Are You a Ned Lamont Republican?

Published October 25, 2006

National Review Online

Are we turning into the Ned Lamont Republicans? No, I’m not talking about Republicans racing for the exits in Iraq. I’m talking about the Ned Lamont-style party pure-o-crats of the Right: the folks who hope to punish insufficiently conservative Republicans by handing over Congress to the Democrats. At least Ned Lamont supporters once believed they could win the general election. Pure-o-cratic Ned Lamont Republicans, on the other hand, openly hope to lose; they are destroying their insufficiently pure party with eyes wide open, seriously intending to hand Nancy Pelosi the speakership, actually expecting to see the president’s hands tied by a dovish Democratic congress, perfectly willing to sweep away the last remaining barriers to unrestricted immigration, and doing it all in the belief that we’ll sail through all these calamities no worse for the wear.

I say “Ned Lamont,” but I really mean “Eugene McCarthy.” The purifying began for the Democrats with the anti-war presidential candidacy of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. That year, anti-war Democrats were angry at Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee, for his refusal to repudiate President Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. Humphrey was a classic liberal, and a vice president who simply wanted to stay loyal to his president. If elected, Humphrey would very likely have followed a more dovish foreign policy than Johnson — or certainly than Richard Nixon. Yet by staying home on Election Day to punish an insufficiently dovish Humphrey, the Eugene McCarthy Democrats handed the presidency to Richard Nixon. Clever, huh?

Besides obtaining the worst conceivable election result from the standpoint of their own policy preferences, what did the McCarthy Democrats achieve? Well, in addition to handing the country over to their bitterest Republican foe, within four years, the liberal McCarthy Democrats succeeded in taking over their party. Not only did these dovish Democrats nominate an anti-war candidate named George McGovern for the presidency in 1972, the McCarthy-McGovern Democrats instituted a set of race and gender quotas for convention delegates that insured left-wing control of the Democratic party for years to come. Brilliant. (Except for that whole issue of winning elections, that is.)

Sure, in the wake of the can’t-miss opportunity provided by the Watergate fiasco, the Democrats managed to elect a moderate southerner named Jimmy Carter. Yet Carter only cemented the Democrats’ dovish image, sparking the “neocon” defection, and ushering in the era of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. This year, the McCarthy-McGovern-Nader-Dean-Lamont Democrats, following their grand tradition of suicidal idiocy, will likely be responsible for one of the few electoral bright spots in the country: the triumphant return of Joe Lieberman to the Senate.

Joe Lieberman may be one of the mere handful of citizens who still remember something called a “bipartisan foreign policy.” And it isn’t only the Democrats who’ve forgotten that such a thing ever existed — or what it means to lose it. Ned Lamont Republicans seem oblivious to the dangers of operating in an environment stripped of a bipartisan foreign policy.

Our country is now so deeply divided that a huge number of Democrats, and vast sections of the mainstream media, are actually rooting for the United States to lose a war. That’s not a wild accusation; it’s a simple fact, as anyone who’s been paying the least bit of attention understands. Ever since our army got a day or two’s worth of indigestion early on in its rapid and spectacularly successful military invasion of Iraq, the media and the Democrats have been aching for a failure to tout. Now that we face genuine problems in Iraq, the doves are in seventh heaven. And unfortunately, this all-too-public rooting for defeat in Iraq tends be a self-fulfilling prophesy. There may have been a moment when thoughtful conservatives could afford to send a message to their Republican leaders by handing the country over to the Democrats. This is not that moment.

Two years. That is more than enough time for this country to be drawn into a decisive showdown with emerging nuclear powers of North Korea and Iran. A Democratic Congress gives Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a giant-sized green light to go nuclear. And it surely ties the president’s hands if he determines, at any point in the next two years, that we’ve got to take aggressive action to halt the proliferation disaster we now face.

But hey, no worries. We can restore deterrence in the face of North Korean ICBMs with that huge anti-missile system Speaker Pelosi will surely agree to pay for. Illegal immigrants? No problem. We can depend on a Democratic Congress to put a first-class border security operation in place, with a fine new fence, and a substantial force of crack immigration agents. And besides, even if things don’t work out that way, we’ll all have fun getting really, really angry at that nasty old Speaker Pelosi. And, of course, that will guarantee the election of a wonderfully conservative president and Congress in 2008. Right?

