Those likely gains would seem to be good news for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.). But the prospects of Paul, Angle and other “true believers” in the Senate will almost certainly make it more difficult for McConnell to assert the rigid voting discipline that GOP strategists credit with bringing Republicans back from the brink of political extinction over the past 18 months…
It’s worth noting that GOP moderates — a dying breed in recent years — are likely to get reinforcements of their own. Reps. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Mike Castle (Del.) built voting records in the House that placed them squarely at the center of that chamber, and it’s hard to see much changing if they are elected to the Senate. They would join the likes of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and, increasingly, Scott Brown of Massachusetts in forming a legitimate — and powerful — moderate wing in the world’s greatest deliberative body.
“The role of ‘moderates’ will face extinction,” predicted one leading GOP moderate, referring to the impact of Paul and other tea partiers being elected.
On many issues, such as guns, taxes, and immigration, Southern and Western conservatives come out in the same place. They get there, however, by different means. The fundamental distinction is between a politics based on social and cultural issues and one based on economics. Southern conservatives care about government’s moral stance but don’t mind when it spends freely on behalf of their constituents. Western conservatives, by contrast, are soft-libertarians who want government out of people’s way on principle. Southern Republicans are guided by the Bible. Western Republicans read the Constitution. Seen in historical terms, it’s the difference between a movement descended from George Wallace and one that harks back to Barry Goldwater.
The GOP’s Western tone of recent months summons the ghosts of Goldwater’s disastrous but transformational presidential campaign of 1964. Goldwater didn’t care about religion—he was a Jewish Episcopalian who once said that Jerry Falwell deserved a kick in the nuts. He wasn’t focused on racial politics—there aren’t many black people in Arizona. What mattered to him was limiting government and preserving liberty. To Goldwater, political freedom was inseparable from economic freedom, a view distilled in his most famous phrase, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” To call this politics Western is a matter of its Bonanza style as well as its anti-statist substance. Goldwater boasted a Navajo tattoo and liked flying planes, shooting guns, and playing the tables in Las Vegas. Western conservatism succeeded on a national scale when Ronald Reagan kept the cowboy look while easing up on Goldwater’s honorable, self-defeating consistency…
Palin and Beck are terrific entertainers and the Tea Party is a great show, all of which has made the conservative movement fun to watch lately. But cowboy-style constitutional fundamentalism is unlikely to prove a winning philosophy for Republicans beyond 2010. For that, they need a conservatism that hasn’t been in evidence lately—a version that’s not Western or Southern, but instead tolerant, moderate, and mainstream.