Commentary Magazine

The Purpose of Political Parties

To the Editor: 

I find the analysis by Michael Medved and John Podhoretz of the recent vote on  funding  ObamaCare troubling [“A GOP Civil War: Who Benefits?” December 2013]. There have been many government shutdowns in recent years with questionable electoral consequences. This one, affecting only 17 percent of the government and relatively few people, was hardly unique.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect was blaming the Republicans for the shutdown. It was clear from the beginning that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted a government shutdown not only as a diversion from the many scandals facing the White House, but also as a weapon to use against Republicans. When you have nothing positive to say about your accomplishments, blame the other side. It’s terribly effective. When it comes to deliberations and a compromise is not forthcoming, is it not the “fault” of both parties not to have come to an agreement? Furthermore, Obama declared that he would not negotiate, while the Republicans continually reduced their demands, eventually submitting entirely. There was absolutely no concession given on the Democrats’ side. Also, the Republican House passed two bills: one to delay ObamaCare, and the other to keep the government funded.

Who, then, was the more responsible party?

While it is true that the Republicans were mostly blamed, it is not clear that this will be a significant issue in the 2014 elections. If Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, et al. gave up without a fight, clearly frustrating their constituents and other supporters, they may well have compromised their base, causing more damage to the GOP than even the shutdown did. Indeed, these conservatives were applauded by many for their courage and resolve. And, as a matter of fact, they did capitulate after it became clear to them that further resistance would not work in favor of the GOP. It is uncharacteristically demeaning of the authors to suggest—without evidence—that these Republican senators voiced their conservative principles to selfishly promote themselves. 

It is most unfortunate that the radical transformative policies of the Obama administration are creating such a fundamental divide within the Republican Party. Alas, democracy is never easy.

C.P. Lefkowitz
Rancho Palos Verdes, California

To the Editor:

So Michael Medved and John Podhoretz, according to their article, think a circular firing squad is a bad idea for the Republicans? Well, yes. They are right on target. Unfortunately, their targets are fellow conservatives.

For instance, Messrs. Medved and Podhoretz cite Newt Gingrich’s charges in the 2012 primary season against Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital as “over-the-top” and “repurposed” by the Obama campaign. What they neglect is the scorched-earth policy of Mitt Romney against Gingrich in Iowa (and afterwards, against any other Republican challenger) that provoked Gingrich’s belated response? In the lead up to the Iowa 2012 caucus, I and my fellow Iowans were inundated by direct-mail pieces, radio, TV, Internet ads, and robo-calls that were brutal toward whoever was beating Romney in the polls. One of a series of direct-mail pieces, for instance, had superimposed over a newspaper headlined “Gingrich Will Quit as Speaker of the House,” the following: “YOU CAN’T TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS,” “ethical wrongdoing,” “misleading,” “untrue,” “inability to lead,” “Super-Consultant,” “Federal Mandate Supporter,” “Unreliable Conservative,” “NEWT GINGRICH: UNRELIABLE LEADER.” And this is only one side of the ad. None of Romney’s accomplishments, vision, or solutions were mentioned in these Romney ads. There was only a small “Paid for by Romney for President, Inc.”

Really, weren’t Romney’s ads a little “over-the-top?” (Followed by Romney’s “under-the-top” campaign against Obama.) This is a pattern: The more-conservative Republicans attack the less-conservative; then, when the more-conservative party responds, he is accused of being the aggressor.

Messrs. Medved and Podhoretz rely on a number of personal anecdotes to build their case. Having lived in California for a few decades, I can assure you that the reason California turned dependably Democratic isn’t because a Republican boor in a seersucker suit gave an in-your-face response to a young Michael Medved. More likely it was a number of complex electoral, judicial, and demographic changes, such as the Federal Court’s overturning Proposition 187 (preventing illegal immigrants from using public services)? I agreed with Messrs. Medved and Podhoretz that only the Democrats benefit from a GOP civil war. My suggestion, then, to end this circular firing squad: Stop shooting.

