Republicans Losing the Center?

Can a candidate appealing enough to the base to win the Republican nomination beat Obama?

Charlie Cook reports that Republican leaders are concerned that, despite numerous institutional advantages, appealing to a strident base may cost them the vital center.

It’s clear that the Republican congressional leadership believes that a shutdown is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. These are intelligent and reasonable people who have studied the mistakes Republicans made after they took control of Congress in 1994. They are determined not to replicate those mistakes.

While the GOP has worked hard to bring their freshmen and more ideological members around to the realities of politics, these freshmen and other rank-and-file members are getting pressure from back home not to compromise with Democrats.

These constituents don’t want any more short-term deals, and their pressure is offsetting the efforts by the party’s leadership to do things step by step so as to not jeopardize the party’s chances for gains in the Senate.

Part of what is happening is that there is a giant gap between the attitudes of Republican base voters and those who are swing voters.

The GOP base is reflecting the views and values of tea party voters who stormed the town meetings of Democratic members in 2009 and 2010.

These individuals believe the budget can be balanced with cuts in discretionary domestic spending and some believe that cuts in entitlements should be done immediately while the irons of the 2010 midterm elections are still hot.

But for independent voters, the 2010 elections were not about slashing government spending; rather, they were a reaction to what they saw as an over-reach by President Obama and the Democratic Congress.

These  between-the-40-yard-line-voters didn’t like the economic stimulus package, climate change legislation or health care reform. They voted against Democrats and what Democrats were trying to do, but they did not embrace the budgetary slash-and-burn politics that is the embodiment of the tea party movement.

The disparity between the views of the GOP base and independent voters couldn’t be stronger.

Part of this is the difference between campaigning and governing. It’s much easier to run against Washington and all it’s waste and quite another to actually do anything about it. Not just because the nature of the system requires constant compromise but because the things people want–lots of services, a massive military machine, generous tax subsidies, low taxes, and low spending–are incompatible.

Additionally, though, the Republican Party has been taken over by the base in much the way that the Democratic Party was in the late 1960s.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan completed the work started by Richard Nixon and put together a governing coalition of traditional Republicans, Evangelical Christians, blue collar Catholics, and moderate hawks. The combination of an appeal to traditional values and staunch anti-Communism tied these people together event though they had profound cultural differences. But the traditional Republicans continued to run the party, simply paying lip service to the values issues. Over time, though, the Evangelicals took over the grass roots of the party, doing what traditional Republicans had generally refused to do: field strong candidates for school boards, county commissions, and other local leadership positions. These in turn became the farm team for higher offices, including the House of Representatives.

Eventually, that meant that elected Republicans had to do more than talk about family values but to actually try to enact that into legislation. That’s much less popular than talking about it. Then again, it doesn’t much matter at the level of the House. Gerrymandering has made most seats sufficiently safe that ideologues on both sides safely fill them.

The Tea Party movement has exacerbated the trend. On the one hand, it means that the Republicans have a grass roots movement than can help get out the vote in a way that only Democrats had previously. On the other, it means a second (albeit overlapping) constituency that’s still rabidly interested in politics once the election is over.

I wonder if the GOP isn’t in danger of becoming what the Democrats were in the 1970s and much of the 1980s: a party able to win local races–including carrying a majority in the House of Representatives–but able to cobble together the national constituency necessary to win the presidency only under extraordinary circumstances.

It seems ridiculously premature. After all, Republican George W. Bush won back-to-back terms. But Democrats had dominated the presidency from 1932 through 1964, with only the two terms by national hero Dwight Eisenhower breaking the streak before their implosion. They nominated ridiculously ideological candidate, who were crushed at the polls,  in 1968 and 1972. They won in 1976 only by nominating a moderate Southern Evangelical and running in the wake of Watergate. Republicans then won three more landslides in 1980, 1984, and 1988 before the Democrats reinvented themselves in the guise of Bill Clinton.

My guess is that none of the more radical candidates–Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum–will win the nomination. But we’re at the point where even the more normal candidates are saying bizarre things to curry favor with the radical fringes of the base–including embracing the Birther morons.

Having voted Republican in every presidential race since I was first eligible (1984), there’s a non-zero chance that I’ll find myself unable to support the nominee this year. And that’s despite very intense disagreements with President Obama on core policy issues.  If they lose me, they’ll find themselves on the other side of a Mondale or Dukakis level landslide.  And likely conclude that their problem was being insufficiently true to their core principles.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Yeah….Obama who is destroying the country…is going to win in a landslide. What planet do you live on James?




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  2. boss hog says:

    How is obama destroying the country?




