Archive for February, 2011

RTW: A conservative ‘bridge too far’

Missouri legislators are proposing to enact a “right to work” law, which would prohibit closed union shops. This is an unusual situation where good policy is bad politics.


The Unablogger

The Unablogger

Don’t get me wrong. RTW would be good public policy, and very good for the Missouri economy, especially jobs. Economic growth in the U.S., where it exists, is primarily taking place in states with RTW laws, some of which border Missouri and attract our jobs. Aside from RTW’s economic benefits, relieving unwilling workers of the obligation to pay union dues to fund political causes that many of them oppose is the right thing to do. (Even in the Democrat landslide of 2008, over a third of all union members voted for Republican John McCain.)


Unfortunately, this is a case where good policy will predictably produce an electoral backlash that will have both short- and long-term negative implications for conservative policy. Enacting the law will require a vote of the people, and a vote on RTW in a general election would hand Democrats an opportunity to exploit it to ramp up turnout of otherwise unmotivated government-dependent folks who vote straight Democrat when they bother to vote. Democrats have a long history of using controversial ballot measures to manipulate turnout. Years ago, when Republicans were still somewhat competitive in the City of St. Louis, Democrats would repeatedly use meaningless ballot measures about reopening Homer G. Phillips Hospital to gin up the reliably Democratic African American vote. Last year, California Democrats used a ballot measure to legalize marijuana to get reliably Democrat but rarely voting stoners to the polls. The stoners made California a Democrat firewall against the 2010 Republican wave, saving Barbara Boxer’s senate seat, retaking the governorship and reelecting every vulnerable Democrat congressman, while the rest of the country was a sea of red. (And since the ballot measure itself lost, they can do it again!)


The relevant Missouri precedent is 1978, the last time a RTW proposal was on the Missouri ballot. 1978 was setting up to be a Republican year much like 2010. Both 1978 and 2010 were the GOP off-year rebounds following both big off-year losses four years prior (1974 and 2006) and subsequent losses of the White House (1976 and 2008), followed by voter remorse and outrage over failing leftist presidencies (Carter and Obama). But this remorse and outrage was short-circuited in Missouri, where the RTW issue woke up complacent union bosses. They registered thousands of new voters in union households, and their “Right to Work is a Ripoff” campaign was so popular and so pervasive, you still see old clunkers bearing that campaign’s 33-year-old “RIPOFF” bumper stickers.


A RTW supporter has tried to undermine these facts by destroying a straw man. In an op-ed piece in the liberal St. Louis Beacon, Bruce Hillis seized on careless hyperbole from aging former Sen. Kit Bond stating that the 1978 RTW proposal had “wiped out every single Republican from top to bottom.” That, of course, was clearly exaggeration, and Hillis pounced on it, pointing out that the GOP had in fact lost “only” five of its state house seats that year.


But the “straw man” of Bond’s hyperbole is not the relevant comparison. It makes more sense to compare Missouri’s 1978 results with what could and likely would have happened that year in the absence of RTW on the ballot.


Let’s first place Missouri in 1978 in proper context. The relatively small number of Republican lost seats was due to how few Republican seats were there to be lost, following the Democrat blowouts in post-Watergate 1974 and the victories of Democrats Jimmy Carter and “Walkin’ Joe” Teasdale in 1976 (when even Bond himself lost reelection). Seven of Missouri’s 10 seats in Congress were held by Democrats heading into 1978, including three by freshmen. Democrats then held a 22-12 majority in the Missouri senate and a 112-51 super-majority in the house.


The electoral disaster was the blown opportunity for Republican gains. With all of those pickup opportunities in an election that Republicans were sweeping everywhere else, RTW-impaired Missouri Republicans picked up no seats in congress (not even the vulnerable freshman Democrat in the 2nd District seat now safely held by Republican Todd Akin), no seats in the state senate and actually lost five more state house seats. In contrast, in the similar national political landscape in 2010, Missouri Republicans knocked off 34-year Congressman Ike Skelton (ironically one of the freshmen left unscathed in 1978) and gained 17 Missouri house seats, even though there were already 38 fewer Democrat house seats available to pick off.


That, Mr. Hillis, is the relevant comparison, and yes, 1978 was indeed a Republican electoral disaster. Unlike most of Missouri’s current legislators, who were too young to pay attention to politics (if even born) in 1978, I lived through that disaster. I recruited a legislative candidate in a swing district and spent so much time managing his campaign that it cost me my real job near the end of the campaign. The Democrat blowout wasted all of it.


More is at stake in 2012 than in 1978. It is absolutely essential that Missouri cast its 10 electoral votes to oust Barack Obama, and that Missouri maintain its GOP congressional delegation and its majorities in the General Assembly. RTW on the ballot will make those essential goals much more challenging. There will be another time, when a Republican governor can put a RTW proposal harmlessly on a primary ballot (just like Democratic Gov. Bob Holden deflected the impact of the “marriage definition” ballot measure in 2004). But if the legislature passes RTW in this session, Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon will put it on the general election ballot, to insure his own reelection and the broader success of his party.


Union backlash may be foreign to Mr. Hillis in the comfort of his idyllic conservative small town in Mexico, Missouri, but here among volatile swing voters in metropolitan St. Louis, it means a lot. I felt the pain in 1978, and I don’t want to experience it again. While RTW is the right thing to do, the right thing to do now is to wait. The 2012 election and its impact on the nation’s future are at stake.

