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JONATHAN CHAIT

The Republicans' curse -- they're always right

November 19, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT | jchait@latimescolumnists.com

WHEN Democrats lose elections, they inevitably hold great orgies of ideological recriminations -- hawks versus doves, fiscal conservatives versus populists, and so on. After the losses of the 1980s, Democrats cast aside their traditional free-spending ways and embraced deficit reduction. After 2000, 2002 and 2004, they've embraced guns and God.

Republicans, on the other hand, pretty much never change. They're like a Terminator machine (and unlike the governor who played the Terminator and who has dramatically recast his ideology). Crush them in a machine press, or freeze them and blow them into tiny pieces, and they'll just regroup and keep lurching forward, cutting taxes for the rich and jacking up defense spending.

Ever wonder why that is? It's because conservatives have an apparatus in place to interpret every election. If Republicans win, it's because they were conservative. If they lose, it's because they weren't. No matter what the facts may be, they will always conclude that the answer is to run further to the right.

No sooner had this year's election ended than nearly every conservative emerged to declare that Republicans had been defeated for betraying the One True Faith. Republicans, George Will wrote, "were punished not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism." John McCain, who a few years ago was castigating his fellow Republicans for veering too far right, was now accusing them of the opposite, saying they "lost their way" by supporting big government.

Well, let's go to the exit polls. If Republicans lost because they abandoned conservatism, you'd see a big drop-off among conservative or Republican voters. Didn't happen. In 2004, 93% of self-identified Republicans voted for President Bush. This year, 91% voted for their GOP House candidate. The percentage of voters who identified themselves as conservatives barely budged, falling by just two points, from 34% to 32%, according to exit polls.

All the GOP losses occurred in the center. In 2004, Bush lost among independents by just a single point. In 2006, independents voted Democratic by a massive 19-point margin.

When conservatives try to get more specific about why voters turned against them, their explanations make even less sense. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a leader among conservatives in the House, suggested that his party apologize to voters like this: "We've overspent, badly, and it was offensive to you as well as our conservative principles."

But exactly how have Republicans overspent?

The largest spending increases under Bush, by far, have come in defense and homeland security, which conservatives support. The next biggest item is the Medicare bill. Horribly designed though it was, you can't say it was unpopular. Poll results indicate that about 90% of the public support adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare.

McCain blamed the GOP loss on "the massive programs such as Medicare prescription drug program ... our failure to address their priorities as opposed to our own, and there was obviously a reaction to it." But the Medicare bill was the public's priority.

If Republicans really want to recommit to smaller government, they can run on a simple platform of rolling back the Bush spending hikes. Go ahead, Republicans, I dare you: Promise to slash the Pentagon, eliminate homeland security and take away everybody's Medicare drug coverage.

Of course, they won't really do that. What they'll do is promise unspecified spending cuts that they'll never carry out, along with lots of specified tax cuts that they will carry out. Conservatives are in a perpetual vice, squeezed between their vision for the country and the voters' vision for the country. They'll never reduce government to the size they'd like, but they're too fanatical to admit that they can't.

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