On balance the Republican “establishment” has done fairly well this primary season. Its favored candidate in the Nebraska Senate race lost, and of course Eric Cantor went down to defeat, but Thad Cochran, Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell all hung on. So, all is right in the world, right?
It is important to differentiate the candidates challenging the establishment from the voters backing those challengers. The candidates are either amateurs with no political background or upstarts who refuse to wait their place in line. They often have fewer funds, employ less experienced consultants, and lack the personal assets necessary to campaign effectively. Occasionally, a virtuoso rock star like Marco Rubio emerges, but the typical insurgent is lucky just to know how to hold the guitar.
And yet they have been giving the establishment fits and starts. Cantor lost. Cochran almost lost. McConnell hung on, but had to hustle. And Graham finished with less than 60 percent of the vote despite having worked every angle he could for years.
Establishment politicos often act superciliously toward these challengers, but in so doing they are missing a profound point: The Republican electorate is exceedingly angry and frustrated with their leadership. The fact that these second- or third-raters can give established leaders such a scare is proof positive. The party’s leadership can snicker at these challengers all it wants, but it had better understand that its own voters are so fed up with them that they are using these deeply flawed candidates to send them a message.
And if they do not change their ways, they will eventually face credible threats. After all, elections are governed by the law of supply and demand. If a critical mass of primary voters demand quality candidates to challenge the establishment, sooner or later such candidates will appear.
Take the case of Mississippi’s Senate runoff. It was a classic establishment versus challenger dynamic. The former, Cochran, used the expansive resources at his disposal to shore up his voting coalition after the primary. The latter, Chris McDaniel, was a firebrand who did not try to expand his coalition before the runoff, and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Even so, Cochran still needed Mississippi Democrats to push him over the edge, just barely.
In politics, of course, a win is a win is a win. Even so, Cochran supporters inside and outside Mississippi should be asking themselves: is it really a sustainable strategy over the long haul to rely on Democratic votes in a GOP primary? Of course it isn’t. The party elite had better take a close look at that 47-49 percent of the party electorate that voted against Cochran at least once, figure out what has them so riled up, and then do something about it. Otherwise, sooner or later, they will be bounced from power as candidates with more polish than McDaniel emerge to challenge them. Imagine if Marco Rubio had been from Mississippi; he would have routed Cochran this week.
Too often, Republican establishment types seem to have an exactly backward assumption about their place in politics. They seem to think that their core voters are the problem – that if only they would sit down and shut up, the leadership could steer the party to victory in November. Wrong. In fact, the establishment’s primary season struggle is a leading indicator of its general election weaknesses. Sure, primary voters are more conservative than general election voters, but both perceive the same malady, which is not reducible to a left-right distinction: the Republican party says one thing to get elected, then does another once elected. It pledges on the campaign trail to reduce the scope of government, but in Washington, D.C. it perpetuates the Leviathan, often in support of well-heeled interest groups.
Cochran is a classic example of the disconnect. He has been in the Senate for nearly forty years. To what lasting conservative triumph is his name attached? I cannot think of any, nor can I think of any fight against the liberal agenda in which he was a crucial ally. Instead, his claim to fame – as he proudly advertised during the campaign – was leveraging his seniority to steer government largesse to Mississippi. Compare his record with the preamble to the 2012 GOP platform:
This platform affirms that America has always been a place of grand dreams and even grander realities; and so it will be again, if we return government to its proper role, making it smaller and smarter. If we restructure government’s most important domestic programs to avoid their fiscal collapse. If we keep taxation, litigation, and regulation to a minimum. If we celebrate success, entrepreneurship, and innovation. If we lift up the middle class. If we hand over to the next generation a legacy of growth and prosperity, rather than entitlements and indebtedness.
Every Republican candidate can cite a version of this by heart; it has been the gist of the party’s message for nearly 80 years. Yet Cochran is not in D.C. to fulfill these promises. His purpose is to perpetuate what Theodore Lowi once called “interest group liberalism.” He is the modern equivalent of the Gilded Age spoilsman; he parcels federal resources to well-placed factions that, in turn, help secure his reelection. This runs directly contrary to what the Republican party promises to do.
The problem for the Republican party writ large is that the Cochran-type does not seem like an outlier. People do not see the GOP as a party out to make the government “smaller and smarter,” to “celebrate success, entrepreneurship, and innovation.” They certainly do not see think it is trying to “lift up the middle class.” They see a party that perpetuates and expands government as it suits them, often to the benefit of the well-heeled interest groups that have descended upon the nation’s capital.
The party’s leaders need to ask themselves: if their purpose is to perpetuate interest group liberalism, why should anybody vote for them? There is already a party whose central purpose is to carve up the federal pie for its clients/voters. It is called the Democratic party, and nobody does interest group liberalism better than it does.