H. Ben Winkler
Santa Rosa, California

To the Editor:

Michael Medved and John Podhoretz should understand that a civil war has already broken out within the GOP. Brought on by the self-serving “establishment elitists,” the gauntlet of political battle has been laid down at our feet. To that, most Tea Party supporters have a universal response: “Bring it!”

Can you blame us? The recent meltdown by the weak-kneed, teary-eyed John Boehner typifies the rhetoric of the spiteful “Whigs” who are bullying their own base, assuredly to their own self-destruction. Speaker Boehner says that because we conservatives are willing to actually fight for constitutional and conservative government we have “lost all credibility” and glibly adds, “I don’t care what they do.” The hapless Eric Cantor remains Boehner’s compliant “ol’ chum,” aiding his push for bigger government, rolling over on ObamaCare, and crafting blanket amnesty in the smoke-filled rooms. Add to that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s remark that we deserve a collective “punch in the nose.” Now, finally, an impressive array of lobbyists, big-business leaders, and media wonks have lined up against patriots whose sole aim is to refresh the parched political landscape with the life stream of liberty. 

The rank-and-file grassroots supporters are so sick of the big-government, tax-and-spend liberal Republicans who have brought our republic to its knees, so tired of the rhetoric of conservatism, followed time after time by the realpolitik of socialism, and so completely fed up with the absolute lack of spine in the Republican leadership, that they are ready to take this elephant by the tusks and have it out. And the battlefield is, of course, the primary-election landscape.

The Tea Party and other conservative groups would do well to remember the admonition of the mothers of ancient Sparta, as they sent their sons off to war—“Come home with your shield, or come home on it!” They should remember, too, Lincoln’s famous citing of the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” It must become all one thing, or all the other. For the sake of the nation and our posterity, let us hope that the “thing” we become will once again be a free republic, restored to us by a brave band of gritty, determined, out-gunned, and out-spent patriots who did not shrink from the call to give their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Laurence Nordvig
Richmond, Virginia

To the Editor:

Based on the cover photo and headline of Michael Medved’s and John Podhoretz’s article, I was expecting an incisive, balanced look at the current factions within the GOP. But what I read was a hit piece, the kind Michael Moore or MSNBC would conjure.

For starters, the analogy to the U.S. Civil War is faulty. In the Civil War, one side was clearly right and one wrong, and to liken the Tea Party to the Confederacy (Ted Cruz’s action being akin to the attack on Fort Sumter) is to do what leftists do routinely. The article goes on to connect a foolish comment on the death of RFK to what the Tea Party or hard-line conservatives are doing today. This is as intellectually lazy as the photojournalists who find the lone Confederate flag waver at a Tea Party rally and cry, “See, they are all racist.” The authors themselves try to immediately back away from the comment saying it does not represent the norm, but why mention it if they don’t believe it. And if they believe it, they’re wrong.

The article also seems completely unaware of itself. The aforementioned prosecution by invisible association, the authors tell us, is what leftists routinely did to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. How can those on the right do the same thing to one of their own? The entire article is an attack on fellow Republicans: The authors impute to Ted Cruz and the like motives of greed, partisanship, and pandering for his hold-the-line stance. They might as well throw accusations of racism or insanity into the mix while they are demeaning him.

I count myself as a moderate, Northeastern conservative, so I take no pleasure at the flubs of the Akins and Mourdocks of the world. But, contrary to the article’s assertion, I believe style is important and it has been a loser on the national ticket the past two election cycles. Putting aside down-ballot candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney were presented to us by establishment Republicans as the must-have candidates. They were calm, rational, moderate, and ready to compromise. Both were blowout losers to a candidate who was entirely beatable (especially in 2012, when the economy and all of Obama’s other failures were so obvious).

