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Why GOP reformers are bound to fail
Wonkish Republicans are moving in a more moderate direction. But the conservative base is staying right where it is.
 
It's a nice idea and all...
It's a nice idea and all... (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Have you heard about the "reformicons"?

They're a group of center-right writers and policy wonks who hope to coax the Republican Party away from its recent addiction to ideological extremism, tactical brinksmanship, and a do-nothing/know-nothing approach to governing. They have interesting, smart proposals for reforming tax policy, health policy, education policy, welfare policy, energy policy, family policy, and labor policy (though, strangely, nothing at all to say about foreign policy). And over the past few months, some of the men contemplating a run for the White House in 2016 (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and, as of last week, Paul Ryan) have begun to embrace their ideas — or rather to propose ideas of their own that seem to be broadly harmonious with the "conservative governing vision" held out by the reformers.

It would be very good for the reformicons to have a substantive influence on the GOP. I admire their efforts. I wish them the best of luck.

But they are bound to fail. At least in the near term.

Why? Because the base of the Republican Party — the voters who will turn out at the polls for the midterm elections this November and then decide on the party's nominee for president in 2016 — isn't clamoring for the reform of job-licensing requirements. They (or two thirds of them) don't support impeaching President Obama because they're dying for health-care reform based on targeted tax credits. They (or three quarters of them) don't support House Speaker John Boehner's lawsuit against the president because they're furious at the White House for failing to offer enough anti-poverty block grants to the states.

The base of the Republican Party doesn't particularly care about policy — unless the policy is tax cuts. Or policing the border, kicking out undocumented immigrants, and sending them dirty underwear.

From the moment Barack Obama took the oath of office, the base of the Republican Party has been gripped by a form of political psychosis, doing furious battle with ideological phantoms of its own creation, motivated by racial resentments and status anxieties that were once limited to marginal right-wing groups, but that thanks to tireless efforts of talk radio and Fox News now infect the minds of many millions of voters.

Among the most pernicious and self-destructive of these fantasies is the belief that the GOP lost to Obama in 2008 and 2012 because it nominated "Republicans In Name Only" (RINOs). If only the party had gone with a "true conservative" instead of the professional centrist John McCain and ObamaCare-architect Mitt Romney, the party would have won in a landslide.

There's no empirical basis for rejecting the median voter theorem and supposing, instead, that the number of far-right voters surpasses the number of those in the ideological center. But no matter: A lot of grassroots Republicans believe it, and so a number of Republican politicians (foremost among them Frank Underwood — oh, sorry, I mean Ted Cruz) accordingly treat it as cross between divine revelation and a self-evident truth.

As long as the Republican base and its would-be electoral champions use the RINO charge to police GOP ranks, there will be a strong incentive for presidential candidates to avoid embracing too much of the reformicon agenda — which in its details can sound an awful lot like ideas for, you know, reforming government rather than just cutting, slashing, and gutting it. Nothing could be more RINO, after all, than failing to see that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

But that doesn't mean reformicon hopes are entirely misplaced. It's just that reform is likely to take quite a bit longer than they seem to expect.

How long? As long as it takes for the party to nominate a genuine right-wing radical — and then watch him go down to defeat in a landslide to rival Goldwater in 1964 (38.5 percent) or McGovern in 1972 (37.5 percent). Only that kind of blowout will exorcize the demons that have taken hold of the Republican soul in recent years.

Believe me, I don't relish this scenario playing itself out. The country would benefit immensely from the GOP waking up from its fever dreams. But getting there could be risky. In a two-person race, even a loony candidate has a chance of winning. Hillary Clinton will be a strong contender for the White House in 2016, but with Obama's consistently soft approval ratings, world order falling to pieces on his watch, and the Senate in jeopardy of falling into Republican hands this November, she isn't likely to be a shoo-in.

Still, the best chance for genuine Republican reform will be for the party to nominate a firebrand who gets roundly and unambiguously repudiated by voters. That defeat, coming after two previous ones, just might provoke genuine soul searching, and a dawning awareness that the GOP has gone down a dead end and can only find its way out by a dramatic change of direction. Think of liberals nominating New Democrat Bill Clinton after losing with Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael "Card-Carrying Member of the ACLU" Dukakis. Or Tony "Third Way" Blair leading the U.K.'s Labour Party to victory after 15 years in the wilderness under the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Sometimes a political party needs to get knocked upside the head before it can come back to its collective senses.

That's what I'll be waiting for — and what the reformicons have no choice but to hope for.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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