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The Republican establishment and the conservative base — who should fire whom?

During the past twenty years or so, the Republican establishment and the conservative base have operated pursuant to an unwritten accommodation. The Party nominates an establishment candidate who receives the base’s support; the establishment nominee embraces all major positions of the conservative base.

Mitt Romney, for example, ran as a down-the-line conservative in 2012. Before he began seriously contemplating a run for the presidency, however, Romney was a moderate on key social issues. And it’s unlikely that the real Romney held all of the hard-line views on illegal immigration that he articulated during the primary season. But having made himself into a down-the-line conservative, Romney received solid support from the base in the general election (and a decent amount of its support during the primaries).

Before the 2008 election season, John McCain had clashed with the conservative base on the Bush tax cuts and, most famously, immigration. Both were core issues for conservatives.

But during the campaign, McCain ran as an unabashed tax cutter. In addition, he backed away from comprehensive immigration reform, insisting that we “build the damn fence” before anything else happens.

The conservative base, though never fully buying into McCain, backed him in the general election (and never rallied solidly around an alternative during the primaries).

In 2000, George W. Bush ran as a traditional Reaganite conservative — solid on economic issues, national security, and social issues. Consequently, he received strong backing from conservatives in both the primaries and the general election.

To be sure, Bush grafted “compassionate conservatism” onto Reagan’s three-legged stool. But during the campaign, he made conservatives understand his compassion to be embodied in things like “faith-based initiative” that didn’t clash with the more straight forward conservatism. Only after Bush was elected did we come to understand that compassionate conservatism also meant new spending programs and amnesty for illegal aliens.

Flash forward to 2013, and we find that the defeat of McCain and Romney has made large chunks of the GOP establishment unhappy with the accommodation described above. They want a new arrangement in which the base continues to back establishment candidates, but these candidates are no longer required to take conservative positions across-the-board.

Different establishment types have different preferences as to which conservative stances shall be thrown overboard. Most seem to favor eliminating opposition to amnesty for illegal aliens. Many favor eliminating opposition to gay marriage. Some, having seen the Party accused of a war on women, would like to see a moderation regarding the issue of abortion.

We also hear calls for a less interventionist foreign policy and a more libertarian posture regarding the war on terror. They come mainly from outside the establishment, but so far the establishment as a whole hasn’t pushed back very hard. Meanwhile, some establishment thinkers believe that conservatives are too obsessed with lowering tax rates for high-earners which, after all, pale in comparison to the ones Ronald Reagan attacked.

Naturally, the conservative base is no happier than the establishment about back-to-back defeats in presidential races to Barack Obama They too grumble about the accommodation. Many in the base would like to nominate non-establishment candidates — or at least candidates that don’t resemble McCain or Romney — to uphold traditionally conservative positions.

The base may have the better of this argument, as long as it doesn’t abandon common sense in its preference for presidential nominees. McCain and Romney indisputably were sub-optimal candidates. And in terms of issues, nearly all positions taken by Romney on the major ones in 2012 enjoyed, at a minimum, roughly plurality support among the electorate. This includes opposition to amnesty and to gay marriage (though this may not be true for long, or even as I write this). And I can’t think of any position Romney took that was as unpopular as Obamacare.

Accordingly, there’s a pretty good case that our main problem has been our candidates, not our issues.

Moreover, political parties are supposed to stand for something. They should always be quicker to think about nominating better candidates than about abandoning the principles for which they have long stood.

In the end, however, it doesn’t make much different who has the better grievance — the establishment or the base. What matters is that each is thinking seriously about firing the other.

The result could be quite ugly. But maybe there’s a candidate waiting in the wings who can bridge the gap.

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