Irradiated by LabRat
Howard Kurtz is SHOCKED AND HORRIFIED by how “puritan” the scary new Tea Party-influenced Republican party is. You know how bad it’s gotten? The people who will be sorting the primary candidates take them to task for unconservative past statements and positions. It’s like they’re some sort of lynch mob or something.
The more election seasons I go through the more I’m convinced that the people whose job it is to comment professionally on these things have themselves wheeled into a secret laboratory to have their memories wiped every year before the election, so that they may start completely afresh. Kurtz’s argument is that this year’s Republican party is uniquely stringent in applying “purity tests” to its candidates for ideology, insinuating it’s probably the the fault of those Tea Party rednecks. He makes a few attempts at acknowledging that history didn’t begin five minutes ago by acknowledging that it’s more or less normal for the primary process to be one of pleasing the ideological base, who often have unrealistic standards, but he falls flat when he (perfunctorily) tries to demonstrate why this year is unique.
He specifically mentions some positions of past Republican candidates both successful and un that would get their feet held hard to the fire this cycle, but he seems to have managed to forget that a)these same positions got their feet held to the fire then, too, and b)people’s attitudes and priorities, on both sides of the ideological divide, change over time. Yes, G.W. Bush’s “compassionate conservativism” pitch probably wouldn’t fly at all in 2012, but using this as an example both pretends that the conservative base were thrilled about W. in 2000 (I have the back National Review columns to show they decidedly were not) and that more than a few things haven’t changed since then.
Even for those for whom Red vs. Blue really is like being on a team and have a basket of team-endorsed opinions, which positions and platforms are more important and which are less so changes based on what they identify as the most immediately pressing issues. “Compassionate conservatism” was acceptable in 2000 because America was at peace and had a thriving economy; people had much more of a sense that there was money to go around without a serious sense of threat, ideologically questionable or not. Despite that his presidency later became defined by war, George W. Bush ran almost entirely on domestic and cultural issues, because that’s what people viewed as important at the time. (Ironically, as far as foreign policy went, he also heavily criticized Clinton and by extension Gore for foreign adventurism and nation-building.)
The other example he mentions, John McCain, would indeed be likely “nearly laughed off the stage” for his past positions on immigration- but he very nearly was in 2008, too. Remember, McCain was a dark horse candidate to come out of that primary- he was quite literally elected because he was hated by the least conservative factions, not because he was liked the most by any of them.
Kurtz does some lecturing on how governors usually have more checkered policy pasts than Congressmen and private individuals because they have to deal with real-world problems and can’t opt out of it or hide behind someone else’s vote, but the thing is that the Republican party knows this too, just like the Democratic party knows that a candidate who really could please all their factions in the primary is both highly unlikely to exist, and if they did, unlikely in the extreme to electable in the general.
This is why I can’t quite believe Kurtz was able to write this column with a straight face and suspect him of brainwashing; this is how the primary system works and how it has for decades. Candidates spend a cycle furiously pandering to their base and trying to convince them they’re ideological superheroes, and then whichever one survives turns right around and starts trying to take back everything they said for the general, because American politics is played between the thirty yard lines and real ideological hardliners don’t get elected. Everyone who follows politics and has the observational pattern-recognition skills of the average rhesus monkey knows this, and anyone who doesn’t is probably selling something- in this case, the notion that the Tea Party is causing some dangerous new radicalization to the Republican primary system.