Down with the Cause, or the Party?

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.

  • “boy, it was really hard to think of an even remotely conservative Democrat these days!”

    Therein lies the problem. If I started a list of not-even-remotely-conservative Republicans, I would be typing all week. How did the Democrats manage to turn their party into an effective vehicle for enacting policy while we fail repeatedly at the same task?

    • MD Russ

      Nice change, Alexis. Normally, you are typing all weak.

      In case you haven’t noticed, the Democrats suck as badly as the Republicans when it comes to electing ideological purists. Obama, who was supposed to be a wild-eyed Socialist, has utterly failed to deliver on his “hope and change” agenda. Witness: Gitmo is still open for business with no resolution in sight, the Drone War continues at a higher rate of strikes than under Bush with American citizens now targeted and expansion of drone operations outside the Middle East to Africa, we still have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan five years after he campaigned on a promise to end those expeditions during his first year in office, and it took Obama a full four years to get around to tackling the issue of gays in the military. And the jury is still out on where he stands on gay marriage. If Obama was a white, middle aged guy from Kansas instead of Kenya, you might think that he is a Republican–except for that gun business.

      The truth is that politicians, both Democratic and Republican, must govern from the middle if they are going to be successful. Tim nailed it, as usual: you can either sit in office or stand on principle, but you can rarely do both.

      • George from Cleveland

        Troops are not in Iraq, except in the Embassy.

        • MD Russ


          Large numbers of US troops “in the Embassy” in Iraq are there performing training, intelligence, communications, and logistics missions. The only thing that changed in December 2011 was the rotational deployment of Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) and Marine combat units.

      • “If Obama was a white, middle aged guy from Kansas instead of Kenya, you
        might think that he is a Republican–except for that gun business.”

        I’ll go even further and say that he’s virtually identical to George W. Bush in all respects but his rhetoric.

        And to add to that, Romney would have been the same as both Obama and GWB as well. So would have McCain and Gore and Kerry, in all substantial respects.

        Which begs the question, why have an election when you can throw the bums out every time and nothing ever changes? Who really runs the country? At what point does a political system become so unresponsive to the will of the people that it loses legitimacy?

        • MD Russ

          How is a political system in which the majority candidate gets elected unresponsive to the people?

          • For starters, a majority of eligible voters are so alienated from the system that they don’t vote. We haven’t had a true majority candidate in living memory.

            The candidates are largely picked by a tightly controlled press (96% of US media owned by 5 multinational corporations none loyal to the US). So before we even get to choose, the choice is already made for us.

            The USSR worked just like that. You could vote – for one Communist Party candidate or a different Communist Party candidate. They actually had more turnover in their Politboro than we have in Congress.

          • MD Russ

            Cute. Doesn’t that tinfoil hat give you a headache?

            -GWB was hated in Europe and in much of the rest of the world. Why did he get elected twice when the “multinational corporate tightly controlled media” could have prevented it?

            -During the American Revolution, as estimated one-third of the colonials supported the revolution, another one-third were loyal to the Crown, and the other one-third didn’t care one way or the other. Explain how these “alienated voters” make our elections unresponsive.

            -No argument with you on Congressional incumbency. A Gallup poll in January found that 75% of voters favor term limits and that only 21% are opposed to them.

          • “-GWB was hated in Europe and in much of the rest of the world. Why did
            he get elected twice when the “multinational corporate tightly
            controlled media” could have prevented it?”

            Those corps did quite well under GWB, as they are doing quite well under Obama. They relentlessly ridicule and censor any candidate which is not in alignment with their interests. As far as it mattered, GWB got highly favorable coverage – just look at the coverage he got relative to his main primary competitor, Pat Buchanan, who was not megacorp-friendly.