And now the advice from the authors is, don’t go with Ted Cruz; trust us and our guys. I’m sorry, but the trust is not there, and some of us like the passion and willingness to really punch back that Cruz, Lee, and others demonstrate consistently. Romney could have crushed Obama in the foreign-policy debate on Benghazi, but he chose to go easy. Style is more important now than ever against an opposition that will do and say anything to slander our side. Yet the authors sound as patronizing and paternalistic as Democrats who say, “If you ever want to win back the White House, you’ll have to marginalize the Tea Party.” 

Indeed, the only great political success the GOP has had since 2004 was in 2010, and that was fueled by the folks the authors go after in this article. The piece goes to great lengths to say that primary challenges can irretrievably damage incumbents, but did they ever think that by so viciously beating up a challenger from the right, if he or she actually won the primary, opponents wouldn’t use their words against our nominees or get “tepid” support from the ousted incumbent?

There is a debate to be had if the Tea Party and other voices farther on the right are ultimately the future of the GOP, but this article doesn’t want to entertain such questions.

Randy Steinberg
Lexington, Massachusetts

To the Editor:

The mixture of truths and half-truths concocted by Michael Medved and John Podhoretz is hard to deal with. One thing the authors refuse to deal with, however, is that compassionate or moderate conservatives are as much in love with an ever-expanding government as are radical Democrats such as Teddy Kennedy. Mitch McConnell, in particular, has profited from his stay in Washington somewhat like, for example, Henry Clay, one of his predecessors in office. Despite good intentions, he failed when the chips were down.

John Schuh
Lake Dallas, Texas

To the Editor:

Michael Medved and John Podhoretz claim that the GOP civil war is all about tactics, style, and the self-promotion of a few (admittedly imperfect) Tea Party leaders. But by resolutely refusing to engage with the substance of their opponents’ views, they demonstrate why the war is necessary.

America does not need two unlimited-government parties: one devoted to social welfare, the other to corporate welfare. America needs a major party genuinely devoted to the ideal of limited government. Yes, that means rolling back the welfare state, not just managing it for one’s cronies, whether on Main Street or on Wall Street, at Blackwater or at the Pentagon.

True conservatives understand that the path we are on is leading to total moral and financial bankruptcy. If the GOP civil war resulted in the birth of a new mainstream party truly desirous of changing that path, America as a whole would be the grateful beneficiary.

James A. Barham
Chicago, Illinois

To the Editor:

Michael Medved and John Podhoretz, as I read their article, are advising conservative populists that to get along, they just have to go along with the GOP establishment. The tone of the article is softened New York Times–speak—directing the accusing finger at conservative populists who just happen to believe in liberty and justice for all, not the “ambitious sacrifice of the many, to the aggrandizement of the few” that is, I believe, the result, if not the express aim, of establishment rule. (To understand the American idea of populism, please see the first half of Federalist No. 57, attributed to James Madison.)

Not mentioned by Messrs. Medved and Podhoretz is the refusal of the Republican establishment to support, in general elections, the New Jersey campaign for U.S. Senate of Steve Lonegan and the Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Ken Cuccinelli. The Republican establishment seems to follows this rule: Our support does not follow the support of voters in a primary election. The open tent envisioned by the Republican establishment apparently excludes conservatives committed to the principles on which the Constitution was established.

I would ask Messrs. Medved and Podhoretz, should the Republican establishment crush conservatives, who will stand with them against the zealous left? The Republican establishment will realize, too late, if at all, that it has played Kerensky to the neo-Leninists who, I sense, prefer not only a single-payer health-insurance system, but a single-party political system, with a two-tiered economic system consisting of a government-approved 1 percent and, well, the masses.

