Alex Massie

Were the Conservative Reformers Wrong? (American Edition)

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Did the (American) conservative reformers get everything wrong? That's the question Dave Weigel asks in a pleasingly mischievous Slate piece. You remember: all those books written by chaps such as David Frum, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam etc warning that the GOP must change or face years in the wilderness. How do you explain the looming Republican House of Representatives, matey?

How indeed? David, Ross and Reihan each do their best with this question but, in the end, try and dodge it with arguments that can be summarised, fairly, by Dave as: "We're not wrong. We're just not yet right." Their super-pamphlets:

were written with the assumption that the GOP was going to serve more time in detention—and that detention was actually necessary. If the GOP came roaring back by going further to the right, their theory went, that would prove that they didn't understand why they governed so poorly in the first place. They would think that all they needed to do was bang on about tax cuts and the Constitution, and that would not only win the election but make them govern more intelligently.

Of course, this didn't anticipate the nature of the economic malaise (both real and, as importantly, imagined) afflicting the United States. Almost everything else stems from that, including the way that economic uncertainty has undermined most aspects of the Democratic congressional agenda leaving even many Democrats unsure whether this Congress has achieved anything - for good or ill - or not.

So in a sense you can argue that the Republican victory this November will be an unearned triumph. But so, in many ways, were the Democratic Congressional gains in 2006 and (to some extent) 2008. This is an unusual feature of American politics: you don't have to be good or even plausible to do well.

In most countries elections are a two-question examination in which voters decide if a) the government has failed and b) has the opposition done enough to deserve to be in power. You need two Yes answers to change the government. The nature of the mid-term elections mean it's different in the United States. There, voters conclude that the party sitting in the White House (and, sometimes, Congress) stinks and it doesn't matter that the other party stinks just as much. Regardless of who controls government, the opposition can learn nothing and do nothing and still do well.

With the single exception (in recent times) of the 9/11 2002 mid-terms the party governing the White House has been defeated (that is, lost seats) in the mid-terms. The scale of these defeats varies but the fact they can be predicted with near-certainty means there's little incentive for Congressional leaders to rethink their views or positions on, really, any issue. Why bother when the nature of the political cycle means you'll probably pick-up seats anyway?

One of the problems with America's two party system (which is increasingly parliamentary in the way it operates) is that there's no third party for protest votes. By default a protest vote - whether active or stay-at-home passive - can only benefit the other mob who, generally speaking, are little if any more appetising than the crew against whom you feel like protesting.

That makes for unhappy voters and politicians who don't often need to have a real think about what they're offering or trying to do. The difference in the way our respective systems are organised ensures that comparisons are only of limited use; nevertheless America's two party system and the way it operates creates few incentives for internally-driven reform. Congress doesn't produce a Thatcher ot a Blair or a Cameron type* of figure who will change their party to reflect changing situations or changed public views. There's little sense of renewal in Washington, little sense that the opposition is really doing the hard work of preparing for power.

And so, assisted by the way districts are drawn and by the advantages of incumbancy, off-year elections in particular are a matter of enthusing the base. The most vulnerable members are usually, though obviously not exclusively, on the moderate wings of their party while the leadership, again mainly but not exclusively, reflect an established orthodoxy that satisfies few voters and excites even fewer. The current Congress may have achieved quite a lot (for good or ill) but it's hardly been a fresh platform; similarly the GOP's rhetoric is by and large at least 15 years old and just as stale.

Perhaps the Tea Party will change that but I wouldn't want to wager too great a sum on their doing so. There's always plenty of rhetoric about change and new winds and brooms sweeping through Washington. But, generally speaking, these winds fade or the brooms are pretty soon put away. This is something I suspect - though one could be wrong - the Tea Party movement is likely to discover for itself.

There's lots more that could (and will!) be said, but one problem the GOP will face, like the Democrats before them, is that the rhetoric of change may be frustrated by Washington realities and the fact that, in the end, rhetoric is only rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Democrats will wait, learning nothing and doing less, for the chance to disappoint when their turn comes again. And so the wheel spins and spins and spins...

*This is one reason why Congress is such a rotten platform for the presidency. The Reagan movement wasn't built in DC and nor, you can argue, were the New Democrats.

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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