            Funny thing about this tinfoil hat – if I take as a baseline stance that there is some sort of corrupt arrangement behind virtually everything in public life, I have an amazingly good accuracy rate – far better than someone who lets their brain be saturated with television or other mainstream media. To take one recent example of a “tinfoil hat conspiracy” that turned out to be true, look at Bernanke and his debt monetization – something predicted years ago by “conspiracy theorists”, ridiculed in the media, denied outright under oath by the subject himself, and now openly apparent to everyone. Or how about the “naked scanners” at airports, where the media faithfully reparroted the government’s lie that they weren’t saving any of the pictures – and lo and behold, they were, like the “tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists” said they were. And so on and so forth – it happens all the time. If tinfoil hat means someone who doesn’t believe the official lies from the media and government, pass the aluminum.

            Here’s an exercise for you to figure out – why was “Osama bin Laden”s body dumped into the sea?

          • MD Russ

            There you go again, Rosie. GWB’s main primary opponent in 2000 was not Pat Buchanan but was John McCain. Pat and Allen Keyes didn’t move the needle past single digits. But you keep trying with that revisonist history.

          • Maybe you want to read that whole Wikipedia article before proclaiming me the revisionist.

          • MD Russ

            Why was OBL’s body dumped into the sea? Because the sharks were hungry and an earthly grave would have become a shrine. Is that really too hard for you to understand?

            BTW, where is Hitler’s grave? How about Mussolini?

            My apologies to Professor Godwin.

          • Hitler was cremated, the ashes thrown into the river Elbe, by his own staff. Mussolini’s grave is in Predappio, Italy.

            Let me know when your brain powers up sufficiently to come up with a plausible reason why someone might dump a body into the ocean. While you’re at it, try and find another time in US history when the government has dumped a corpse into a deep body of water on purpose.

            Those of us not behaviorally conditioned to sheepthink note that something like this is an extremely unusual event which raises all sorts of red flags of the “destroying the evidence” type. The whole “Islamic sea burial” story was about as plausible as the initial explanation for Benghazi (which, by the way, I was the first to call BS on, the moment that story hit the wires, thanks to my tinfoil hat – another “wild conspiracy” that turned out to be spot on), given that Islam is a desert culture, and no such thing as an “Islamic sea burial” had ever been heard of before, by anyone.

  • Tim perhaps an issue of concern along with embracing party or policy should be the aspect of “principle” representation. Sadly in the evolution of party identify dems have the ability to identify obviously with greater numbers of our diverse community. Again we address the aspect of conservatives failed outreach in our minority communities as a serious principle issue. Examine with specificity the principle actions of tea party labeled conservative Rand Paul. Should his recent flip flop over the selection of Chuck Hagel as the new Defense Secretary be cause for total castigation or a Rino label? His vote for the Hagel filibuster before voting for his confirmation begs for a conflicted excuse that would place him in comparative company of then Senator John Kerry’s famous “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” line. Is his excuse of giving the President “some perogative” a sell out of the Tea Party, and its policy? I suggest his action was political maturity by embracing the principle of attempting in this case to give the nation a former enlisted war hero that could identify to far more veterans than your died in the wool out of touch retired General or elitist politician. In spite of his shortcomings and he has a few, Hagel being former enlisted and a genuine Vietnam war hero is the right man for the job….in this administration anyway. He will think like a common soldier…because he was one. But again the issue of elected officials standing on principle surpasses party and policy thank God….Maybe at the time of action not for the good of their individual party but something more important…for the good of “we the people”. Something tells me that was in Bob McDonnell’s mind all along when he was looking at transportation in principle.


    Missing from this article is consideration of the foundation of BOTH party and policy, and that is principles. Mcdonnell and the republicans in both houses of the Virginia legislature that voted in favor of the transportation bill abandoned a core conservative principle to promote what they view as good policy. This isn’t conservatism, this is simply the Republicans seeking to expand Government in a way they deem favorable. Not only is it bad policy, noting the empirical evidence that raising taxes doesn’t always increase revenues, it’s another betrayal of conservatives by Republicans. The tradespace for political decision making should not include debating whether an underlying principle is disposable in furtherance of a policy, good or bad. Principles remain, and the only acceptable policies are those that are consistent with those principles. The war b/t the establishment and conservatives is on.

