Fringe to Moderates: Fall in Line

November 16th, 2010 at 8:27 am David Frum | 25 Comments |

| Print

Primary politics and campaign finance allow small groups of highly committed voters to capture political parties and disenfranchise the middle. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Click here for part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.


The O’Donnell race in Delaware nicely symbolized the workings of political leverage at the extreme. No sooner had O’Donnell’s 30,000 supporters won her the nomination, than she turned to Republicans nationwide – including the party organizations she had scorned throughout her campaign – to demand money and expertise. But it’s a tough question: If you make it clear through your nomination campaign that you have no regard for me and my point of view, why should I give you $2400 multiplied by however many people live in my household for the privilege of being disregarded and disdained?

Mitt Romney, the de factor leader of the less extreme Republicans, spends about 80% of his public appearances wooing party conservatives. When he speaks to more moderate Republicans (I heard him at a fundraiser for Maryland Republicans this spring), he lays greater emphasis on his business expertise than he does in red-meat exercises like the 2010 CPAC. Even there, however, he never says anything to which a conservative would object.

But does – never mind Sarah Palin – but say Newt Gingrich return the favor? In 1999-2005, when Gingrich was focusing on building a second career for himself as a commentator on domestic and international affairs, Gingrich talked about the environment and school reform and healthcare. As hope dawned in him that he might at last have an open opportunity in 2008, Gingrich put those broad themes away, and has slammed instead at the Kenyan anticolonialist in the White House. Romney leaves the door open to non-supporters; Gingrich seals it tight; Palin of course divides the world into supporters and enemies. But unfortunately, the very things that should make Romney an attractive nominee are the things that will likely doom him. What we are likely to get instead is an attempt to pile leverage upon leverage in a style that would have impressed Samuel Insull: to control a great national party that seeks the votes of tens of millions by speaking to the passions and interests of a core group of some hundreds of thousands.

It’s no way to run a company, it should not be the way to run a party, and for sure it’s a terrible way to run a country.

Recent Posts by David Frum



25 Comments so far ↓

  • mpolito

    The reason you fund O’Donnell is that she is the party’s nominee, and the NRSC’s job, among other things, is to fund the nominees. I would not have voted for her, but I don’t live in DE, and she won the primary. That’s just the way it is. Did you go to DE and help out Mike Castle? He was not entitled to the nomination, and you seem to refuse to lay any blame at his feet.

    You also make it sound like reconciliation after primaries is impossible. The Clinton/Obama primary was pretty brutal, but most Clinton supporters did not feel ‘so offended’ during the primary that they refused to support Obama in the general. Did conservatives refuse to back or financially support Mark Kirk or John McCain after they won their primaries? Would you have preferred if they declined to do so? Part of the point of a party is that you agree to support the nominee, regardless of what was said during the primary. If you can’t do that, you probably should not be in a political party.

  • forgetn

    Mpolito:

    You mean it was Castle’s fault that O’Donnell “I’m not a witch” didn’t win the elections? Sorry you don’t get to compare Obama/Clinton to O’Donell, apples and oranges. Moreover, Obama had a very hard time convincing many Clinton supporters to join him, several well known Dems were supporting McCain.

  • Moderate

    @mpolito

    There’s a significant difference between moderates/centrists “falling in line” after a lost primary and hard-right conservatives “falling in line.”

    If the moderate loses in the primary, then moderate Republican voters may actually prefer the Democratic candidate to the Republican. Take New York’s 23rd district, for example: many Republicans voted Democrat or stayed at home rather than support a ideologically extreme Republican. The same dynamic played out in the Delaware and Nevada senatorial race: the ideological distance between the fringe Republican candidate and moderate Republican voter was actually greater than the distance between the Democrat and the moderate Republican voter.

    Now, if a moderate Republican defeats the far-right candidate, the conservative rank and file is never going to support the Democrat. Nor would they stay at home or vote third party – doing so could effectively cede the election to the Democrat. This is far more unpalatable to the far right than it is to centrists.

    Part of the point of a party is that you agree to support the nominee, regardless of what was said during the primary.

