Noemie Emery: Why can't conservative candidates win Republican presidential primaries?

An unsparing piece keying off the same Rick Perry soundbite at CPAC that inspired this post. Perry said that it’s unfair to blame conservatism for the GOP’s losses in 2008 and 2012 because, after all, our nominees weren’t conservative. Emery’s response: Then why did Republican primary voters vote for them instead of for a solid conservative like, say, Rick Perry?

Her answer? Between Reagan’s generation and the current crop of Rubio, Scott Walker, etc, there simply haven’t been many good conservative candidates.

Instead, against establishment types who were national figures, the conservative movement flung preachers and pundits (Pat Robertson, Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan), has-beens and losers (New Gingrich and Rick Santorum), and others still worse (Herman Cain, for example), who on second thought lost even conservative primary voters.

To deny all this reality, some movement types invented a conspiracy theory. The Establishment met at the Country Club on alternate Tuesdays to undermine all the upcoming Reagans (who sadly enough never existed). This is untrue, and it keeps these movement types from facing the real problem — the failure of the conservative movement to find and develop successors to Reagan over the space of the past 20 years…

When things worked less well for conservatives who lacked Reagan’s luck and his genius, they decided their failure was explainable only by sabotage — after all, how else could they lose? On the way, the Right developed a sense of entitlement (the Republican Party owed them a nominee of their liking); an embrace of victimhood; a habit of translating their tactical failure to win over more voters into a moral failure on the part of those voters for not sensing their value; and a belief that they can manage to win more elections by purging all factions (and people) not wholly in sync with their views.

This isn’t the outlook with which Reagan won landslides. The GOP owes conservatives nothing beyond a chance and a hearing. The onus is on them to win over the voters. They are victims of nothing beyond their own much-too-high self-esteem.

Usually it’s “Beltway cocktail parties,” not the country club, where the establishment’s assumed to be plotting, but otherwise fair enough. Two things, though. First, conspiracies aside, surely no one doubts that the GOP’s consultant and donor class trends a bit more centrist than the base. I saw an article about that somewhere just the other day vis-a-vis gay marriage: Many socially conservative grassroots Republicans remain firmly opposed, but there’s widespread (if often quiet) support for legalized SSM among Republicans on the Hill and in other corridors of power. Go figure that that more centrist professional class would gravitate towards centrist candidates like Romney in the primary and bring their money and electoral expertise with them. Karl Rove, the mastermind of “compassionate conservatism,” is building a group right now that’s designed to head off ostensibly unelectable conservative insurgents in House and Senate primaries. Emery’s right about the quality of candidates on the right in presidential races lately, but let’s be fair: They’re swimming upstream against a centrist tide among party power-brokers.

Two: Because Obama was such a political and cultural phenomenon in 2008, and because the country’s Bush fatigue was so profound, I think GOP voters that year put a premium on “electability” in choosing McCain. That premium then carried over to 2012 because, although Hopenchange wasn’t the juggernaut that it was four years earlier, Obama was still an incumbent president with a fearsomely formidable organization. With no well known, charismatic conservative hero on the order of Reagan to captivate Republicans, some GOP voters figured that a moderate nominee with centrist cred was their best bet to steal some independents from O. 2016 should be different because, by almost universal acclaim, the quality of conservatives in the field will be solid: Rubio, Paul, Jindal, maybe Ryan. They’re all electable in theory, or at least more electable than righties in the classes of 2008 and 2012.

That’s when we’ll get an answer to a question that Emery suggests in her piece but doesn’t explore: Namely, were Reagan’s victories in 1980 and 1984 due more to the movement or more to the man? You often hear O’s critics claim his current majority is more about the man himself than the product of a broader ideological realignment; once he leaves office, the theory goes, Democrats will have difficulty replicating the heavy turnout he generated among young voters, minorities, and liberals. It’s his unique gifts and singular identity as a politician — and weak opponents, natch — that have led him to two terms. Was the same true of Reagan, though? It can’t be true entirely: The GOP won three of the next five elections after Reagan left office, so there was obviously some sort of movement behind him. But of course, as any grassroots conservative will happily tell you, the Bushes’ claim to the label “conservative” was always … problematic. The next primary might well produce the most conservative nominee since Reagan, and he might well have to face a much, much more difficult opponent in Hillary than Reagan did in a failed, flailing Jimmy Carter. That’ll be a real test of Emery’s theory.

Update: Lots of commenters are pointing to a primary system that starts with Iowa and New Hampshire instead of, say, Texas and South Carolina. Fair point. That would definitely boost more conservative candidates right out of the box, although Perry’s point at CPAC is that conservatives can win even national majorities if given the chance. There’s no reason in theory they can’t win among Republicans in IA and NH too, even if they lean a bit further toward the center. (Actually, Iowa Republicans are famous for leaning further to the right on social issues than the GOP electorate nationally. That’s how Huckabee and Santorum managed to win in 2008 and 2012, respectively. And the early boost didn’t help them to the nominations.)

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