The Difference Between Ideology and Partisanship

The blogosphere has been abuzz with the strange case of David Frum, who just got canned from his cozy sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute, probably the second-most-important think tank on the right (after the Heritage Foundation).

Frum has an excellent conservative pedigree. He was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, among other things,  and he remains extremely conservative today. However, over the last year or so he has been making a name for himself as a reasonable conservative, one willing to call out the Republican Party when he thinks it's making a mistake. And that, apparently, is the problem. The last straw for AEI was apparently this post on Frum's blog, where he said, "Conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s," and went on to lay the blame at the all-or-nothing strategy employed by the GOP leadership.

Frum's crime was not an ideological one but a partisan one. Apparently, not only is it forbidden to question GOP strategy when it's still being executed, it's even forbidden to question it after it has already failed.

What this demonstrates is that the GOP's greatest strength can also become a serious weakness. They're incredibly good at creating and enforcing unity -- far better than Democrats ever have been or ever could be. This manifests itself in many ways. The most obvious is legislative: They managed to keep every single one of their members from voting for this health-care plan, in both houses of Congress, as they have in other situations. Individual members were called upon to denounce things they had embraced in the past (like an individual mandate) in the most venomous of terms, which they dutifully did. Even those alleged moderates like Olympia Snowe got pulled into line when the vote came.

Republicans also show extraordinary rhetorical unity: Once they decide on a name for something (e.g. renaming the estate tax "the death tax"), every single one of them gets with the program. They have an enforcement system for those who consider straying from the course, which can include things like Rush Limbaugh going after you, which will immediately result in a flood of angry calls to your office.

This means that the Republican message is almost always clear and unambiguous, while the Democratic message is often muddled by internal disagreement. And just try to get Democrats to all repeat the same talking points -- it can't be done. Meanwhile, their colleagues from across the aisle can be counted on to say the same things over and over and over.

The down side of this skill at keeping the troops in line is that it doesn't allow much room for introspection. You'd think that right now, Republicans would be taking a good hard look at the strategy they decided upon when dealing with the Obama administration -- outright, complete, and total opposition -- and having a debate about whether it was a mistake. Throughout the course of this debate, you saw the difference between adherence to progressive ideology and adherence to Democratic partisanship every day. There were disputes over the public option, for instance, and endless complaints about the strategy the White House was employing.

But I can't recall any conservatives yelling that their leadership was screwing things up -- even though they were employing an extremely high-risk strategy, one that turned out to be a disaster. Mitch McConnell has argued that by keeping a united front, they reduced public support for the bill, which therefore increases their chances of winning seats in November. But on the substantive question, they still lost, which if you're not just a Republican but an actual conservative, ought to be the most important thing. But I guess not.

-- Paul Waldman

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