    For party officials, maybe, but not for voters.

  • CentristNYer

    David, I appreciate your characterization of Romney as the “de facto leader of the non-extreme Republicans,” but I’m frankly hard-pressed to identity very many positions where he differs much with Palin, Gingrich and Limbaugh. I don’t diminish Romney’s intellect or skill-set when compared to his Republican rivals, but this lingering image of him as a moderate is based almost entirely on policies and positions that he’s since renounced.

    [BTW, David, I thought your piece in the NY Times Magazine this weekend was excellent.]

  • Moderate

    @mpolito

    Let’s say there is a moderate Democrat vs. a far-right Republican. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being very liberal and 10 being very conservatives, the candidates are a 3 and a 10 respectively.

    Now, imagine a moderate Republican voter who’s more conservative than liberal, but who agrees with liberals on some issues (e.g. environmental regulation, social issues). On the scale of 1 to 10, this voter is a 6.

    Visualize that scale of 1 to 10, plotting the Democratic candidate at 3, the Republican candidate at 10, and the moderate Republican voter at 6.

    1 — 2 — 3 (Democrat) — 4 — 5 — 6* — 7 — 8 — 9 — 10 (Republican)

    To far-right conservatives (the 9s and 10s), this Republican candidate is terrific. But to centrists and moderate Republican (the 6s), the Democrat is ideologically preferable. A 6 is closer to a 3 than it is to a 10.

    So if you want to nominate a far-right candidate, you’d better do it in a state with a lot of 8s, 9s, and 10s. For example: Utah. But in a state where most Republicans are 5s and 6s (e.g. Delaware), that’s a terrible strategy.

  • abj

    mpolito,

    The reason you fund O’Donnell is that she is the party’s nominee, and the NRSC’s job, among other things, is to fund the nominees. I would not have voted for her, but I don’t live in DE, and she won the primary.

    I have to disagree with you here. The NRSC’s job is to build a GOP majority. You build a majority by investing in the candidates most likely to win against their Democratic opponents. O’Donnell was clearly a sure loser from the moment she won her primary. From mid-September on, I never saw a poll that had her even in single digits, much less within striking distance. Investing money in her campaign is the equivalent of throwing it in a trash can.

    He was not entitled to the nomination, and you seem to refuse to lay any blame at his feet.

    I totally agree with you there. He lost the primary fair and square. Nonetheless, I don’t believe he had any sort of obligation to rally behind an obviously-unqualified nominee. That woman isn’t qualified to be a legislative assistant to a U.S. Senator, much less to a seat in the senate.

  • abj

    Moderate,

    It’s not about moderates vs. conservatives in this context. To me, that’s an entirely separate debate. The issue is whether the party should support someone who obviously lacks the basic qualifications to be a U.S. Senator.

  • Moderate

    @abj

    I thought that this thread WAS about moderates versus the far right. Although there’s been recent overlap recently between ideological extremism and a lack of qualifications, I understand that the two things aren’t the same.

    If you take a very far-right conservative who is intellectually and experientially qualified for higher office – say someone like Sen. John Cornyn – that candidate is still not going to win over the moderate “6″ voters. He can only win in a conservative state like Texas. He could never win in Delaware. He’s too ideologically out of step with the voters.

    Unqualified candidates should be rejected (hopefully in the screening process) without regard to their political stripes. Moderate or conservative: it shouldn’t matter. Someone like Christine O’Donnell should never have become the nominee, and I’d say the same thing if I agreed with her on every single issue.

  • abj

    Moderate,
    Yeah, I agree that she’s outside the ideological mainstream for that state, but that’s not the overriding reason to reject her (at least from the standpoint of a party hack like me). First and foremost, it was glaringly obvious to anyone who gave this race even a fleeting moment of attention that she’s manifestly unqualified to be a U.S. Senator.

    If we were talking about a qualified conservative nominee, I’d have supported her after her primary win. I’d have encouraged the state and national parties to do the same. The debate is a bit different when it shifts from qualifications to ideology. It’s possible a good conservative candidate could’ve won in a year like this, even in Delaware, if he/she was an effective candidate. It’s unlikely, but it certainly would’ve been possible.

