After reading John Dean’s take on the recent scandals, I noticed that another of my favorite conservatives, Ramesh Ponnuru had waded into these waters, ‘Obama Scandals’ Could Actually Hurt Republicans. I love those scare quotes in the title. The truth is that these aren’t really Obama’s scandals, but it would be fair to call them Obama’s troubles.
The argument that Ponnuru made is a common one these days on the left: the Republicans might be overreaching on these issues. Coming from liberals, I’m unimpressed. Just like with the talk that the current scandals might turn out to involve Obama, the Republicans might overplay the scandals. The truth is that the Republicans don’t exactly need these scandals to overplay their hand. Regardless, this wasn’t Ponnuru’s main point.
The big comparison for everyone seems to be 1998. That was Bill Clinton’s sixth year. Clinton had been involved in a scandal regarding lying about an affair. The standard narrative is that the Republicans overplayed the scandal and ended up doing damage to themselves. It is widely believed that the president’s party loses lots of seats in Congress during the president’s sixth year in office (this is a myth). So when the Democrats picked up a couple of seats, everyone said it was because the Republicans angered the voters with all their focus on Cigar-Gate.
But Ponnuru showed that this wasn’t the case. Only 5% of the voters in 1998 were motivated by the sex scandal and most of them voted against Clinton. The real story was that the voters cared about the economy and education (As usual!) and they were very unhappy with where the Republicans were on these issues. Ponnuru argued that the current crop of Republicans is being equally out of touch. And the scandals are just making it worse on them because it is allowing them to focus on scandals that will likely come to nothing rather than pushing for real policy changes. As he put it, “They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes.”
The only place I disagree with Ponnuru (and this is a running disagreement) is his belief that the conservative movement actually has policy ideas. I really don’t see this. They do have some ideas relative to current policy. For example, changes in Medicare will put limits on the few people currently using Medicare Advantage. But if the Republicans suddenly found themselves in charge of the federal government, what policies would they push? They would repeal Obamacare, but not replace it with anything. They would enact regressive tax cuts. And they would try to outlaw abortions. Basically, they would try to destroy the legacy of the New Deal onward. But none of these policies even claim to tackle the problems that our country faces.
So I continue to wonder why someone as smart as Ponnuru can continue to think that his movement has ideas for the future. I’m sure that there are conservative ideas out there. But the movement itself isn’t interested in them. The Republicans could rename their party the Anti-Democratic Party. That would be more honest. But Ponnuru is correct that they aren’t going to succeed as long as they think all they need to do is to destroy Obama. After all, Obama will never again run for office.