Green Room

Republicans (and Ramesh Ponnuru) lose way by misreading Bush era

posted at 3:29 pm on November 16, 2011 by

The latest Bloomberg column from Ramesh Ponnuru argues that the GOP continues to make mistakes because they misdiagnose the party’s failures as stemming from a failure to be sufficiently conservative. He concedes Bush-era Republicans did spend too much and benefitted in 2010 from rejecting the Obama agenda. However:

Republicans were more popular in Bush’s first term, when they were expanding entitlements, than in his second term, when they were trying to reform one (Social Security). For most of the second term, they exercised more spending restraint than they had done in the first term — and again, there was no evidence it helped them politically.


If Republican overspending drove voters away, they should have lost support first among conservatives. But there was no sign of a demoralized base in 2006. Exit polls found that self- identified Republicans made up a healthy 36 percent of the electorate that year, and they voted for the party’s candidates by roughly the same huge margin they had voted for them in the banner Republican year of 2004. It was among independent voters that Republicans got slaughtered. (House Republicans lost independents by three points in 2004, but 18 points in 2006.)

It seems much more likely that Republicans lost in 2006 because of the bleeding in Iraq, corruption in Washington, wage stagnation and the lack of any agenda by the party to do anything about these or other problems. Some of these issues had faded in importance by 2008, but in that year voters were also ready for a change after eight years of Republican control of the White House and, above all, dismayed by the economic crisis. In 2008, 60 percent of voters said the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, wasn’t “in touch with people like them” — and 79 percent of people who felt that way voted against him. That’s what defeated Republicans, not a perception that they were doctrinally impure.

Ponnuru concludes:

Republicans had nothing to say about wage stagnation then and are saying nothing about it now. The real cost of Republicans’ fixation on ideological purity is that it distracts them from their real problems, and the nation’s.

I like to talk and write about policy. I agree that the GOP does not focus on policy as much as it should. But Ponnuru’s conclusion does not follow from his argument.

Rather, what Ponnuru establishes is that a weakly recovering economy, an unpopular war, perceived corruption and the perception of incompetence (both in Iraq and after Hurricane Katrina, both not fully deserved) produced a Democratic Congress in 2006. And since we’re discussing ideology, Rahm Emanuel’s recruitment of more moderate candidates may have been a factor as well. Aside from the Bush Doctrine, Republican policy — or the lack thereof — was not a major factor, if it was a factor at all.

Similarly, what Ponnuru establishes is that having Wall Street melt down at the start of the 2008 general election as the economy was already headed into a recession was an obviously bad thing for the party holding the White House. If the election had to do with policy, voters might have credited McCain for pushing the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act in 2005 to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and require more stringent regulation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while Barack Obama — who did nothing — was on his way to becoming a top recipient of of donations from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Wall Street firms enmeshed in the subprime mortgage mess. Indeed, at the outset of 2008, McCain was closer to where most voters saw themselves ideologically, relative to Obama. None of that mattered. The fact that 47.4% of voters did not think McCain was in touch with them is what you would expect in any year where the Democrat won. Voters’ 401(k) plans rapidly evaporating? That mattered.

As for the independent vote, there are a great number of myths about it:

It’s true that independents are a diverse group. But that’s mostly because the large majority of independents are independents in name only. Research by political scientists on the American electorate has consistently found that the large majority of self-identified independents are “closet partisans” who think and vote much like other partisans. Independent Democrats and independent Republicans have little in common. Moreover, independents with no party preference have a lower rate of turnout than those who lean toward a party and typically make up less than 10% of the electorate. Finally, independents don’t necessarily determine the outcomes of presidential elections; in fact, in all three closely contested presidential elections since 1972, the candidate backed by most independent voters lost.

I would suggest that last phenomenon has to do with closet partisans shifting in and out of official affiliation with the party to which they lean. After Watergate, Democrat leaners felt comfortable identifying as Democrats, while GOP leaners preferred to call themselves independent. Despite Clinton’s impeachment, Democrats did not feel greatly disaffiliated from the party label with Clinton leaving in 2000. In the first post-9/11 election, Republican leaners felt more comfortable officially identifying as GOP; thus, “independents” likely skewed towards liberals unhappy with the Democrats as an institution. The smaller segment of true independents are probably the least likely to know about, let alone be swayed by specific policy proposals beyond generalities (“tax cuts,” “health care reform,” etc.). Pure independents are the group most likely to vote on the state of the economy.

Ponnuru compares the independent vote in 2004 and 2006; I could as easily note the Dems had an 8% advantage with indies in 2008, only to lose them by 19% in 2010. That swing was not the result of GOP policy proposals. To the extent policy mattered, it was voters in a midterm election (where the base turnout is more of a factor) rejecting Democratic policy. Independents likely skewed rightward after the 2008 election loss; true indies were likely expressing their displeasure over economic stagnation.

Again, I like talking and writing about policy. But most voters vote party, with true swing voters largely voting on the presence or absence of peace and prospertity. To a carpenter, every problem is a nail. To a wonk, every problem is a policy debate. While I would like to see more emphasis on policy from the GOP, we should not pretend that it matters much more than ideological purity does in the voting booth.

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Well, an interesting take. I find Ponnuru off base for a different reason: his argument ignores the intransigence of the US debt problem. He can’t really think Republicans should run on more entitlements and spending, because that seemed popular, according to the Ponnuru reading, in Bush’s first term.

If Republicans are going to cater to the hallucination that we can just keep spending, because there’s a demographic it’s popular with, then there is no reason to elect Republicans at all. Just elect Democrats. And get off the sinking ship while you still can.

J.E. Dyer on November 16, 2011 at 11:19 PM

If Republicans are going to cater to the hallucination that we can just keep spending, because there’s a demographic it’s popular with, then there is no reason to elect Republicans at all. Just elect Democrats. And get off the sinking ship while you still can.

J.E. Dyer on November 16, 2011 at 11:19 PM

How come I am lambasted and ridiculed to no end when I say this?

gryphon202 on November 16, 2011 at 11:22 PM

How come I am lambasted and ridiculed to no end when I say this?

gryphon202 on November 16, 2011 at 11:22 PM

Because Mitt Romney is awesome! Or something.

uknowmorethanme on November 17, 2011 at 9:13 AM