The empty gestures of 'country over party' conservatives
Talk is cheap
Conservatives have a "country over party" problem.
Consider the case of Matthew Dowd, the political commentator and Republican strategist turned political independent who last week announced that he will not run for Senate in 2018. Dowd is a leader in the "country over party" crowd. And his decision to stay on the sidelines says a lot.
Over the past year, Dowd has emerged as one of Texas' more prominent conservative critics of both President Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, who will be running for re-election next year; over the past several months, Dowd has been calling for "independent, country over party leadership" and raising funds for an unspecified initiative to that effect. If he had run for Senate as an independent conservative, Evan McMullin-style, it would have been a real blow to Cruz, who has already drawn an unusually strong Democratic challenger, the charismatic young congressman from El Paso, Beto O'Rourke.
Dowd has his reasons for not running, surely, and it's his decision to make. But more broadly, for conservatives who identify as "country over party" people, does sitting on the sidelines count as a contribution to the cause?
In theory, "country over party" is a perfectly coherent position; in a more innocent era, we might add that the only odd thing about making such a statement is that there's any occasion to do so. And in practice, "country over party" conservatives aren't doing anything as bad as turning a blind eye toward the president's increasingly clear obstruction of justice. That distinguishes the "country over party" crowd from all too many of their Republican peers.
But it's not clear what they are doing, other than proclaiming themselves to be people of principle, in contrast to the Trumplicans — and also, in some cases, in contrast to the institutions that are making more active efforts to hold the administration accountable: Democrats, the judiciary, and the media.
Cynics would, of course, argue that virtue-signaling has always been the purpose of the movement, and its forerunner, #NeverTrump. (Remember how vocal the #NeverTrump crowd was on Twitter — and how impossible they found it to get anyone to carry their banner in the actual presidential race?) And it's fair to posit that in some cases, the cynical explanation is correct. Although none of us are mind readers, public-choice theory alone is sufficient to justify questions about the motives that lead to participation in high-profile, hash-tagged causes.
But that's not the case for Trump's more credible conservative critics. Republicans like Dowd — or ex-Republicans, in Dowd's case — opposed Trump consistently during the election, despite the GOP's collective efforts to browbeat everyone on the right into toeing the party line. "Unite To Win!" was the theme of Texas' state GOP convention last year. But by publicly rejecting the "binary choice" framework that so many Republican leaders deployed to rationalize their support for Trump, "country over party" conservatives helped create space for voters to do so, too. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried Texas by a roughly 16-point margin; in 2016, Trump whittled that margin to nine. Texas was closer than Iowa. Had more "country over party" conservatives spoken up in public, perhaps we, as a nation, wouldn't be in this predicament.
Instead, Trump won the election. The consequences are real. The stakes are high. We are, as a nation, in a predicament. We are, in fact, in precisely the kind of predicament that should compel conservatives to put their country over their party, if they weren't already predisposed to do so, for some reason.
That Republican lawmakers are still putting Trump first is of course bizarre, for a number of reasons, including Trump's manifest disinterest in the institution he commandeered last year. But if your stated position is "country over party," doing nothing doesn't really seem like enough. You can't just tweet and talk about impeachment, or the 25th Amendment. You have to act on that talk.
One way to do so is to remember that we have a two-party system. As a result, there's a simpler way for Republicans to repudiate the one that's gone off the rails, even if it happens to be their own. It's not a crime to cross the aisle, according to former Democrat Mike Pence. And there's no shame in doing so: If you're a Republican who leaves the party at this point, you're leaving a party that's already left you.