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  3. steve says:

    I keep telling you James, you are going to have to decide whether or not to vote for Palin in 2012. I think that some of the recent changes in GOP primary voting rules might spare you that choice, but that will just leave you with Huckabee or Bachmann. Romneycare will sink your favored candidate.

    Steve




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  4. EJ says:

    Michael, If the republicans put up someone like palin or bachman he sure will.




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  5. Hello World! says:

    It would be very easy for Boehner to show leadership if he would draw a clear line on spending cuts and tell his party to stop trying to overturn legislation that has already been passed into law by defunding it. He has allowed the budget process to be abused in this way, so if he won’t take control of his party they will continue to loose the center. I don’t see any of the presidential candidates doing anything that would show similar leadership, but this early in the election cycle they are all running to the right and hiding from the real issues (and I don’t think obama or the dems are any better).




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  6. Kylopod says:

    >They [Democrats] nominated ridiculously ideological candidate, who were crushed at the polls, in 1968 and 1972.

    The Dem candidate in 1968 wasn’t crushed at the polls: Nixon beat Humphrey by just 43.4% to 42.7% in the popular vote.




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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Steve: I remain unconvinced Palin will run, much less win.

    And I’m by no means a Romney fan; I chose McCain over him very early last time as my “least unfavorite.” It’s just my sense that Romney has the best chance to win the nomination.




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  8. wr says:

    “>They [Democrats] nominated ridiculously ideological candidate, who were crushed at the polls, in 1968 and 1972.

    The Dem candidate in 1968 wasn’t crushed at the polls: Nixon beat Humphrey by just 43.4% to 42.7% in the popular vote.”

    Not to mention the fact that 1968’s “ridiculously ideological” candidate was the sitting vice-president, who was hugely unpopular with the left, since he owned LBJ’s expansion of Viet Nam.

    James, are you thinking that McGovern ran twice?




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  9. Jack says:

    I’m not sure the narrative that the GOP made large gains in 2010 due to “over-reach by the Democrats” is accurate. There was a definite feeling of frustration at how a Congress at least nominally controlled by the Democrats couldn’t seem to do anything.

    The true irony is that if the GOP-led narrative of “over-reach by the Democrats” is correct, they are hoisting themselves high with their own petard at the moment, because I’m seeing more and more the “Grand Old Party” should be renamed the POH – Party Of Hate towards anyone who isn’t white, male, and the “correct” kind of Christian.




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  10. epistorese says:

    Part of this is the difference between campaigning and governing. It’s much easier to run against Washington and all it’s waste and quite another to actually do anything about it. Not just because the nature of the system requires constant compromise but because the things people want–lots of services, a massive military machine, generous tax subsidies, low taxes, and low spending–are incompatible.

    Mr. Joiner,

    How does it feel to be one of the only people in America who understands the point that you made above? I know that you are one of only a few, because when I say similar things to my friends on both sides of the spectrum, I get the kinds of responses that you got above. Or, in the alternative, get told that I am too cynical and don’t understand the American public well enough.




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  11. ponce says:

    The Republicans lost me back in 2004 after a similar history of straight ticket Republican voting.

    They have gotten so much worse since then.




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  12. DC Loser says:

    2004 was it for me. Agree with Ponce about the rest of his comment.




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  13. matt says:

    Late 2001 was enough to convert me from a rabid Clinton/democrat hater to an “independent”…




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  14. At some point, the majority of citizens will dependent on the state for goods and services and will realize that it is much easier to sit at home or work less hours or spend more time at football games than it is to work hard, take risks, and make big bucks. Once we pass that 50% mark, it is a simple matter to use the ballot box to redistribute wealth in society, and that will end the great experiment in life, liberty, and property that is the United States.

    We’re probably nearing that mark now.




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  15. Barry says:

    Cook: “But for independent voters, the 2010 elections were not about slashing government spending; rather, they were a reaction to what they saw as an over-reach by President Obama and the Democratic Congress.”

    With nothing to back this. And adding onto Jack’s comment – we had a horrible economy, combined with a very successful right-wing blocking action, and an administration which IMHO didn’t seem to realize what the GOP would do (both in Congress and for public consumption). Adding onto this was a mass media who watched the economy being destroyed and still gave credibility to the guys whose policies led to it, and a right-wing 40-odd% of the US electorate who had zero shame.




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  16. michael reynolds says:

    My very first vote was for Nixon over McGovern. McGovern had become too identified with the kinds of people who waved Viet Cong flags. (I was anti-war, but the peace movement was increasingly anti-American. Plus that whole guaranteed income thing of McGovern’s.) In 1980 I threw my vote away to John Anderson.

