Friday, December 9, 2011

The Gravitational Pull of Movement Conservatism in the Republican Party

I’ve commented before on how Democrats’ decision to position themselves for the next election as egalitarian populists is raising the ideological stakes in the next election. Substantially the same thing is happening within the Republican Party. Remember the Paul Ryan budget that a Republican House passed last April to show the nation that it means business when it comes to getting a handle on unfunded entitlement liabilities? Suddenly, the Romney camp is doing its best to make sure that Republican primary voters don’t forget it. Take a look at its latest campaign spot:

Let’s take a step back and contemplate a little recent history. House Republicans passed the Ryan budget, with its draconian spending cuts and its proposal to change Medicare from a fee-for-service to a premium-support program, as an act of ideological solidarity with the Tea Party movement. At the time, Democrats couldn’t believe their good fortune. Republicans were enabling them to recover the support of seniors who’d defected from the Democratic coalition in the 2010 election. Pretty soon, you couldn’t help seeing Democratic videos about pushing granny off a cliff. Those spots helped Democrats win a special congressional election in upstate New York in a reliably Republican district early in the summer.

Recognizing that their party had let ideological zeal get the better of it, cooler Republican heads decided that the less said about the Ryan budget the better. Lucky for them, the nation was turning its attention to negotiations over raising the debt ceiling which would make the Ryan budget irrelevant as a governing document. Better still, the Republican Party would soon be turning its attention to selecting a presidential nominee. Ryan’s decision not to run for president guaranteed that someone else would soon become the party’s voice on budgetary issues. That gave the Republicans a welcome opportunity to pivot away from the less popular aspects of the Ryan budget.

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were the two Republican presidential candidates that worked hardest to preserve their room for maneuver in this respect. In June, Romney expressed his admiration for Ryan’s clear-headedness and political courage, but made sure Republican insiders knew that, discretion being the better part of valor, he’d be proposing his own budgetary plan later in the fall that would be calibrated to win a presidential general election. When he insinuated that Ryan was a right wing social engineer, Newt Gingrich was sending substantially the same signal.

So now that the GOP presidential field has been winnowed down to Romney and Gingrich, you might have thought that the Ryan budget would be ancient history. But here’s Romney, the candidate of the Republican Party’s moderate wing, bringing it up to get to the right of Gingrich, the candidate of the party’s conservative wing. What happened?

It’s probably partly a matter of the Ryan budget looking a little less radical to establishment Republicans than it did last June in light of a credit downgrade of U.S. treasuries and the debt crisis within the European Union. But Romney's embrace of the Ryan budget testifies to the gravitational pull of movement conservatism on the ideology of the Republican Party. It's steering Romney to a position that's drastically to the right of any he even threatened to take four years ago when was trying, unsuccessfully, to impersonate a movement conservative on the presidential campaign trail.  And gravitational attraction will probably soon have Gingrich confessing that (along with pushing climate-change legislation along with Nancy Pelosi) dissing Ryan was another of his "biggest mistake[s]."

All of this is yet another sign that the next election will be an ideological extravaganza.

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