Posts Tagged ‘Republican’

The RNC, the Church of the Savvy, and Where to Make Political Donations

March 4, 2010

I’m surprised that Ben Smith’s scoop at Politico hasn’t garnered more attention. It reports on the contents of a confidential Republican National Committee fund-raising document — here is an excerpt from the piece:

The most unusual section of the presentation is a set of six slides headed “RNC Marketing 101.” The presentation divides fundraising into two traditional categories, direct marketing and major donors, and lays out the details of how to approach each group.

The small donors who are the targets of direct marketing are described under the heading “Visceral Giving.” Their motivations are listed as “fear;” “Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration;” and “Reactionary.”

Major donors, by contrast, are treated in a column headed “Calculated Giving.”

Their motivations include: “Peer to Peer Pressure”; “access”; and “Ego-Driven.”

The slide also allows that donors may have more honorable motives, including “Patriotic Duty.”

As I note in a reaction now posted at The Daily Beast, this is the most telling revelation about how political elites think about voters since candidate Barack Obama’s comments about rural economic losers who cling to their guns and religion. Even so, the news is so unsurprising — of course this is how the RNC operates — that writing about it violates what Jay Rosen calls the church of savvy. For example, note this comment at The Daily Beast: “None of this surprises me in the least,” Rick Goldin says. “But the press will pounce on this ‘revelation’ (as if no one knew this was the strategy all along) and wear it out for the rest of this news cycle.”

This attitude is so frustrating. Yes, the story confirms something rather obvious to many of us — that the infrastructure of our political parties are run by a bunch of deliberately deceitful cynics whose actions are motivated by wrongheaded principles at best. Allegations like these, however, require evidence, and when it is presented by reporters it shouldn’t be ignored because it is supposedly obvious. Surely there are RNC donors out there who are quite surprised by this information! That’s one problem with the church of the savvy — its implicit assumption is that news should be written for other information junkies, as opposed to an ever-changing audience that ranges from occasionally informed citizen to Marc Ambinder.

All that said, here’s the beginning of my take:

The scoop is bad news for those of us who seek an alternative to President Obama’s domestic agenda: negative campaigns yield neither policy ideas nor a mandate to implement them, even when they are successful.

But certain pages from the controversial document may prove surprisingly helpful to conservative reformers and tea partiers alike, insofar as they confirm accurate critiques of the Republican establishment in Washington DC. These excerpts show that the RNC misleads its donors, ensconces itself in the trappings of the cultural elite, and treats the conservative base with striking condescension…

The lesson for folks on the right who make political contributions: give to a particular candidate, a trustworthy advocacy organization, or a specific cause in which you believe.

And starve the RNC.

As I note later, “Political parties can be useful guides for citizens who haven’t enough time or understanding to make independent judgments about every candidate or issue. Be that as it may, political donors unable to find a worthier organization than the RNC or the DNC are better off accepting that they’re insufficiently knowledgeable to contribute anywhere without getting hoodwinked. Why willingly fund the people most adept at deliberately exploiting your ignorance?”

An Open Letter to Jonah Goldberg

November 3, 2009

Dear Jonah Goldberg,

I’m writing this letter as a fan – I’ve tremendous respect for the pioneering work you did at National Review Online, your attempts to inject humor into political writing, and the enjoyable debates you’ve done with Peter Beinart. But I’m also a friendly critic, here to challenge your take on the current state of the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country. Perhaps I can persuade you that certain of your positions are wrongly held, though I’d be as satisfied were I moved by counterarguments.

It is actually surprising that the gulf separating our attitudes is so deep. As a native of Orange County, California, the people I most respect in this world – my parents and two sets of grandparents – are all self-described conservative Republicans. My involvement in politics began in response to what I regarded as grave flaws in leftist campus politics at Pomona College, and the dubious actions of Democrats during the Gray Davis era in California, when I witnessed giveaways to public employee unions that were arguably the most fiscally irresponsible measures in state history. The political writers I’ve read whose work most resonates are Burke, Hayek, and Milton Friedman. The bulk of President Obama’s domestic agenda strikes me as ill conceived at best—I worry about the unabated growth of the federal government, America’s perilous fiscal situation, and an approach to governance that relies on the enduring wisdom of elected and appointed officials.

