Friday, February 27, 2009

The State of the Conservative Movement--The Battle Between Purity & Pragmatism

Like John, I was at Tuesday's press conference by David Keene of the American Conservative Union, built around the release of their 2008 ratings of Congress and a preview of this weekend's CPAC conference. While perusing the ratings guide prior to Keene's remarks, I focused in on those members who received a perfect "100" rating from the ACU. As John noted, the ACU selects a handfull of votes in a given year, equates one side of that vote with the "conservative" position, and tabulates each member's vote over all the votes in their sample. Thus, each member is arrayed along a continuum of liberal to conservative. This year, 31 Republican House members received the magic 100.

In looking at those 31 members I immediately asked myself if there was anything that linked these members together--region, district composition, level of seniority, electoral safety, etc. The second question I asked was how these members--and their number (31)--compare to earlier Congresses. In other words, did 2008 have more pure conservatives and what might this tell us about how Congress has changed. Fortunately, ACU has posted their rankings for the past thirty odd years, allowing for some further exploration.

There's one caveat we must deal with first. Rankings like these suffer from a number of methodological problems. The most fundamental one is that because each year looks at different votes--dealing with different issue areas--making meaningful temporal comparisons is difficult. Its an apples to oranges dilemma. While the ACU says that they try to find a good cross section of votes across a range of issue areas, looking at each year's sample shows a wide disparity. Another problem is that not all votes are the same, even within a year's sample. Some votes might be more likely to produce one outcome over another. In this year's sample, for example, two votes (SCHIP and Farm Bill) were veto override votes. In a vote of this type one would assume that members would be under more pressure than normal to vote with their party, thus--for Republicans--making it more likely that they would cast the "conservative" vote. So, in short, we need to take these rankings with a big grain of salt. Another thing I will note is that focusing just on those members who receive a perfect score from the ACU might emphasize a distinction without a difference. In other words, how different is a member with a score of 95 from one with a score of 100?? Having said this, what do we see?

Again, this year 31 House Republicans received a perfect 100 score. Geographically, a few--mostly southern--states dominate the ranks. Georgia and Florida each produced 5 members. Next was California with 4 and Texas with 3. Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina had 2 members each with 1 member coming from Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Utah. While this "southernness" dimension may speak to the increasingly southern composition of the House Republican ranks, a more appropriate explanation may lie with the redistricting process. States such as Georgia, Texas, California, and Florida all have had very robust gerrymandering episodes in recent years. In fact, this recent study by Avencia Inc. which studied this process, listed GA, PA, OH, NJ, and CA as 5 of the 10 most gerrymandered states in the country. So we need to look at these members district by district.

To further explore this, I next looked at the competitiveness of these members' recent campaigns. One would expect the most conservative members (as with the most liberal) to have easy re-elections, especially if they come from very favorably drawn districts. At left is a simple spreadsheet that looks at these 31 members and their four most recent elections (except for those members who have been elected fewer than 4 times). One thing that immediately jumps out (and which I picked up on when first looking at the list) is that 2 of these members were defeated in 2008--Steve Chabot in OH-1 and Tom Feeney in FL-24. Also of note is the poor performance of Michelle Bachmann in MN-6 who managed to win despite receiving just 47% last year. The fate of these members in particular raises the fundamental question of this post--How do members straddle the dual pressures of ideology and pragmatism?? If one's district is becoming less and less conservative, does one change their behavior in order to stay in office?? In looking at these members over the years one can see how several have seen their margin of victory decline. Others, we should note, have seen relatively stable levels of support or increased margins of victory even in the face of two consecutive election cycles highly unfavorable to Republicans. This might be further proof of a gerrymandering effect. At the bottom of each column I provide the average vote of these members for each year. One sees the degree to which the last 2 cycles decreased the performance of even these most staunchly conservative members.

Next, we can look at the prevalence of these "perfect conservatives" over time to give a sense of whether or not some broader, more systemic, changes might be taking place. While I didn't look at the ACU ratings for each year, I did pull out their scores for 1974, 1984, and 1994. Election years tend to produce higher degrees of partisanship within Congress as both parties jockey for electoral advantage. I also picked these years because they represent both presidential ('84) and midterm ('74 & '94) elections as well as years with a Republican in the White House ('74 & '84) and a Democrat ('94). So we've got a good cross section of political contexts and governing arrangements to look at. In all of these years, though, I'd note that you had Democratic majorities in the House (more on that in a minute). What do we see in terms of the number of members receiving perfect scores from the ACU??

In both 1974 and 1984 9 House Republicans received a perfect rating--roughly 30% of 2008's total. Thus, we may have some evidence of a more moderate Republican caucus during that era. This would seem to jibe with much of the literature on partisanship in Congress which discusses not only increased partisan voting in recent years but also the changing composition of the membership over time. Of the members in the '74 & '84 classes, only 4 hail from southern states (1 each from GA, LA, TN, and TX). Compare that with the 5 Georgians, 5 Floridians, 3 Texans, and 2 North Carolinians in 2008's class. During these early Congresses you still had a sizable number of Southern Dems. whose voting record would be a mixed bag in the ACU's estimation.

1994 is the year where we seem to see these changes in partisanship and member composition materialize in greater conservatism. In that year 46 House Republicans received a perfect rating from the ACU. What might we conclude from this?? A few things, I think. 1994 was the one year in this quick examination that saw Republicans facing a Democratic President. Thus, being in the minority in Congress and up against a partisan adversary in the White House pushed the House Republican caucus in a more ideologically cohesive and rightward direction. With little chance of winning votes, attention turned toward obstructionism. What we also know is that the election that year brought the Republicans into the majority. This is where things get a little interesting. As a result of the '94 election the Republicans gained 52 seats in the House. We would expect, then, that the number of members with a perfect ranking from the ACU would go up as a result. With many more members plus very little turnover in the existing membership (i.e. few R's in office in '94 but not '95) how could they not go up?? Well, they didn't. When we look at the ACU ratings for 1995 we see that only 33 House Republicans got a perfect score. What happened??

What happened is that the Republicans became the majority and becoming the majority entailed a different set of responsibilities in terms of governing. Simply stated the tradeoff between ideology and pragmatism became more pronounced. In order to pass legislation--and get it signed by a Democratic president--members were forced to make compromises and thus dilute the ideological purity of their policy preferences. Any examination of this period of the Clinton presidency will note the delicate dance that the Clinton White House and the Republican Congress engaged in to try and get things done. If you look at the '94 and '95 classes of those with perfect ratings, several of the '94 class weren't present in '95. 18 of the 33 for 1995, in fact, were freshmen members--those most radicalized as a result of the '94 campaign. More senior members--those most responsible for getting legislation passed as committee chairs for example--were more likely to compromise their ideology in order to pass legislation.

Thus, as conservatives hit Washington this weekend for a mixture of pep rally and rebuilding session, they must grapple with the competing demands of their ideology and quest for power. While David Keene and others in the movement would note that "conservative" and "Republican" are not necessarily synonymous (he was very critical of George W. Bush, for example), the realm of practical politics requires figuring out how to get enough votes to win. Did Republicans lose because they were too conservative or not conservative enough?? How does this jibe with the direction the country is moving demographically, economically, and socially?? More fundamental to some conservatives--What good is winning if the result is a retreat from one's principles?? How these questions get answered will go along way toward explaining our politics in the future.

***Watch streaming video of CPAC here.

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