Alex Massie

Going to the Ball Does Not Guarantee A Right to Dance

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So Washington will just have to make do with government-as-normal after all. Oh well. The White House appears to have decided that the best way to respond to defeat is to just call it victory and hope no-one notices. Hence President Obama's speech this evening in which he will take credit for a budget deal he resisted. That's fine. That's politics.

The numbers, of course, are trivial. A $38bn cut in federal outlays is a fraction of a tiny fraction of the matter. Nevertheless, it's a political victory for the GOP, not least since spending-restraint is not something this President is interested in. Nor, of course, was his predecessor but that was then and this is now. To the extent framing matters, it's Republicans 1 Democrats 0 even though no-one, obviously, can be very impressed with any of the actual budget plans scuttling up and down Pennsylvania Avenue these past few days.

Maybe Obama will respond with a credible plan for longer-term fiscal reform but I wouldn't bet on it happening. More likely, there'll be a continued and hypothetical acceptance that something must be done but stout resistance to any actual something that someone might be unwise enough to propose some day some time in the distant future. I suspect Obama knows this is foolish but since it's not a subject that  drives him some foolishness can be accepted and even, in this instance, endorsed.

Andrew has a round-up of reactions here but I especially liked Dave Weigel's take on the subject:

It’s a lousy deal for social conservatives, and that’s important. In the very first test of their strength in the new Washington, they have been bargained away, yet again. I don’t think the GOP had much of a choice. Just as Democrats let the argument about economics slip away from them, Republicans were almost hysterically flat-footed on Planned Parenthood.

[...] So there will be things social conservatives like in this continuing resolution, but some of what they wanted was bargained away. That benefited Democrats, but it benefited economic conservatives even more.

Of course social conservatives got a raw deal! They must be brought to water but it's very important they don't get to drink. Perhaps the occasional sip is permissable but no more than that and not more than occasionally.

A similar pattern may be discerned in British politics: the eurosceptic right must be nurtured and encouraged and petted and never, ever allowed to dominate the Conservative party in public. Their votes are needed and they must be courted and flattered but they must never get what they want. Hence the long trail of broken promises (by both main parties but, more egregously, by the Conervatives).

The leadership knows that in broad terms the eurosceptic position is popular. Indeed, instinctively it agrees with large parts of the eurosceptic worldview. But it also knows that these sentiments are dangerous and must be kept under close control, only rarely permitted outside for exercise. Sure, much of the public is, were push to come to shove, mildly eurosceptic too but they don't spend much time thinking about it and are put off by the monomaniacs and heartily dislike the idea of a cabinet stuffed with similarly-obsessed types. Yes, yes, they say, we agree with you more or less but would you please stop banging on about it all the time?

And so the eurosceptics must satisfy themselves with rhetorical victories and the like while being denied much that counts for real substance. They are a vital and important constituency but, unfortunately, they also embarrass their seniors and the centre. No wonder they must exist on short rations and the promise of a banquet tomorrow.

Of course they could vote UKIP. But whether we use FPTP or the Alternative Vote, few UKIP representatives are likely to be elected. And if voting UKIP - or staying at home - were to let Labour back in then maybe Labour would be even worse for the euro-minded than the lacklustre, deceitful Tories. So nose-holding and Tory-voting it is even if this means you're essentially paying the blackmail. (The same thing happens to the "fundamentalists" within the SNP: they too can be taken for granted and ignored by a party leadership that isn't much impressed with a large part of its own base.)

But that's the problem with single-issue or single-sector voters: they lack real clout, especially when they have no other obvious or even half-appealling home to go to. No wonder they will be taken for granted and, when push comes to shove, be ignored by the very people who claim to represent them. You can go to the ball but there's no guarantee you get to dance.

In the American context, sure, staunch conservatives are the base of the Republican party to a degree that's not the case with out and out liberals and the Democrats. But within that pool it's the social conservatives who get screwed, not the country club or chamber of commerce guys.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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