The Buckley Rule and the concept of ‘electability’

The Unablogger

The Unablogger

As tea partiers and other conservatives begin to recruit candidates to continue the revolution through the 2012 elections, we must learn from both our successes and failures in 2010. Many establishment types have chastised us for “ruining” Republican chances of capturing the U.S. Senate and some governorships by nominating genuinely conservative candidates who ultimately didn’t win. We are urged to invoke The Buckley Rule, promulgated by the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.

I wholeheartedly agree with The Buckley Rule. But to follow the rule, we (and anyone else who is preaching it) need to understand it. Simplistically pointing to the defeats of GOP senate nominees Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle and Ken Buck and gubernatorial nominees Dan Maes, Carl Paladino and Bill Brady doesn’t cut it. Similarly, the successful campaigns of Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte and Dan Coats, all establishment-backed candidates who overcame tea-party candidates, do not provide any meaningful support for moderates’ case. After all, tea-party backed senate candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee and Idaho congressional nominee Raul Labrador were also on the moderates’ rant list, but these candidates’ big general election wins diverted the moderates’ scorn to other targets. Other establishment-backed primary winners, notably Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman and Dino Rossi, failed to bring home wins. In most of those cases, other more objective measures of electability were the primary reason for victory or defeat. And sometimes, you fight the good fight but still lose.

Moderates and their allies in the mainstream media tend to assume that “electable” is synonymous with “moderate.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Electability is a complex measure that is unique to each particular contest. I would suggest the following criteria be utilized, and certainly my savvy, perceptive readers can offer others in the comments below.

Ideological compatibility with the electorate. Electability varies with the ideological complexion of the district’s voters. On the west coast, the east coast north of the nation’s capitol, and in many urban areas, conservatism realistically does not sell well. In the case of the 2010 Delaware senate contest, a principled conservative like Christine O’Donnell may have been ideologically incompatible with the electorate in a state where liberalism has dominated for the past generation. In contrast, moderate Sen. Scott Brown turned out to be perfect for the Massachusetts special election that proved to be the national momentum changer in 2010. On the other hand, conservatives were right to push for more principled candidates for the senate seat in Utah and the one-term-Democrat house seat in Idaho, where conservatism is king. For those electorates, the more conservative candidates were the more electable candidates.

Risk of liberal Democrat victory. Conservatives need to assess whether it is necessary to settle for a “lesser evil” in order to avert something even worse than a RINO. As I have written before, virtually every RINO Republican is more conservative than any elected Democrat. How much worse would the Democrat be than the RINO alternative? Would a principled nominee who does not appeal to the needed votes of moderate independent voters expose the seat to an over-the-top leftist? In Delaware, Sen. Chris Coons was often referred to as the “bearded Marxist.” If Coons’ voting record begins to track that of avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), conservatives may come to regret not settling for the arguably electable RINO alternative, Mike Castle. But in Colorado, milquetoast Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet, though an unfortunate obstacle to the quest for control of the senate, wasn’t as big a risk.

Risk of moderate Republican victory. This is a corollary to the previous factor. Sometimes getting the party victory that you want is worse than losing. Would a more moderate nominee, if elected, discredit the conservative or Republican brands? The poster child for this factor is Dede Scozzafava, the disastrous RINO congressional nominee in a 2009 special election in upstate New York. The pro-abortion, ACORN-endorsed Republican nominee lost what was then a historically safe Republican seat when most grassroots Republican voters bolted to the nominee of the Conservative Party. But if elected, her performance in office would have damaged the Republican Party’s credibility with its base. Before jumping to the conclusion that we have to settle for a RINO, we need to stop, think and ascertain as best we can the potential damage to the party that can result from embarrassing unreliable representation by a RINO.

Vetting of personal issues. A candidate’s ideological purity doesn’t matter if a history of dishonest or unethical behavior or other personal misconduct (or the mere appearance of same) renders the candidate unelectable. This is an area where an established party organization has vetting resources and experience that grassroots tea party organizations lack. But that difference is meaningless if the party organization fails to do the job. In a low-visibility Republican primary for Missouri state auditor in 2002, the Republican organization recruited a capable but little-known candidate, but failed to check into Al Hanson, a perennial candidate who also filed. Missouri Citizens for Life, a pro-life group that was (and remains) very influential in Republican primaries, endorsed Hanson based on pro-life positions expressed in his response to their questionnaire, after the establishment recruit failed to respond. The grassroots organization looked only to its questionnaire and made no effort to vet their pick on anything else. The endorsement propelled Hanson to a shocking 65-35 win over the recruited candidate in the Republican Primary. Then, immediately after the primary (but not in time to inform primary voters), the mainstream media disclosed that Hanson was a convicted felon. Hanson refused the party’s pleas to withdraw, and incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill won big in November, perhaps enhancing her image enough to defeat Republican Sen. Jim Talent four years later. Though not as telling as a criminal felony record, significant problems with unsuccessful Republican senate nominees in both Delaware and Nevada helped Democrats withstand the 2010 Republican wave and hold those seats. Moral: We need to know everything about potential candidates, warts and all, to avoid serving up an easy target for negative Democrat campaigning.

Conservatives need to recruit top-flight candidates in 2012, from the presidency on down. Being a solid conservative is an important requirement, but the other factors listed above also need to be considered objectively. They need to be addressed during the recruitment process, so that the opportunity to recruit someone else remains if the early favorite is found to be unacceptable. It’s also better not to have to air dirty laundry publicly in a resource-wasting contested primary.

Over a dozen serious candidates may vie for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and a solid handful of serious choices will seek the right to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri. It is essential that capable conservative candidates win the general elections for both offices. We must be able to make an informed and reasoned decision who “the most conservative candidate that is electable” is.