    So I am capable of voting for non-Democrats.

    It would be lovely to have a GOP candidate I could at least contemplate supporting. As it is, the best I can hope for is a GOP candidate whose victory would not be terrifying and force me to emigrate. I think Romney would meet a threshold level of competence. (No emigration.) But the Tea Party will at very least force one of their pet loons on the ticket. (See 2008.) And Michele Bachman, VP, even safely tucked away at the Naval Observatory, would send me to the London flats-for-lease ads.

    I’m at the far edge of the swing vote, not someone the GOP would need in order to win. But the GOP should at least be able to nominate someone who doesn’t make me want to start drinking at breakfast. That would be a good litmus test.




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  17. steve says:

    “We’re probably nearing that mark now.”

    Umm, no. Most people are still working. There are five applicants for every job opening, so people are still looking. On voting the problem is really not with the poor per se. They do not vote. The people who do vote and have helped create our entitlement debt, are the elderly. If you are a teacher you should know these basic facts (unless you teach art).

    Steve




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  18. reid says:

    And that’s despite very intense disagreements with President Obama on core policy issues.

    Honestly, how many of Obama’s policies do you basically agree with or don’t take large issue with? I’m guessing you don’t have intense disagreements with much of his foreign policy, for example. I ask this because it seems to be habit or obligation for a conservative person to proclaim their intense disagreement with Obama’s policies, when really, Obama has been a moderate on most issues. How would any of the stable of possible Republican presidential candidates do under the same criteria? I don’t know which of Obama’s policies have you so upset, but they scare me much less than the insanity of the R’s (anti-science, stripping the budget to the bone, abolishing SS/Medicare/etc.).




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  19. reid says:

    Conservative Teacher: Sounds like Glenn Beck is rotting your brain.




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  20. reid says:

    And I’m getting tired of seeing Paul Ryan and friends and their Very Serious approach to budget cutting. Where’s the push-back on this simplistic idea that the bigger the budget cuts, the better?




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  21. The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a statstic called the employment-population ratio. This statistic measures how many people 16 and older have a job. Seasonably adjusted, it stands at 58%.

    That’s ‘pretty close’ to 50%.

    It’s here: http://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cpsatab1.htm

    This is just the number of people employed, and so understates how bad things are, since there is considerable data out there showing that hours are being cut back, people are not working over time, and people are employed in jobs below thier skill base.

    Reid, sounds to me like you should educate yourself before opening your mouth or voting.




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  22. steve says:

    “The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a statstic called the employment-population ratio. This statistic measures how many people 16 and older have a job. Seasonably adjusted, it stands at 58%.”

    Go look at the historical numbers. Many over 16 are still in school. There are still many families where only one parent works, by choice. The number will never be 100. Then, look at how many are not working because they cannot find work.

    Steve




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  23. Ben says:

    But that includes the elderly doesn’t it? Isn’t that just a TAD misleading?




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  24. reid says:

    CTeacher: The economy is in poor shape and unemployment is high. What a shocker. It’s a huge leap to go from that statistic to your earlier drivel.




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  25. Darrell says:

    We have to accept that we will never get the parasite vote. They have drunk the black-cum-koolaid and will vote for the marxist-muslim. Reid, of course, has drunk the drink and therefore it is a waste of time to try to reason with him.




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  26. reid says:

    You are clearly the voice of reason here, Darrell.




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  27. Wayne says:

    Didn’t many here predict over and over again that the Tea Party and conservative were going to be the downfall of the Republican Party in the 2010 elections? The chorus was we need to elect more “moderate”\liberal candidates. Will you were wrong.

    James
    For not being a Romney supporter you sure like to write him up in positive light. Give us a few people you would vote for over him? Not like more but vote for.




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  28. Tano says:

    After all, Republican George W. Bush won back-to-back terms.

    The first one only technically – he lost the popular vote, the second only narrowly. Consider that the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in 4 out of the last 5 presidential elections, and the odds are high that it will soon be 5 out of 6.

    It does not seem premature to accept the notion that the Republicans have a serious problem in building a national governing coalition.




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  29. wr says:

    Wayne — The 2010 electorate was small, old, and white. And the main plank of the Republicans was that Obama was going to cut money from Medicare.

    The 2012 electorate isn’t going to look at all like that, no matter how many laws Republican states try to pass to limit voting by minorities and the young.

    Meanwhile, state Republicans have managed to turn Republican-leaning union members against them with their assault on rights. And now the congressional Rs are about to launch their signature issue — the complete dismantling of Medicare.