David R. Zukerman
Bronx, New York

Medved and Podhoretz respond:

Our Article had a simple point: Political parties are entities whose purpose is to win elections, and those who seek to hamper a party’s ability to win an election are doing it no favors. In the United States, the Democratic Party is aligned with the left; the Republican Party with the right. They are not ideological movements; they are vehicles for politicians and voters. But by fomenting discord within and actively pursuing failure without, some on the right in 2013 were working to damage the only electoral vehicle they have against the left-liberalism they say they want to reverse. Instead, they seemed determined to target those on their own side of the political divide rather than making common cause to win future elections that offer the only real possibility of change from the Obama status quo.

Pursuing a political strategy that aims to limit the reach and scope of a party is the very definition of self-defeating, because parties stand or fall based on how many people they can get to vote for them. They must find a practical balance between the ideals they espouse—which necessitates standing firm on certain key issues and not budging—and the large tent they must erect to cover as many people as possible.

These passionate letters demonstrate the problems we sought to diagnose. They are angry, not only at our article but also at the cooler heads in the GOP who saw the shutdown strategy of October 2013 as the very definition of an unforced error.

Their anger expresses itself in wild distortions of reality. John Schuh says that moderate conservatives love government every bit as much as the late Ted Kennedy—the same “moderate conservatives” who stood united against Obama-Care and have voted against it again and again. As we pointed out in the article, to embrace the notion that John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell are liberals is to recast reality. Laurence Nordvig actually wants a civil war within the GOP. David R. Zukerman falsely accuses the GOP “establishment” of undermining the recent candidacies of Steve Lonegan and Ken Cucinelli when one of us, Michael, welcomed them as guests on his radio show and spoke in complimentary terms of their candidacies. Meanwhile, the same Republican leadership he indicts has succeeded in preventing even a single member of the House GOP for voting for any of Obama’s chief priorities.  James A. Barham hopes for the creation of a new party in the wake of that war, as if such a development would achieve anything other than a perpetuation of Democratic rule. 

The underlying problem in most of the letters is the implicit acceptance of the “Civil War” analogy as applicable to the current tensions in the GOP—when the entire purpose of our article was to deride that comparison. The American Civil War was a titanic struggle between irreconcilable forces motivated by the most significant issues in our national history. The Republican squabbles are about strategy and style, not substance. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell may disagree about the best way to promote their principles, but there is no meaningful difference in the goals they seek to advance. The old days of wrenching debate between Goldwater Republicans and Rockefeller Republicans have disappeared along with any remnant of Rockefeller Republicans. The GOP is a deeply, appropriately conservative party with all of its most prominent leaders committed to smaller government, lower taxes, reduced deficits, strong national defense, protection of gun rights, support for the traditional family, and improved border security. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich offered starkly different leadership models in their campaign for the presidential nomination, but it’s impossible to think of a single significant issue on which their policies diverged. Gingrich, by the way, joined nearly all conservative leaders with significant congressional experience in disapproving of the Ted Cruz shutdown strategy, both before and after its collapse. In other words, the war within the GOP isn’t about risking “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” It’s about political gamesmanship and personal advancement and building a donor base for future ventures. It’s a war about nothing—a Seinfeldian war, without the humor.

Laurence Nordvig hopes to cheer future GOP contenders by invoking the Spartan admonition to “come home with your shield, or come home on it.” This assumes that political combatants who lose their races make a significant sacrifice for a higher cause. First, if 20 Republican congressional nominees all run principled but doomed races and hand victory to the Democrats, they haven’t weakened the opposition, they’ve strengthened it. Second, a losing political race isn’t always a personal sacrifice—such races turned little-known regional politicians like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum into national celebrities. If you lose some pointless primary challenge today you don’t have to come home on your shield; you can come home with a talk show contract.

Finally, the ancient Spartans understood something about conflict that some of their modern admirers have forgotten: the need to put aside differences and unite against a common enemy. The heroes of Thermopylae forgot about their differences with the Athenians and stood together against the advancing Persian hordes. If today’s conservatives refuse to follow that example and persist in emphasizing demeaning and unnecessary internal bickering, they will render themselves defenseless against the advancing hordes of progressivism. 

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