“I wish I knew how to quit you.”
—Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain
So the Republicans gained enough seats to flip control of the Senate. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) won re-election in a race that shouldn’t have been as close as it was, and likely gets to become the Senate Majority leader, replacing Harry Reid (D-NV).
You’ll excuse me if I’m not dancing in the streets.
For one thing, it may well be a very short party. 2016 presents the reverse of this year’s lopsided slate of at-risk seats, with incumbent Republicans up in 24 of 34 races, including purple-to-blue states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, so the Democrats have much more to gain than to lose. Of the Democratic seats up in 2016, only Nevada and Colorado are remotely in play—you think Republicans are going to pick up a Senate seat in Oregon, where they just legalized pot?—for Republicans. The potential, if not likelihood, is that the Democrats to pick up a net of at least six or seven seats, enough to regain the majority.
But my concern runs deeper than that.
Yes, pulling Harry Reid’s cryptkeeper fingers off the levers of control over the Senate’s agenda, even temporarily, is a good thing. Yes, having a Senate that’s a little more likely to resist Obama appointments is a good thing. You could argue that having a Senate majority that will at least speak to the House majority is a good thing (although I see merit in a status quo that leaves Congress unable to screw anything up further).
But all of that is only true if you’re going to get something from a Republican-controlled Congress that’s appreciably different from what you got under a Democrat-controlled Congress. If I thought you were going to get a return to Constitutional moorings and a serious reduction of the bloated federal Beast, if I thought you were going to get a real adult move towards fiscal sanity, I’d be there with you. But if it’s just about being able to say our team won, I don’t see the point.
Unfortunately, the writing is already on the wall that there is likely to be little that changes in the District with Mitch McConnell holding the Senate gavel. The post-election party dance floor wasn’t even cold before McConnell was giving up his bargaining position on two major issues, saying that there would be no government shutdown—meaning he will not force the President to compromise on spending—and no attempt to repeal FUBARCare. In other words, he’s more interested in the political optics of avoiding a veto or a shutdown (by the way, does anyone even remember we had a government shutdown last year?) than he is about standing up for some kind of conservative principles.
And this illustrates the fundamental problem. The establishment Republican leadership is not interested in advancing the principles of its conservative base; it’s interested in Republicans winning for the sake of Republicans being in office. They’re more concerned about their personal vested stake in the system than about ideals.
Consider some of the key Republican Senate leaders who were re-elected this week:
Mitch McConnell has been in the Senate 30 years. Thad Cochran (R-MS) has been there a whopping 36 years (41 total in Congress). Susan Collins (R-ME) has 18 years in the Senate. John Cornyn (R-TX), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have been there 12 years each. Their longevity alone is a problem—I believe term limits in Congress and the federal courts may be the single most important issue in saving the Republic—but take a look at their voting records as scored by the Heritage Action for America Scorecard. With a less-than-impressive score of 79, Cornyn comes in as the most conservative of the bunch. From there it drops off dramatically: McConnell 68 (last I checked, that’s an F), Cochran 53, Graham 49, Alexander 48, and Collins an abysmal 22.
And these are some of the most senior Republicans in the Senate. Add to them other core senior Republicans who weren’t up this time, and you get the likes of Orrin Hatch (R-UT), 36 years in the Senate, Heritage score of 54; John McCain (R-AZ), 27 years, Heritage score of 51; Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) 11 years, Heritage score of 50; and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) 12 years, Heritage score of 23.
These are the people who will now be running the Senate (likely the same people who excoriated Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Mike Lee (R-UT) (Heritage scores of 93, 92, and 96, respectively) for their filibuster efforts last year), and they are not conservatives, despite what Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC tries to tell you. They are anti-Constitution, big-government spenders—in other words, Democrats with different colored ties.
I recognize what I’m about to say is political heresy, and likely ends what little prospect I had of ever running for office. But this is what you get as a conservative when you steadfastly adhere to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s admonition to “vote for the most conservative candidate electable.” You get people who will talk just enough conservative talk to pacify the conservative base, but when they get to the District it’s business as usual because they know at the end of the day they’ll never be held accountable to walk the conservative walk. Come re-election time, they count on conservatives ultimately holding their noses and voting for them because we see them as the lesser of two evils.
And they have good reason to think that way: because that’s what we do. Every time.
If, as many say, the solution for the conservative movement is reform within the existing Republican Party—and I’m not convinced it is—I fear we have an extremely painful process ahead of us. For the Republican Party to change course, it has to be taught that the conservative base will hold its candidates accountable. It is not enough for us to scream about fiscal responsibility and the Constitution. It is not even enough for us to push conservative candidates in the primaries. Unless and until Republicans face negative consequences come election time when they field non-conservative candidates, the party has no reason to change its behavior.
In other words, the party won’t change until it sees its non-conservative candidates lose not only in primaries (see ya, Eric Cantor (R-CA)), but also in general elections, and lose because the conservative base stayed home or cast protest votes.
I know I have argued to the contrary in the past, in particular with respect to the Ron Paul libertarian devotees. But as I’ve watched the GOP in large part fail in its function as the opposition, and as I’ve watched the establishment repeatedly torpedo conservatives within its own ranks, I’ve become of a mind that more drastic action is necessary, or we’re forever going to face a choice between the Left and the near-Left.
As long as conservatives continue to settle, as long as we continue to be good soldiers every other November and show up to vote for bad RINO candidates, that’s what the GOP is going to give us. The Reince Priebus/Karl Rove machine will continue to give us Mitch McConnells and Thad Cochrans in the Senate, and will continue to serve up the likes of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush for President, promoting the Republican brand, but with no substantive difference.
I have no interest in having a Republican President or Republican representatives in Congress for the sake of having Republicans. If you don’t stand for conservative principles of limited government and adherence to the Constitution, I don’t care what letter you have next to your name on the ballot.
We’ll see what Mitch and the GOP do now that they’ve been handed the keys to the Capitol. I’d like to hope that they do something to change my mind over the next two years (they’ve warned Obama not to take executive action on amnesty, although I suspect that’s only so he doesn’t steal their thunder). But I doubt they will, and if they don’t, it’s going to take some real housecleaning to return the party to its conservative roots.
And that means 2016 (and beyond) may be even more painful than we think.