But try as I might, I cannot muster any enthusiasm for the Republican Party, I am profoundly disillusioned by the state of the conservative movement, and though my background and political beliefs ought to make me a lock for GOP presidential candidates – were they running, I’d certainly prefer Ford, Reagan, George Bush Sr. or Bob Dole to a second Obama term – I am a solidly undecided voter as 2012 approaches.

Since I sometimes write for right-of-center political sites, this results in my being labeled an “apostate” or “dissident” conservative (or a RINO traitor, despite my never having claimed to be a Republican), though I’ll bet that you and I have as many positions in common as I do with Reihan Salam, or Ross Douthat, or Ramesh Ponnuru, let alone the average Democrat. Whatever my label among pundits, however, I submit that the GOP is in trouble if it cannot convince voters like me that they’re the best choice at the ballot box.

Why can’t I muster any enthusiasm for the Republican Party? The core reason is my suspicion that were they returned to power tomorrow, things would turn out exactly as they did when the Republicans last controlled Congress and the White House. It’s a concern you addressed a year ago in a Los Angeles Times column titled “The GOP Looking Glass: Does the Defeat of George W. Bush Mean a Defeat for Conservatism?” You and I agree that President Bush’s worst failures weren’t particularly conservative, and shouldn’t reflect badly on that political philosophy.

But I think that your column – like the rest of your writing – elides the significant responsibility that the conservative movement bears for the candidacy, election, policy agenda, and grave failures of the Bush Administration, and the Republicans that controlled Congress for much of his tenure. You wrote, as apologia, “Dissent from Bush was muted for years, in large part because of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Conservatives, right or wrong, rallied to support their president, particularly in the face of shrill partisan attacks from Democrats who seemed more interested in tearing down the commander in chief than winning a war.”

I see that as damning. The conservative movement’s reaction to an ongoing war and shrill attacks from partisan Democrats is to rally around a Republican president, even as he pursues ill-conceived agenda items – and the problem this augers for the future is that when a Republican is next elected to the White House, there are inevitably going to be an ongoing war on terrorism and shrill partisan attacks from Democrats. Is there any evidence that the conservative movement has unlearned its damaging habit of meting out loyalty in direct proportion to the ferocity of liberal attacks? I’d argue that there isn’t, and cite Sarah Palin as exhibit A, though there is other evidence. Take the pop-up ad on the American Spectator’s Web site, where Mark Levin says that it’s one of his favorite publications, not because it’s well reported, or right on the merits, but because “it drives liberals crazy.” Fox News and Human Events use this same trope. Too often the right’s actions are determined by the passions of the most vitriolic folks on the left, a reflex that hasn’t served conservatives well, but that I’ve seen offered as a defense of the right more than as a self-criticism of it.

Of course, you’d be right to say that some conservatives criticized George W. Bush rather consistently—though none who are running in 2012, insofar as I know—and you might even argue that some of the anger on the right these days, though directed at Barack Obama, is as much a release of pent up frustration from the Bush years. Several folks said as much at Tea Parties earlier this year. You’ve even written that the race in New York’s 23rd Congressional District is significant insofar as it shows that a community of Republican moderates are now rallying behind a conservative candidate.

I’m agnostic on the implications of that race. What I fear, however, is a narrative on the right that explains away George W. Bush’s failures by saying that his compassionate conservatism was suspect from the beginning, that now we know better, and that the right will finally see dividends if only it elects real conservatives to Congress, rather than RINOs.

It isn’t that I don’t understand why some are adopting that theory. It surely resonates if you’re a member of the conservative base who is at a loss to explain how the right accomplished so little, and harmed so much, during its time heading all three branches of government.