    O’Donnell, however, was an embarrassment, and the party shouldn’t feel obligated to financially support that joke of a candidate.

  • CD-Host

    There is a concept in war called “hostile neutral” those are countries that are not part of the war and pursue their own interests seeing the war as an opportunity. Since international politics is often a zero sum game the effect of these neutrals is quite often to support the opposition. Iran during the Iraq war is a perfect example. America did not want to see itself as fighting the Ba’ath to help establish an Iranian colony so Iran in pursuing its own objectives sometimes acted very similarly to how it would have acted if it were a declared ally of Iraq which was infuriating to the USA.

    The base of both parties have clear cut policy goals that involve substantial changes to American society. Both of them have a moderate wings that pretty much like the statuesque. When an opportunity for substantial change occurs these moderate wings end up playing the role of hostile neutrals not allies, supporting the opposition party in their defensive maneuvers. The Democrats just experienced this with their Blue Dogs. Having a strong mandate for “change” and the numbers to do, the Blue Dogs balked. Imagine if even 1/2 what passed the House had become law!

    Treating moderate and conservatives as if they are two equal wings in an equal partnership is nonsense. The arrangement is highly non symmetrical. The purpose of the party is to advance the interests of the base. The moderates attempt to steer the party with an implicit threat of changing sides or being less interested in the outcome. Moderate Republicans seriously considering Obama in 2008 and Blue Dog independents not showing up to vote in 2010 being a good example of this. During the primary the bases make a decision as to how far they are willing to compromise to achieve their policy objectives. During the general, the moderates and the independents examine the candidates and determine who the winner will be.

  • mpolito

    Moderate: I’d like “centrists” in the party, but this is one the problems that arises. You want to have it both ways: you want to be in a political party but also want to be able to ditch the party whenever you feel like it. Unfortunately a political party cannot function if its members do that. If you are a ‘swing voter’ who is not in a party, and therefore float around and pick candidates from various parties, that is fine. But part of being a member of a party is supporting the winner of your party’s primary. Suppose conservatives thought Mark Kirk would be worse than the Democrat. Would it be acceptable for them to not vote, or to write-in some other candidate? I’d say not. I would condemn any conservative who opposed voting for some liberal Republican.

    Self-described conservatives constitute around 40% of the U.S. population. It therefore makes sense that the right-leaning political party be made up largely of conservatives. Does this mean nobody else is welcome? Certainly not. But if moderates want to be in a party with influence, then they need to be willing to play ball, because much of that influence comes from conservatives. This means supporting the party’s nominees, even if you dislike them. Only under the most extraordinary circumstances (e.g. if a murderer or rapist was nominated) would it be acceptable to oppose the nominee. Saying that ‘she is stupid’ or ‘she is unqualified’ are dubious excuses. Moderates are always complaining that conservatives are too attached to principles. It seems to me from this discussion that moderates do not oppose adherence to principle as such, but have different principles.

    Forgetn: Can you name one prominent Democrat who publicly supported McCain? Remember, Lieberman is no longer a Democrat; I want someone who is actually a member of the party. I would not say that Gene Taylor counts, either, and not because he is a conservative Democrat but because his support for McCain was not public.

  • PracticalGirl

    mpolito;

    Kudos to you for sstimulating some discussion. This?

    “You also make it sound like reconciliation after primaries is impossible. The Clinton/Obama primary was pretty brutal, but most Clinton supporters did not feel ’so offended’ during the primary that they refused to support Obama in the general”

    Your example falls flat for one simple reason: Obama and Clinton may have badgered each other, but neither of them expressed open warfare on the Democtaic Party, Frum’s isn’t a question of an intra-party battle where two candidates try mightily to separate themselves from each other (or the entire pack) by highlighting their differences in solutions or apporaches. The question is why should any party donate to any candidate when that candidate has clearly expressed disgust with said party?

    How can any party justify spending contributions- given by those who have a clear zest for that given party- on a candidate with a stated goal of upending the stated goals of that party?

