Passage of the explosively controversial transportation bill in Richmond last week framed almost perfectly a question much on the mind of the political and chattering class these days:
Is your loyalty to party, or policy?
With Gov. McDonnell either truly believing that breaking his campaign pledge and raising six different taxes with overwhelming Democratic support is the only viable way to fix stubborn transportation problems, or just desperate for a legacy, this is an easy question for some to answer (such as all or most of the 12 Republican senators who voted nay on the already famous and infamous HB 2313). Of course, their loyalty is to policy. Some others, perhaps less than the policy loyalists (8 GOP senators voted yea), will profess the opposite. The GOP members of the house were equally divided on the bill.
But not so fast.
The fact is, when it comes to party and policy, you can’t have one without the other. No matter how just the cause, if the vehicle for actually turning that cause into reality is weak or flawed, the bottom line will be failure. It becomes the ultimate negative-sum game, because while either the party or the policy might be good at any particular juncture, the scorecard will show a goose egg. That is why the establishment vs. grassroots debate is often – not always to be sure, but often – off target, for the two are interdependent. If good policy is not emanating from the true believers, the establishment becomes a salesman without wares. Likewise, if the political class is rejecting the good ideas of the true blue, they lose the support and energy required to push the party into the majority of both thought and power.
This may appear to be simple logic, but try telling that to the millions of grassroots conservatives disgusted with what they view as one cave-in after another by the party leadership OR a GOP establishment that believes it’s been forced to swallow too many not-ready-for-primetime insurgents that cost them eminently winnable seats.
The grassroots will trumpet the likes of Sens. Rand Paul and Ron Johnson – both elected to the senate in 2010 with no prior political experience – to demonstrate the virtue of nominating ideologically sound candidates, and the establishment will answer back with Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin, both disastrous candidates (though they, unlike Sens. Paul and Johnson, already held lower office).
As I said repeatedly to disaffected conservatives and libertarians during my run for the US Senate, political parties are designed for one purpose: winning elections. And there are only two real parties, so Michele Bachmann and Mitch McConnell must co-exist as elephants, as must Nancy Pelosi and Mark Warner (boy, it was really hard to think of an even remotely conservative Democrat these days!) as donkeys.
To some this may be good, to others bad. But it matters not, because it is an immutable truth. Policy is just a vehicle for the party to win elections, and is thus essentially incidental to the party’s pursuit of power. If protecting the rights of gun owners, for example, will in the view of party leaders create a more favorable electoral climate, they will embrace that policy. If they believe it will diminish their chances for victory, they will adopt a compromise or opposing view. Like it or not, this is, has been, and always will be the reality of politics.
A textbook example of this was the GOP in the 1980’s. The entrenched establishment fought Ronald Reagan tooth and nail in 1980, certain that his bold conservative ideas would threaten them and lead to defeat. When they did not, and it became increasingly obvious he would win a second landslide in 1984, we heard nary a peep from those same establishment types. (Of course, that did not stop them from later shunning that tried-and-true formula in favor of a watered-down, Democrat lite version of Reagan that has led to Republicans losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections).
This is not nearly as big a problem – right now – for the Democrats, because the party has swung far to the left, no longer needs a big slice of white voters, and is bathing in the glow of success in the second term of an historic president who is more leftist than anyone ever to occupy the oval office.
But harmony between the grassroots and establishment has hardly been prevalent among Democrats for most of recent history. For the better part of 30 years leading up to Obama’s election in 2008, liberal was a fightin’ word. Michael Dukakis actually accused George H.W. Bush 41 of “mud-slinging” when Bush called him a liberal during the 1988 presidential campaign. Most Democrats – including virtually all from outside large urban areas – tried desperately to position themselves as centrists. The Democrats’ leftist base held their noses as they voted for most of their party’s presidential candidates from 1976 onward…until they were inspired in 2008.
The challenge for the grassroots is not to convince the establishment of the virtues of any particular policy so much as its likely popularity. For that is the currency of pure politics. True believers of every stripe believe their policies, properly understood, will be popular, but that means nothing if those who must promote, defend and vote on the policy are not on board.
This brings us to another question: when does a politician who ran and won as a grassroots candidate, and then held office for a length of time – cease to be grassroots and become establishment? What about Jesse Helms, who was always a favorite of the conservative faithful but held his senate seat for 30 years? Helms may have understood this establishment vs. grassroots conundrum better than anyone. He recognized the seduction of the Washington culture and proudly spoke of opting out of as much of the high-brow DC social life as possible in order to stay connected more to the grassroots and less to the establishment.
In the end, if we simply define the battle lines of cause vs. party as those on the outside vs. those on the inside, count me out. There are good and bad of both. But we could drill a bit deeper and define the pejorative word “establishment” more precisely as: those who seek power for its own sake, as an end rather than a means, as revealed by an inconsistent or incoherent political philosophy.
In that case, I for one am down with the cause.