But if the base imagines that the problem was insufficiently conservative political leaders, and that the solution is getting rid of “squishies,” they’ve mis-analyzed the past.

The late-is-better-than-never laments about George W. Bush never seem to acknowledge that the missteps of the last 8 years were also the fault of people like Tom Delay, a guy you’d never hear called a “compassionate conservative” or a RINO, but who bears significant responsibility for the fiscally reckless prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, the K street project, damage done to the GOP by the Jack Abramoff scandal, etc. Even a cursory look at the main players behind the scenes during the Bush Administration demonstrated that the problem wasn’t grounded in political beliefs – earmarks aren’t “compassionate conservatism,” and Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter weren’t leading the legislative agenda – it was grounded in corrupt, largely conservative partisan Republicans whose indefensible acts went unchallenged by much of movement conservatism, because Ronald Reagan commanded that Republicans should never attack each other, or the Democrats are worse, or political winners don’t unilaterally disarm themselves, or the angry liberals were so unhinged that I felt I had to defend my guys, or Okay, I see your point, but this isn’t the time.

When is the time?

Despite the last 8 years, which should’ve taught the lesson that wrongheaded behavior must be challenged – even when your political allies are engaging in it – I see ample evidence of the same old attitude throughout the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Yes, the attacks on President Obama and Congressional Democrats are increasingly effective. Perhaps there is even resurgence in principled conservatism among some GOP voters.

Even so, electing Republicans, or even conservatives, isn’t an end in itself – it’s supposed to be a means to the end of improving the country by governing better than any of the alternatives. As Michael Brendan Dougherty recently noted on Twitter, the conservative movement “has failed to shrink scope of government (besides some taxes) for 70 years.” It is “good at feathering its nests, not advancing its agenda.” Should it take power again, can we expect “more bailouts? More unwinnable wars? I’m serious. How is it different this time?”

These are vital questions. I pose them as someone who wants to vote for a resurgent, functional conservatism that finds its political home in the GOP, but I think the only way you get there is by routing out intellectual and financial corruption within the movement, developing a successful strategy for actually governing if you’re elected, tempering ideology with pragmatism, and obliterating the impulse to sycophantic partisan loyalty that did so much harm during the Bush Administration. Is there evidence I’m unaware of that these kinds of reforms are happening? Because I haven’t seen any, and I can certainly point to ongoing intellectual corruption, financial corruption, and sycophantic loyalty within the conservative movement (criticism that still results in the messenger being labeled a traitor).

This isn’t to say that I won’t keep encouraging Congress to pass the kind of health care reform I’d prefer, as opposed to what President Obama favors, or that I won’t vote for any Republicans – I will if I regard them to be the better candidate – or that “the Democrats are better” (though at present I think they are less inclined to involve us in unnecessary foreign wars – you’ve gamely admitted that the Iraq War was a mistake in hindsight, but how many among the 2012 contenders will say the same thing? Isn’t that disconcerting?).

It is to say that if I’m going to prefer Republicans as a general matter, or identify with the conservative movement – as opposed to the political philosophy of conservatism – I’m going to need to see evidence that I’m not signing up for a repeat of 2000 to 2008.

Instead I am seeing Sarah Palin cited as the preferred presidential candidate among the base in 2012, never mind concerns about her inexperience, because she’s “authentic,” and she “excites people,” and she “understands what we’re up against in the War on Terror,” and because “she’s been treated worse by liberals than any other politician, and that must mean she is doing something right.” I’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.

That’s why I am sympathetic to the “conservative dissidents,” despite my many policy differences with them. Unlike the base, I don’t think politicians who are squishy on substance did in Republicans. I think what brought down the right is a corrupt conservative movement, without insufficient capacity for constructive criticism, and beset by heretic hunters who denounced anyone engaged in critical thinking. Long live the dissidents. Long live debates. Long live partisan and ideological disloyalty if it means routing out corruption.

Am I wrong?


Conor Friedersdorf

A Blogger's Lament

October 1, 2009

…but someone is wrong on the Internet!

