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Thin Gruel for “Social” Republicans

By: Carl Graham

Bozeman: Barry Goldwater, in a line that may have cost him the presidency, famously quipped that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. Turns out he might have been on to something there, and Montana’s latest legislative session is a great example.

Goldwater’s quote came in 1964 when Republicans were in a fissile state just hot enough to self-immolate but not hot enough to start a real fire. The “establishment” wing of the Party was mostly comfortable with a growing government and felt that if they didn’t rock the boat they’d have a seat at the table and get their slice of the pie even if it consigned them to being forever small fish in a big pond.

This governance-by-metaphor confused amity with effectiveness, as well as the electorate, and resulted in a two party, one philosophy system that left a large chunk of American conservatives without a political home until the Reagan revolution scooped them up nearly twenty years later.

Into this vacuum stepped two disparate groups: a new dissident small government movement and a loud anti-communist faction that allowed themselves to painted as nuttier than an Angus bull pen. Goldwater’s quote appealed to the former group but scared enough people into thinking he was a part of the latter one to at least partially account for his losing to an incumbent with few tangible accomplishments under his belt. President Johnson was easily able to win by defining Goldwater as an extremist rather than running on his own merits. Sound familiar?

So what’s all that got to do with Montana’s legislative session? In 1964 the candidate who represented smaller government, fiscal responsibility and libertarian principles was thwarted by a combination of status quo Republicans and Democrats who successfully labeled him as a nut. In 2013 the smaller government, pro-liberty agenda of a GOP majority in both legislative chambers was successfully undermined by the combination of a lockstep Democratic caucus and a handful of – let’s use their term – “Responsible Republicans” intent upon growing state government and presenting a harmonious front. So how’d that work out?

First of all, I don’t blame the Democrats for growing government any more than the turtle blames the snake for biting him halfway across of the river. It’s what they do, and the economic or philosophical merits of that approach are arguments for another day. I even, however grudgingly, respect the consistency and clarity of their approach. But they could not have succeeded in the minority without the handful of “Responsible Republicans” who crossed the aisle on some key bills. So let’s see how the guiding principles of amity and moderation turned out for those folks.

If increasing the state’s budget by 14% when most Montanans are seeing their paychecks stagnate at best is responsible then they’re right on track. If delivering an unbalanced budget to the governor is responsible then they’ve got a lock on what’s good for Montana, if not a handle on what’s required by Montana’s Constitution. If, after inheriting a huge surplus, it’s responsible to have spending increases outpace tax relief by a factor of ten, then those “Responsible Republicans” have their fingers on the conservative pulse. If tying school funding to volatile commodity prices is responsible, then our kids won’t be able to wait until they’re eighteen to vote these guys back in office, if they can read the ballot.

In truth, none of those things are considered responsible in the conservative districts that put most these Republicans in office. To be fair a couple of them are in moderate to liberal districts that fall under the Buckley Rule of electing the most conservative person possible. But most of them advanced an agenda that is anathema to the fiscally conservative, ruggedly individualistic beliefs held by most of the people who sent them to Helena. They either misrepresented themselves to their electorate or they are so devoid of core principles that they covet power for power’s sake and will do whatever it takes to not be called names.

They are Social Republicans, not to be confused with social conservatives who actually stand for something. The “social” in Social Republicans means they want to be seen as socially acceptable by all. They want to get invited to the “right” parties, fawned over in coffee shops, and above all not have any uncomfortable moments with people who disagree with them or be made fun of in the papers. They, like the establishment Republicans of Goldwater’s time, confuse amity with effectiveness and power with principle. And what did they get for it?

The governor slaughtered their sacred cows with the same zeal he took to the priorities of those upstart conservative Republicans who booted them out of leadership positions. They lost the respect of their opponents and the trust of their peers. And for what? To be liked? To not be called names by people who still want to beat them? To get along rather than fight for the values of the very people they were elected to represent?

No, in the end it seems the Responsible Republicans got their cake and ate it too, except that the governor got to eat it first. Bon Appetit.

This commentary appeared on Montana Public Radio : 5/9/2013