There has been, on the Right, a terrible confusion these past two decades–a confusion between the precepts of conservatism and the role of the Republican party. In all its iterations, American conservatism is about matters of conviction on all manner of subjects from the role of the United States in the world to the role of government in our lives to the role of moral questions in political life. The Republican party is not about these things. It is a political vehicle, and as such it represents not a worldview but a tendency. That tendency can be summed up very simply–smaller rather than larger government; a stronger rather than a weaker America; and traditional rather than evolutionary values.
The Republican party fared well from, say, 1968 to 2008 because, for the most part, Americans tended to side with the general sense that smaller rather than larger government was best; that it was better to project strength; and that it was better to hue to established ways. It is not clear that the American people still have this general sense, or they are more willing to try on a different outfit right now. What they did not sign up for, what they never signed up for, was specific ideological combat in these categories. To wit: they might like traditional values per se, but that does not lead them to support Congressional intervention in the question of whether Terri Schiavo’s life support should or should not be removed. They might like strength, but that does not mean they signed up for five years of war. They might like the idea of smaller government, but that does not guide them with respect to an economic crisis in which the small-government candidate talks more passionately about Congressional earmarks rather than what is to be done to save the banking system.
The defection of Arlen Specter from the GOP, following the effort by the Club of Growth to target him for defeat in the Republican primary, is an example of how confused conservative ideologues can get about the nature of the Republican party. Specter is, without question, a political snake of the highest order, and in many ways the worst kind of politician–one who sniffs the air and puts his finger to the wind and then has the colossal temerity to declare that he is doing so out of conviction. But there are lots of snakes in politics. Specter enraged Republicans by voting for the stimulus package. But he is also standing in opposition to the effort by labor unions to end the secret ballot. He wasn’t much, and he wasn’t good, but aiming for his destruction without thinking about the recourse that he might have to resort to is, without question, the most self-destructive act in modern political history. His defection to the Democratic party, which will, in short order, deprive the Republicans of any power whatsoever in the Senate.
Politics is not about casting the easy vote for the person you admire. It’s really about choosing the least bad alternative. The foes of Specter in Pennsylvania thought their least bad alternative was challenging him in a primary he would lose. Now they will really discover what the least bad alternative might have been. And so will we all.