Yeah. For sure. Go conservatives! Except for the tiny little fact that this is not the way the 2008 election is going to play out. No, our polite little JPod/K-Lo ribbing society is merely the cuddly warm-up version of the super-sized Republican slugfest we’re going to see in 2008. How exactly do “real” conservatives intend to put a true-blue (I mean true-red) NRO/NRODT-reading contender into power in 2008? Do those Republicans planning to stay home in 2006 see John McCain and Rudy Giuliani as the answer to their conservative dreams? I don’t think so. But take JPod’s advice and look at those polls. You’re never going to bump Giuliani or McCain in favor of Romney (or some other more conservative candidate) without a long, bruising, and divisive primary campaign. That’s going to split the party along ideological lines, and risks leaving any strongly conservative nominee who emerges from the battle seeming too far right for the country as a whole.

I’m not saying I favor McCain or Giuliani. Actually, I’m hoping for a more conservative nominee than either of them. But the reality is that the centrist candidates for the 2008 Republican nomination start with a huge lead in name recognition and popularity. That means a less well-known, but more conservative candidate will probably have to go negative to win. Ronald Reagan’s “eleventh commandment” (Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican) is going to be violated repeatedly in 2008. Just look at what’s happening now! If Reagan were alive, he’d say: “I haven’t seen this much commandment violation since the golden calf. And I ought to know. I was there.”

And I haven’t heard so many fairy tales since my parents gave me bedtime readings from Mother Goose. The latest yarn from conservatives goes like this: We gently punish the Republicans in 2006, then come roaring back in with a genuinely conservative Congress and president in 2008. Hooray!

Funny, I thought conservatives understood things like “unintended consequences.” Conservatives who believe a little rough medicine in 2006 guarantees a Reagan-like president and a Gingrich-like Congress in 2008 are indulging in the worst sort of utopian fantasy. (Hey, maybe there’s something to all those warnings about self-reinforcing Internet ghettos after all.)

Unfortunately, 1964 is every bit as likely to be the analogy for 2008 as is 1980 or 1994. In 1964, Goldwater conservatives rudely rejected a moderate and nationally popular Republican governor of New York named Nelson Rockefeller — on strictly ideological grounds. After that, it was easy to make Goldwater out to be an extremist. In a bid to turn the tables on his critics, Goldwater actually embraced the extremist label (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…”). No vice? No dice. The Goldwater convention ended in disaster.

Oh yes, I’ve heard the wonderful story — this one no fairy ta
le, but a true story about how Ronald Reagan and the authentically conservative Republicans rose from the ashes of the Goldwater debacle and ushered in a new conservative era. Great. But it took sixteen years in the wilderness — and the suicidal madness of the McCarthy-McGovern-Nader-Dean-Lamont Democrats — to make that happen.

Don’t get me wrong. I want a conservative Republican president and conservative Congress in 2008. My preferences aren’t set in stone, but as presidential nominees go, Romney’s looking good to me now. And certainly I think that Romney, or someone like him, can win. But I have no illusions about what it will take to put a seriously conservative president in the White House in 2008. The road to victory moves directly through a lengthy and bruising, ideologically focused, intra-party struggle of a sort that Republicans haven’t had to face in decades. Republicans seem to have forgotten that this sort of intra-party bloodletting isn’t reserved for Democrats alone. There is every possibility that the inevitable internal Republican battle to come will hand victory to a Democratic party with ever fewer credible challengers to Hillary Clinton.

So if some conservatives believe they have the luxury of killing off their party and handing Congress (and the defense of this country) over to the Democrats, and that then they can somehow simply turn everything around on a dime two years from now, they are grossly mistaken. We Republicans have the bigger tent. Strike that tent, and we may all soon be out in the cold.

Not that I oppose some well targeted punishment for a few egregiously liberal Republicans. Lincoln Chaffee? Forget about it. Whatever the risks to our Senate majority, making that guy pay for being so far over the line is entirely justified — and wise. Collectively targeting a few folks like Chaffee sends a salutary message, without seriously endangering the position of the party as a whole.

But telling Republicans nationally to stay home?

Wake up. We are losing the war on terror. The non-proliferation regime that has held (however imperfectly) for the last fifty years is mere inches from collapse, with potentially catastrophic results. Our country is divided between those rooting for us to win in Iraq, and those rooting for us to lose. The immigration battle is one house of Congress away from becoming a permanent rout. The least conservative Republican candidates for the presidential nomination are far in the lead, and will not be defeated without a bruising negative battle that risks leaving the party as a whole seeming too far to the right of the country as a whole. Hillary is sure to make good use of our internal divisions in a presidential campaign that could easily succeed. Nancy Pelosi may well serve as speaker for the duration of Hillary’s presidency. And Bill? Break out the welcome mat for the second co-president of the United States.

Wake up, Ned Lamont Republicans. For decades now, suicidal liberals have handed conservatives this country on a platter. Are we about to return the favor?

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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