tacking leftward.”

Scher cites several recent moves by Republican Senate candidates (Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, and Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan), some of which are more easily explainable than others. But, for the sake of argument, let’s drop the caveats and just assume his description is 100 percent accurate.

There are several ways of interpreting this. Some have even speculated that Scher is pre-spinning us — that he is laying the groundwork for framing Republican victories in November as the result of Republicans running to the left.

But that’s not Scher’ style (disclosure: Scher and I co-host the DMZ show on Bloggingheads.TV). In fact, Scher is sort of complimenting Republicans for their political sagacity: “Credit these Republicans’ political skills for recognizing the need to resist ideological rigidity, and avoiding the pitfalls of 2012 goats Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock,” he writes.

I couldn’t agree more. And while I suppose some might suppose that this sort of campaigning foreshadows a future betrayal, that’s not what’s going on here. While I am opposed to Republicans running as conservatives — and then voting or governing as liberals — I’m not opposed to conservative candidates running smart campaigns. And it feels like that’s what is going on here.

To be sure, there are some ideas and policies so unsavory and antithetical to conservative values that no Republican should ever attempt to co-opt, even in order to win election. But there are plenty of ways that Republicans can downplay or shed their own unpopular positions (the ones that are easy for opponents to demagogue), stress mainstream conservative ideas — as well as populist appeals that aren’t inconsistent with their beliefs — and win.

Doing so is not “selling out,” but instead, smart politics.

But, Scher hints, in recent years, proving one’s conservative bona fides has become a game of chicken — where failing to put all your ideological cards on the table was tantamount to cowardice. Liberals and conservative outside groups and activists, alike, essentially “dared” conservative candidates to prove their masculinity and fearlessness, and then, having baited them into exposing their Achilles heel, the liberals destroyed them.

This is not to say that conservatism is unpopular or can no longer survive in the marketplace of ideas — or that conservatives must hide their beliefs in order to win elections. But no political party can long survive by allowing the other side to frame every election around the most unpopular aspects of their philosophy. Yet that’s what conservatives been complicit in allowing to happen.

Even if Conservative Candidate A lives in the political mainstream on 99 percent of the issues, Democrats will seize on any single politically unpopular position (whether or not it was something the Republican candidate could or would address in office) to which he holds. They will then exploit it — turning that one issue into “the most important issue in the campaign” — and transforming him into an unacceptable fringe candidate.

In this regard, the things Scher is picking up on might be a positive sign Republicans are learning that you don’t have to run for office with your ideas; you run for office because of your ideas.

I am once again reminded of conservative leader (and my friend and former boss) Morton Blackwell’s lecture about “The Real Nature of Politics,” comparing and contrasting Barry Goldwater’s failed run versus Reagan’s successful one:

“I can tell you from my personal experiences in the 1964 Goldwater campaign and in the 1980 Reagan campaign that there was one great difference between the approach to politics of the Goldwater supporters and the Reagan supporters 16 years later. The difference was that we Goldwater supporters tended to believe that being right, in the sense of being correct, was sufficient to win. We firmly believed that if we could prove we were right, if we could logically demonstrate that our candidate was of higher character and that his policies would be better for our country, somehow victory would fall to our deserving hands like a ripe fruit off of a tree. That’s not the real nature of politics.  I call that misconception the Sir Galahad theory:  “I will win because my heart is pure.” Do you know what was the most used slogan of the Goldwater campaign?  It was this:  “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Unfortunately the real world doesn’t work that way, as we who supported Goldwater found out when Lyndon Johnson trounced us.  Johnson got 41 million votes and Goldwater got 27 million votes.” [Bold mine.]

Goldwater lost and Reagan won — but that doesn’t mean Reagan was a RINO or a “squish.” Conservatives learned their lesson from the Goldwater campaign, and Reagan benefited from that maturation process. There were numerous factors involved, of course, but Reagan was much more likable — and his ideas  more appealing — as evidenced by the rise of “Reagan Democrats.”

I am hopeful, this is similar to what is going on on the conservative movement right now. The tea party movement, like the Goldwater movement, could be a necessary stage on the way to a more mature Reagan Revolution.

Now, I suspect some will criticize me for endorsing the notion that (gasp!) politicians sometimes must behave like politicians.

Let’s be honest, politics is unseemly business. The notion that politicians might want to downplay certain positions, feels scummy. The fact that politicians would parry questions, change the subject, and spin us is less than courageous. It’s more honorable (and fun) to tell it like it is — to answer any question — to lay it all out there and be utterly transparent. This is why I’m not a politician. That’s what they do. That’s what they must do.