The Republican establishment relies on a consultant class whose gut instincts tell them how to win elections that happened thirty years ago, while the Tea Party insurgency that proven no better (and in some ways worse) at winning over the median voter.
A Republican establishment that could work with public opinion specialists, policy experts, and media strategists to reach the median voter would deserve some deference from the party’s grassroots. That is not what the institutional Republican party and its Super PAC auxiliaries have been doing. Karl Rove’s Crossroads group raised over 300 million dollars to defeat President Obama. That money was not used to describe how Obama continues to lie about his record of voting against legal protections for newborn babies who survived abortions. Crossroads instead funded an ad in which affluent and confused-sounding white business owners made vague complaints of being overtaxed.
The Tea Party has failed to provide an alternative. Take the recent Virginia gubernatorial race: The big story to come out of an article in Campaigns and Elections was the finding that Virginia Republicans would have done better to go after Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s abortion extremism. This finding is an indictment of the intellectual weakness of the Republican establishment that funded the futile anti-Obama campaign of 2012, but it is also an indictment of the organizational and cultural weakness of the conservative insurgents. The establishment did not want to fund Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli (and they didn’t know how to help him even if they had been so inclined), but where were the Republican insurgents to help this staunch pro-lifer and articulate opponent of Obamacare? Where were the insurgent organizations running ads on McAuliffe’s abortion extremism? The story is not that the establishment did not come through for conservatives. The story is that conservatives to the right of the establishment do not have an infrastructure and culture of fundraising capable of raising large sums outside of the establishment donor networks. Conservative insurgents don’t have what it takes to produce the funding surges that candidates like Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Elizabeth Warren have gotten from the left-wing grassroots.
Those who are to the right of the Republican establishment have reason to be reluctant to give. Some of the candidates who enthused the grassroots turned out to be con men like Herman Cain who are just trying to advance their careers in the entertainment industry. Some are earnest politicians like Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, and Joe Miller who lack any sense of the political priorities of the median voter. The result is that the conservative grassroots has alternated between the triumphalism (in 2010) of believing that America has rejected liberalism (2010) to the despair of thinking that “takers” have become the majority (2012). In both triumph and despair, the grassroots lacked sufficient infrastructure and a strategy. The grassroots is able to launch primary challenges against Republican office holders who are found wanting, but they haven’t been able to find a strategy that works in general elections where the campaigns are more expensive and (even more importantly) the median voter is not already a part of the Republican coalition. The grassroots culture of the left that has been able to raise vast sums outside of the established donor networks for candidates like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren does not (yet) have an equal on the Tea Party right.
It used to be better. There was a time when the institutional Republican party was ahead of the Democrats in funding and providing research for candidates, instead of being vastly outgunned by the opposition. Conservative organizations focused on defeating liberal Democrats like Frank Church and Birch Bayh rather than issuing semi-yearly threats of excommunication to Republican office holders over the most recent tactical disagreement. The right had entrepreneurial conviction politicians like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and the younger Newt Gingrich who were eager to reach out to new constituencies and who were able to make use of media strategists like Michael Deaver who had an instinctive understanding of the contemporary media environment.
The right still has some conviction politicians, but too many, like Sharron Angle, seem unable to even imagine the worldviews of those outside the conservative base. The closest thing to those entrepreneurial conservatives is Senator Mike Lee with his proposals to cut taxes for working-class families and make it faster and easier for workers to improve their skills in order to get better jobs. The closest thing to the Mike Deavers of today are not media consultants, but policy intellectuals like Yuval Levin and James Capretta who are producing a framework to help conservatives think about how to respond to contemporary public worries about wage stagnation and health insurance coverage. The pages of National Affairs are a better guide to our changing political environment than reports from the Republican National Committee.
The leadership for a more effective conservative grassroots is small, but it exists. What it is lacking is an infrastructure to pool the resources of grassroots conservatives and a culture that can link conservatives together to help candidates who adopt a reformist agenda to defeat their liberal opponents in the general electionit is missing outside the Republican establishment just as much as it is missing inside it.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things . His previous columns can be found here .