    So, bigger, more diverse electorate, combined with a Republican assault on the people who put them into office — who are they expecting to vote for them? People who care more about the deficit monster than they do about their own lives?




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  30. Tlaloc says:

    Didn’t many here predict over and over again that the Tea Party and conservative were going to be the downfall of the Republican Party in the 2010 elections? The chorus was we need to elect more “moderate”\liberal candidates.

    How’s that senate majority doing for you? You know the one that would allow you to make the budget cuts you want? The one that wouldn’t lead to the house GOP’s bills dying ignominious deaths int he senate?

    Wait, you failed to get a senate majority in 2010? I wonder why? oh, yeah it’s because you went with tea party candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller. Hrrrrm. Interesting, that.




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  31. Will says:

    “They nominated ridiculously ideological candidate, who were crushed at the polls, in 1968 and 1972.”

    Not only was Hubert Humphrey not “crushed at the polls” in 1968 (he barely lost to Nixon in one of the closest elections in American history), he was very firmly in the mainstream of the Democratic establishment hawk consensus of the time, and as someone else mentioned upthread, hated by the left for it. There was nothing “ridiculously ideological” about the man, unless you consider being an early supporter of civil rights “ridiculously ideological”.




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  32. Lexhamfox says:

    I know lots of Republicans who will stay at home if the nominee is from the far right or if the Republicans field a far right manifesto. Republicans spend far too much time wooing the far right and miss the much more important target population in the center who decide elections.




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  33. Alan says:

    For me, the erosion started in 2004 and ended up with me renouncing my Republican affiliation last July after htey refused, once again, to remove the language from teh platform supporting criminalization of homosexuality in spite of a Montana Supreme Court decision holding our sodomy law unconstitutional. For mercy’s sake, it’s 2011, people!

    Here in Montana, our Republican -run legislature has embarrassed itself nationally in the past few months with its crazy militia, nullification, birther, code of the west, and anti-local governance bills.

    My party has been hijacked by the radically moronic!




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  34. Restless says:

    “black-cum-koolaid”
    That’s certainly…uh, vivid.




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  35. matt says:

    Alan : the patriot act the creating of the DHS and the invasion of IRAQ were more then enough to kick me out of the party (I was registered republican).




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  36. James Joyner says:

    @Will: I was a toddler in 1968, so recall the election only through the lens of history. But wasn’t that the year of riots at the convention and George Wallace running a splinter campaign?

    You’re right that the Nixon-Humphrey numbers were much closer than I’d recollected. Still, he only carried 13 states to Nixon’s 32 and Wallace’s 5.




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  37. Wayne says:

    Make all the excuses you want. The fact is many of you didn’t have the foresight to predict the 2010 elections results. In fact it went very different from what most of you predicted. There is no reason to think your foresight for 2012 is any better. Excuses don’t beat results.

    Tlaloc
    IMO the slim Democrat Senate majority is working out in our favor. Otherwise the Dems would block the budget using filibuster tactics then claim that Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and can’t pass a budget. Now it is Reid who won’t even bring the bills up for a vote. Why? Because they don’t want to filibuster a bill while in the majority and the bills probably have enough votes to pass. Blame goes to Democrats for not even voting on or producing their version of the budget.

    The Tea Party didn’t have a clean sweep so they are failures, right!!! They made historical gains in both the House and the Senate. That is good enough for me.




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  38. reid says:

    Like matt, I grew increasingly disgusted by the GOP throughout the Bush years, and they’ve just gone further off the rails since. In my case, it meant going from disinterested independent to a registered D in 2004.




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  39. James Joyner says:

    @Wayne: Only Palin and Bachmann are definite No’s. Trump, too, but I don’t think he’s a serious candidate–in any sense of the word. Santorum would really have to sell me.

    Romney’s a bit oily for my tastes but acceptable. I haven’t paid enough attention to Huckabee to have a firm opinion, although i was leery of him. But he’d have a presumption on his side against Obama. Gary Johnson would be a definite Yes but no way he’s nominees. Ditto Jon Huntsman. Pence is a probable. Pawlenty in as unknown.




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  40. wr says:

    JJ — Yes, 68 was the year of riots at the Democratic convention. But the rioters were coming from the left side of the party, and protesting against a Democratic establishment that was going to nominate a pro-Vietnam war candidate — the sitting vice president.




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  41. MattF says:

    I’m sort of astonished that you would consider voting for Santorum. He’s very much in the “No Enemies To My Right” category on social issues, and social issues are pretty plainly the only thing that matter to him.




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  42. James Joyner says:

    @MattF: “I’m sort of astonished that you would consider voting for Santorum. ”

    I haven’t paid much attention to him, since I think he’s got zero shot at being the nominee. He’s a religious guy, but I’ve voted for those before. But he’s not obviously batshit crazy or stupid.