  • PracticalGirl

    We, the People, want the “modify” button back.

  • abj

    mpolito,

    Only under the most extraordinary circumstances (e.g. if a murderer or rapist was nominated) would it be acceptable to oppose the nominee.

    Christine O’Donnell was one of those instances. She’s not a criminal (at least not yet – hasn’t been indicted by the FEC just yet), but she is far and away the most absurd joke of a nominee I’ve ever seen.

  • medinnus

    I am laughing at the Tea Party enthusiasts who insist that the newly elected Tea Party Republicans are somehow going to actually find the balls to change things. They should be falling in line *checks watch* just a little after the new year.

    2012 is going to be a bad year for the Conservative far-Right loony toons; they’ll have two years to cry out “I am NOT a witch” and other lunacies, while not doing a damn thing on the deficit or taxes; you see, actually getting work done would require working with The Enemy and Compromise. Two more years of obstructionism will just show they are incompetent at anything but organizing community protests with unfounded lies and hypocritical signs.

  • Moderate

    @mpolito

    Suppose conservatives thought Mark Kirk would be worse than the Democrat. Would it be acceptable for them to not vote, or to write-in some other candidate?

    Absolutely! However, they won’t do that, because they have more to lose from a Democrat winning than a centrist does. They can vote however they please, but in reality they’ll never vote any way that would allow a Democrat to win. The far right’s votes can be taken for granted from a Republican point of view. Moderate votes cannot.

    @PracticalGirl

    We, the People, want the “modify” button back.

    Hear, hear!

  • CD-Host

    You also make it sound like reconciliation after primaries is impossible. The Clinton/Obama primary was pretty brutal, but most Clinton supporters did not feel ’so offended’ during the primary that they refused to support Obama in the general.

    There were very few policy differences between Obama and Clinton. If you agreed with Clinton on the issues you agreed with Obama on the issues and vice versa. So Clinton’s case “was this all about me or did you care about ____” worked. And that’s the typical way it works.

    That’s very different when their idealogical struggles. Quite often, not always, these sorts of differences involve mid-long term direction of the party. The losers not only have a candidate they disagree with but since the outcome of another battle is likely to be similar they have less influence in the party for future discussions. The losers quite often have to decide whether they want to remain the party.

    Further the other party doesn’t sit passively by when this happens they often reach out. So not infrequently the losers to retain policy influence leave the base and become swing voters. And that can create an opening for the winners to pull other groups into the base. For example by losing liberal Republicans the Republican party was able to fight for conserva-dems and pull social conservatives into their base over the last generation.

    So I wouldn’t see the primary situation in 2010 Republicans as similar to what happened in Obama / Clinton. It is far more like Clinton / Gephardt. It is likely to involve a change in the actual makeup of the parties.

  • nuser

    She bit the hand that fed her. She was the most irritating woman ever. Good riddance!

  • mpolito

    If you think Christine O’Donnell is like a murderer or a rapist, then you are guilty of the same hyperbole for which you condemn conservatives.

    Moderate: you may disagree, but most people here would not be happy if Mark Kirk or some similar candidate lost because conservatives chose not to vote for him. If you are not going to support the party’s nominee, then the question must be asked: why are you in the party?

  • abj

    If you think Christine O’Donnell is like a murderer or a rapist, then you are guilty of the same hyperbole for which you condemn conservatives.

    Not sure if that was directed at me, but all I said was that O’Donnell “is far and away the most absurd joke of a nominee I’ve ever seen.” On that basis, I withheld supporting her. Her candidacy undermined the party, it undermined her stated policy goals, and it may well have been the death blow to the Delaware GOP. Can you imagine a credible moderate candidate making a run for office after seeing what happened to Mike Castle?

    I also didn’t accuse conservatives of hyperbole. Certainly, some of the defenses of O’Donnell I heard from the right were….well, incredulous, but I didn’t raise that issue and certainly didn’t characterize it as “hyperbole.”