In a comment about politics, Kevin Drum writes, “I sure feel crazier these days. How about you?” Yes, I think I do feel crazy, because almost every day lately I am flabbergasted by a subset of people for whom all political conversation is treated as if it’s some kind of kabuki dance. It frustrates me to no end, and if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll offer an example.

There is one necessary piece of background information — the depressing Web site Newsmax published a column by a guy named John L. Perry outlining all the reasons it would make sense for the military to depose Barack Obama, all but advocating that it happen.

Now set that aside and consider something I wrote yesterday:

…readers ask who I think would be a successful Republican candidate in 2012. I take this to mean “someone who could plausibly defeat President Obama’s bid for re-election.”

My somewhat uninformed guesses: David Petraeus and Colin Powell (who’d have all kinds of difficulty winning the primary). These accomplished generals share one related trait: deep credibility as men who are serious about national security, enabling them to run as sane, experienced stewards, rather than bellicose idiots so desperate to seem toughest on terrorism that they spend the primaries calling for “doubling Gitmo” and competing to see who would torture in more contrived ticking time bomb situations.

They’re also both post-partisan figures of the kind that Americans seem to like, haven’t got long voting records to be picked apart, and can nevertheless credibly claim more executive experience than President Obama. I’m sure there are other candidates who could also mount a credible challenge, though I don’t know who they are.

Obviously there is a difference between saying “David Petraeus is the man with the best shot at beating President Obama in 2012,” and saying, “I want David Petraeus to run for president and win in 2012.” As it happens, I very clearly said the former, and I don’t actually know who my ideal candidate in 2012 is, or whether I’ll vote for President Obama or whoever runs against him, or even whether I’ll cast a ballot at all.

But okay, some folks took my post as a statement that David Petraeus is my ideal 2012 candidate — probably due to analysis I offered about the likelihood that he’d run on a saner foreign policy platform than other Republicans. I don’t particularly mind that mistaken assumption. It is in the nature of blogging that some nuances get lost, whether due to sloppiness by the author or the reader. I am guilty on both sides all the time.

What I mind is the blogger Doug J at Balloon Juice, a reasonably popular blog, who read the post I excerpted above and wrote this:

Maybe I’m way off base on this, but in my opinion, the Conor Friedersdorfs and Nicole Wallaces of the right aren’t so different from coupmeister John L. Perry. The idea of David Petraeus sweeping in and becoming president in 2012 isn’t unethical or unconstitutional, but I can’t help but think that Friedersdorf and Wallace simply want an institution they see as Republican—the military—to depose a Democratic president they dislike. (Friedersorf’s other preferred candidate is Colin Powell.)

The desire to depose Obama runs much deeper on the right—even the so-called moderate right—than anyone is willing to admit. The Perry piece wasn’t any kind of outlier.

Though I realize that this isn’t any more egregious than all sorts of stuff that gets published each day in the blogosphere, and that I may be trying the patience of readers by highlighting it at such length, I can only say that for whatever reason I feel a particular contempt for that post, and were its author sitting in a dunk tank right now I’d forgo throwing baseballs and just use my fist to depress the lever so as to reciprocate his sense of fair play.

Imagine it! Writing that David Petraues is the guy who’d enjoy the most success were he to run on the Republican ticket, and being told as a result that deep down you want the military to depose President Obama — a notion that the bulk of Balloon Juice commenters accept as sound analysis.

There is, in truth, zero desire on the moderate right “to depose Obama,” an absurd assertion all its own, but what bothers me here is the ease with which a literate person considered worth reading by his fellow citizens jumps to the most absurd conclusions about someone — me in this case — because I am on the right. Insofar as conversations across ideology are necessary for a healthy polity, it is depressing to see how many erroneous assumptions his orthodoxies of thought so quickly produce — that I dislike President Obama, that I am a Republican, that I see the military as Republican, that I harbor desires about the 2012 election that I will not admit, and that I want the president deposed, if you care for a list.