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  43. MoeLarryAndJesus says:

    “He’s a religious guy, but I’ve voted for those before. But he’s not obviously batshit crazy or stupid.”

    You’ve got to be kidding me.

    Rick Santorum said, ““If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.””

    That’s both batshit crazy and stupid.

    He also said, “Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.”

    Santorum is right there with Palin and Bachmann in the Brain Damage GOP Sweepstakes.




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  44. Scott says:

    Once I completed my graduate degree in sex-n-drugs-n-rock-n-roll in my mid 20s and began paying attention to politics I usually voted libertarian. If a moderate Republican was on the ballot they’d get my vote, Bill Weld for example. I thought it was a good thing that the Republicans took over the house and senate in 94. But within a few years, around the time Vince Foster’s suicide became the Republican’s obsession I decided that they were insane. Not all of them of course but enough of them. Since then stopping them is my main priority and I’ve voted straight Democratic. To put it another way, just let me know who Rush Limbaugh supports and I’m voting for the other person even if it’s an alcoholic Mickey Mouse. If too many alcoholic Mickey Mouses in our government becomes a bigger problem than I consider the Republicans to be I’ll address that when it arises. YMMV




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  45. MT from CC says:

    Let’s not forget that, according to the recently released data, they expect 500,000 hispanic Americans (who tend to vote Democratic by 2-1 margins or higher) to turn 18 every year for the next 20 years — 10,000,000 new hispanic voters. Presumably, a lot of people in their 70’s and 80’s now — who tend to vote Republican by a 3 to 2 margin — are going to die over the course of the next 20 years. Which adds up to a tougher and tougher time for the GOP in the future.




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  46. Tlaloc says:

    Yeah I think if you do take a close look at Santorum you’ll reverse that view of him, Joyner. He’s the prototype of Bachmann- insane, zealous, and frankly stupid.




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  47. MM says:

    Part of this is the difference between campaigning and governing. It’s much easier to run against Washington and all it’s waste and quite another to actually do anything about it. Not just because the nature of the system requires constant compromise but because the things people want–lots of services, a massive military machine, generous tax subsidies, low taxes, and low spending–are incompatible.

    Someone needs to email that to Mataconis




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  48. Nikki says:

    Well, Mike Huckabee’s videotaped statement that “Americans Should Be Forced, At Gunpoint, To Learn From David Barton” should put him in the same camp with Palin, Bachmann, and Santorum.




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  49. Mark says:

    Joyner,

    Like always, you’ll be on your knees, voting for the Conservative you’ve been ordered and/or paid to support. You haven’t had an original, much less an Independent, thought in your entire life.

    But, hey, you keep banking offshore, so it’s clear that blind allegiance and mindless sophistry work well for you.

    P.S. Friends saw you in the Caymans. They agree that you need to drop a few pounds.




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  50. michael reynolds says:

    Mark:

    Jeez, over the line much? Disagree with his ideas not his waistline. Not cool.




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  51. anjin-san says:

    Republicans have morphed into Democrats – driven by feelings of victimization, focused on identity politics, and preferring loosing and telling themselves they were right to winning.




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  52. Mark says:

    Reynolds,

    I don’t disagree with Joyner’s waistline. Personally, I have never thought about Joyner’s waistline. I don’t have that strong a tummy.

    Just reporting what friends told me after they saw Joyner at a bank in the Caymans. Joyner’s reportedly in the Caymans quite often on matters of banking, they were told, and they observed that he’s added quite the paunch.

    I find Joyner’s reported frequent trips to banking institutions in the Caymans far more interesting than how he looks in a suit.




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  53. Another choice Santorum quote:

    One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

    (from an NPR interview in 2005)




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  54. george says:

    Things change very fast in politics. In 2006 no one would have given any black American a chance at being elected President in 2008. After 2008 people were predicting that the Republican party would be an almost permanent minority in Congress.

    In my lifetime I’ve seen permanent Democratic regimes predicted, followed by permanent Republican ones, then permanent Democratic ones, and now the start of permanent Republican ones again in some quarters (those expecting the Tea Party to take over at the polls). It makes me wonder if the definition of ‘permanent’ has been changed …

    By 2012 enough things could happen that we could end up with either a Republican or Democratic President (I’d bet on Obama simply because incumbents tend to do well, though that can change if the world economy really tanks), and either a Republican or Democratic Congress. I’d argue the chances of predicting the 2012 World Series winner is better than the final outcome of the election (can’t go wrong with the Yankees).




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