Newt, Ryan and Tactical Radicalism


I’ve been fascinated by the TV and print coverage of Newt Gingrich’s flailing Presidential campaign. I never thought he had much of a chance at the nomination; he’s not particularly well liked by the public at large or by the Republican base. He thought he had a chance because he used to be very popular with journalists – both conservative and “MSM” journalists, who considered him a man of ideas and something of a policy wonk. What smashed his standing among those groups was his decision to criticize Paul Ryan, who is also very much beloved by those groups, and for many of the same reasons: he’s thought of as a wonk, a visionary, a very serious person.

Gingrich thought he was going to get some traction by taking a middle ground between Socialism and Ryan’s plan for privatizing Medicare. He didn’t realize until it was too late that there is no middle ground; privatizing Medicare is a new litmus test. This is part of a movement in the Republican party that has been called “Tactical Radicalism,” the idea that the most right-wing policies are also the ones that are most politically advantageous.

The thinking goes like this: Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 (and in 1992 and 1996 for that matter) not because they were too conservative, but because they were insufficiently conservative. In this line of thinking, America is a conservative country, but if the choice is between a liberal and a conservative who isn’t conservative enough – and both President Bushes are now considered to be in this category – voters will go for the open liberal rather than the de facto liberal. As the liberal blogger Digby once summed up this line of thinking, “‘Conservative’ is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives’ good graces. Until they aren’t. At which point they are liberals.”

This is similar to an idea that has long persisted in the Democratic party; you’ll frequently hear liberals complain that Democrats lose when they run as mushy “centrists” rather than proud liberals. But the Democratic party has never really accepted this line of thinking – partly because there aren’t very many self-described liberals in America, and you can’t win elections by appealing mostly to them. The Republicans have increasingly accepted the idea that they lose when they’re not conservative enough. So they’re rallying around the attempt to “fix” Medicare, much more strongly than they rallied around George W. Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security, partly because they believe this is good policy but also because they feel this is what they need to put daylight between them and the Democrats.

Will this litmus test hurt Republicans in 2012? This I don’t know. The conventional wisdom is that it will, because Medicare is popular – and because the Republicans won in 2010 largely by promising to stop Democrats from cutting Medicare. And conventional wisdom is conventional because, well, it’s often right. But there is another way this could go. The Ryan plan, as the New York Times’ Timothy Egan pointed out, is carefully calculated to spare anyone who is currently inclined to vote Republican. Ryan and other Republicans are defending the plan by telling seniors – who make up the largest portion of their base – that nothing will change for them; they’ll continue to have the single-payer health care they’ve always had. It’s only the younger people who will have to do without socialized medicine.

If you look at it cynically, it’s an attempt to touch off generational warfare: pit the older, mostly Republican voters against the younger, more Democratic voters. Especially since Republicans are still warning that Democrats plan to cut Medicare for old people. If the plan is sold effectively, it could keep seniors solidly in the Republican fold in 2012: it’s a promise that any cuts to Medicare – which is a hugely expensive program that requires some kind of cost-cutting – will not affect them in any way, that all the costs will be passed off to someone else.

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