    • May I suggest those terms remain interchangeable based on individual dogma of the soldiers of the conservative reformation….on going egotistical conflicts that may win a battle but loose the war.


        Of course you may, though it might be useful for you to define exactly which terms you deem interchangeable. If you are suggesting “principles” are interchangeable with “policy” I vehemently disagree. Policy should be a derivation or actuation of defined principles. Legislators do not implement “principles”; they implement policy based on principles. One foundational principle of the conservative movement is that individuals and the private sector employ capital more efficiently than the Government. A corollary of this principle, translated into policy, is that tax increases are generally a bad idea.

        Regarding ego, I have no ego in the political process other than my comments on certain blogs. The nature of a representive democracy requires that I expect my principles to be reflected by those I elect to represent me.

        It is ever the view of establishment that conservatives militating that elected republicans reflect conservative values is counter-productive. This is unfair and disingenuous as the proximate cause of any “war” is the republicans’ deviation from conservative principles in the first instance. I don’t accept the argument that conservatives should accept betrayal as the price of maintaining an inconsistent and unprincipled republican majority.

        Here’s what the tax increase has bought us. Mark my words, this will be a taxpayer funded boondoggle pet project of Mcdonnell:

        • Clearly legislation remains a reflextion of individual principle that need not be in consort with present political ideology. We see this in the actions of Ronald Reagan. Your distain for lack of purity in conservative virtue must bring you daily anguish. Clearly the majority of America by recent elections suggest they approve of more of a partnership between government and private sector capital improvements. You take issue no doubt with who drives the train. This is not to suggest I endorse a top down approach however polling data remains a matter of the public record. As far as capital efficiency, the chicken and egg comparrison of taxation with regards to representation can be debated all the way back to the Annunaki. But I respect the civility of your presentation. History will define which of us is accurate…you, me or Governor McDonnell. I’m suggesting in the long run history will be kind to his vision and our lack of…..

    • Which core conservative principle was that? I don’t recall “raise no taxes whatsoever for any reason” being one of our core conservative principles.

      • It is in the unpublished tea party manual….Only the worthy extremists have it.

        • EricMcGrane

          Extremy extremists acting radical and extreme (and dangerous) while radically extreminating radical extremous ideas.


  • J. Christopher Stearns

    As one of the self-identified libertarians on the Republican Party of Virginia’s State Central Committee, I must say that this article is a very thoughtful elaboration of the many tribulations grassroots activists face with our state’s politics.

    Slick peice, Mr. Donner. 🙂

  • The issue is very simple. There are two rules of American politics. Get elected and stay elected. Those rules say nothing about principles or any such issue. Politicos live by this credo and power always trumps principle. The tea party movement relies almost entirely on principle. This is contradiiction will always end in frustration for both sides. Since tea party groups won’t compromse principles…the only way to impact the two rules of American politics is to make it difficult for those in the GOP who SAY they support our principles (but often don’t) to get elected and stay elected.

    Conservative/libertarian grassroots people generally suck it up in November and vote for the lesser of two evils. The recent trend of declining votes for the GOP presidential candidate is the first tnagible evidence of a trend that will continue to occur. People will just stay home.

    The GOP can attract those people back by electing candidates who will actually stand for principle. Principles like self reliance, the constitution and freedom are not exclusive to white middle age men. If a candidate can articulate those. Trying to out Democrat Democrats(seemingly the strategy of GOP leadership in Va) is a completely idiotic idea.

    Democrat leaning voters know who really wants socilaist leaning policies. And promoting bigger government, higher taxes and such by GOP alienates more and more te party leaning folks. Unless the GOP stands up for principles they are going to get elected less and stay elected less.
    Very simple.

    • Chip your points are well taken however if you suggest Hispanics, Blacks and Asians whose principles include parity in the immigration process with respect to our jaded history and will ignor their feelings. While both sides use this wedge issue to fearmonger you can expect the majority of GOP leaning moderates in those classes to stay home this election or go to the other side as things stand now. Compassion in presentation is not suppose to be just a Democratic virtue.

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