  • DifferentFrumer

    “You want to have it both ways: you want to be in a political party but also want to be able to ditch the party whenever you feel like it”

    Thank the Radical Religious Right and Senator McCain for that. Don’t blame actual conservatives for the Right’s sadistic social agenda. Who would ever have believed that the core value of personal responsibility coupled with individual liberty would be so **selectively** defined to exclude those law-abiding, tax-paying citizens we know as gay or lesbian? Just how do you think law-abiding gays and lesbians feel when an INCARCERATED MURDERER-RAPIST can marry and they can’t? There’s a reason for that called: REPUBLICAN PARTY.

    I’ll just call myself “conservative” until the GOP *nukes* that bigotry problem. I hung in there for 35 years. I just got older and from now on I going to make George H.W. Bush’s statement actually true instead of the slur it was: “Gays are about one issue,” said our former President.

    You got that right, Mr. President. After serving this country for eight years in Vietnam and actually being *shamed* for doing so by Republicans and religious bigots, I’ll be voting for ONE issue.

    Equality.

  • Moderate

    @mpolito

    If you are not going to support the party’s nominee, then the question must be asked: why are you in the party?

    I agree with Republicans on roughly two out of three issues. That makes me a more natural Republican than Democrat. All the third parties are crazy.

  • S.L. Toddard

    It is important to note, I think, that David Frum is a Canadian liberal, and a liar. When he disingenuously writes something like “Fringe to Moderates”, what he means is “Conservatives to Liberals”. It is also important to remember, any time you are reading anything by this Canadian, that no one in political journalism has been more wrong than Frum, to more disastrous effect. Frum is a typical Limousine Liberal Hawk, advocating for wars he and his do not have to fight, and cavalierly urging our government to send our countrymen (not his) to their deaths overseas while he lounges comfortably in America, ensconced in luxury and flitting from cocktail party to cocktail party while our boys are blown into bloody chunks of meat in a desert thousands of miles away. David Frum’s raison d’etre is to push the Republican Party to the Left, because the prime directive of the Left is to displace, dis-empower and replace the historic American People whom Frum despises (read any piece by Frum about Middle America or the South for proof – his hatred of Ethnic Americans is palpable).

    Now, I should point out that I myself am no big fan of the Tea Partiers. They talk a good game but in the end will support the GOP Machine, which will bend all the candidates the TP supports to its will (if they need to be bent at all). I do appreciate the TP’s grievances, though – the gov’t continues to grow and spend, trillions are spent on “defense” and yet our government refuses to defend us from a Mestizo invasion that threatens to render Ethnic Americans a minority in our own country. That being said, at least the Tea Party and their candidates are explicitly advocating for conservative ideas vis a vis small government and the rule of law. That these same folks did not vote against the Liberal Internationalist President GW Bush (whose record resembled LBJ’s more than any other president, considering Bush’s reckless spending, his aggressive and illegal wars and his massive expansion of social programs) does not invalidate the conservative principles they are now expounding. And they have the right idea with regards to playing the long game, and holding the GOP’s feet to the fire by refusing to support left-wing Republicans even if it means losing elections in the short term.

    REMEMBER: True conservatives cannot recapture the GOP while it is in power, so it is counterproductive to fight to empower the GOP until after it is recaptured. Until the GOP re-embraces conservatism, it does conservatism and therefore America a grave disservice to empower that party.

  • The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : Why the Center Doesn't Hold

    [...] seems to me that David Frum's argument here shouldn't be with conservatives. He's really arguing with the idea of political parties, or at [...]

  • midcon

    S.L. Toddard , Just what are “Ethnic Americans” Are they Native American peoples? Pilgrims? Descendents of slaves? I’ve never heard the term before except for a title of a book about immigration history in America. Americans have no predominate ethnicity that I’m aware of. Is that a code word for “whites?” Ditto the term “historic American People” Since America primarily grew through immigration in the East it seem to me that those were the “historic American People” not the people in the South or Middle America. In fact, since Ellis Island was the larget entry point, my guess would be that the denizens of NYC have a greater claim to the title “historic American People” than others. Is there an authoritative source for these terms? The Aryan Brotherhood doesn’t count as an authoritative source by the way.