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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Conservative Politics of Common Purpose

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on September 1, 2010.
The primary defeat of incumbent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (confirmed by her concession yesterday) by former judge Joe Miller is generally being interpreted as another scalp for the Tea Party Movement in its assault on Republicans deemed too moderate on this or that key issue. But there’s something going on a bit deeper, if you consider Alaska’s exceptional dependence on the federal government and the past political track record of politicians like Murkowski’s mentor, the late Ted Stevens, who aligned themselves with the anti-government GOP but emphasized their ability to “bring home the bacon” via appropriations.
In endorsing Miller on behalf of his Senate Conservatives Fund, Jim DeMint emphasized this dimension of Murkowski’s defeat:

Joe Miller’s victory should be a wake-up call to politicians who go to Washington to bring home the bacon. Voters are saying ‘We’re not willing to bankrupt the country to benefit ourselves.’

Now it wouldn’t be quite right to accept DeMint’s characterization of either Alaska voters’ motivations or Miller’s ideology at face value. After all, when Miller calls for abolishing the federal Department of Energy, he’s appealing to the rather selfish desire of Alaskans to control their “own” energy resources–whose value is a lot higher than any federal earmark– regardless of what it means nationally.
But it’s true that there’s an element of collective self-denial among those conservatives who are genuinely willing to take on federal spending categories that are popular among their constituents. Miller is just the latest of a number of Republican Senate candidates this year who have called for phasing out Social Security and Medicare. DeMint himself has long described these programs, along with public education, as having seduced middle-class Americans into socialist ways of thinking.
As Republican pols from Barry Goldwater to George W. Bush can tell you, going after Social Security and Medicare is really bad politics. And they’ve yet to come up with a gimmick, whether it’s “partial privatization” or grandfathering existing beneficiaries, to make major changes in these programs popular (I seriously doubt the very latest gimmick, “voucherizing” Medicare, will do any better once people understand the idea). Indeed, Republicans notably engaged in their own form of “Medagoguery” by attacking health care reform as a threat to Medicare benefits.
Yet the sudden Tea Party-driven return to fiscal hawkery among Republicans, particularly if it’s not accompanied by any willingness to consider tax increases or significant defense spending cuts, will drive the GOP again and again to “entitlement reform.” In Senate candidates like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle and now Joe Miller, we are seeing the return of a paleoconservative perspective in the GOP that embraces the destruction of the New Deal/Great Society era’s most important accomplishments not just as a matter of fiscal necessity but as a moral imperative.
You can respect this point of view even if you abhor its practical implications. But there’s little doubt it represents political folly of potentially massive dimensions. Certainly Democrats owe it to these brave conservatives to take them seriously in their desire to free middle-class seniors from the slavery of Social Security and Medicare, and draw as much attention to it as possible.

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