March 06. 2013 10:54PM

Ramesh Ponnuru: Do conservatives really want to win elections anymore?


People who want to see American politics take a turn to the right, and a few who don't, have been giving a lot of advice to conservatives lately. Move this way on the social issues; move that way on economics; get more technology-savvy. You've heard it all, sometimes from me.

Maybe all this advice is based on a false premise. We've been assuming that conservatives want to start winning political and policy victories again. But a few news items from last week suggest that many of them have different priorities.

On Feb. 26, we learned that the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting of activists and politicians, had sent speaking invitations to just about every prominent Republican other than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Organizers reportedly think he isn't really a conservative, especially on guns: He hasn't tried to loosen his state's restrictions and once condemned an ad by the National Rifle Association.

I wish New Jersey were governed more conservatively: that Christie had not, for example, agreed to expand Medicaid last week on federal taxpayers' tab. But we're talking about New Jersey here. It's a state that last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1972 and last went for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988. It went for President Obama by a larger margin than any other state governed by a Republican.

Conservatives shouldn't just cut Christie some slack. They ought to listen to him to find out how a pro-life critic of unions has become so popular in unfriendly territory - if, that is, they want the political map of the country to get any redder.

Also last week, the Senate voted, 58-41, to confirm Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Most Republicans voted against him. They offered a variety of reasons, but nothing better illustrated Hagel's unsuitability for the job than the ignorance he showed during his confirmation testimony on the size of the defense budget. A "no" vote was amply justified.

It wasn't enough, though, for some of Hagel's opponents. They complained that by even allowing an up-or-down vote on the nomination, Republicans had made themselves responsible for anything Hagel does as defense secretary. This isn't a sensible standard. The 42 Democrats who voted against John Ashcroft as George W. Bush's attorney general objected to that appointment quite as much as Republicans did to Hagel, but they allowed the vote to go forward. Nobody thought their opposition was therefore just for show. If a refusal to filibuster is the same thing as support for a nomination, few administrations will be able to staff themselves - or the filibuster will be curtailed.

Set aside the merits and think about the politics. Which course makes more sense for Republicans opposed to Hagel? Attacking the Democrats who supported him for being soft on defense and Israel? Or attacking Republicans who voted against him for not opposing him strongly enough? The question answers itself.

On Feb. 27, the Club for Growth, a group of economic conservatives, announced that it is encouraging primary challenges against House Republicans who fail to meet its standards. Most of the members it has in mind have voted for Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which if enacted would be a more sweeping reform of the welfare state than the last three Republican Presidents put together have accomplished. Many of the representatives were docked points, however, because they failed to also vote for a different, even more conservative budget that stood even less chance of becoming law.

The president of the club, Chris Chocola, might not have passed his group's tests when he was in Congress. (He took over the club after losing a House seat in Indiana.) Chocola voted for an expansion of Medicare that makes the spending sins of all his current targets look trivial.

More important, it's hard to see what policy outcomes would be different if every one of the people on the hit list had voted exactly as the club had urged over the past four years.

In each of these episodes, some Republicans have seemed to dislike one another more than they like defeating Democrats and enacting conservative policies. After elections in which conservatives attracted the allegiance of only a minority of voters, they have reacted by trying to kick people out rather than bring people in. (You can see the same impulse at work among Republican critics of religious conservatives.)

Michael Kinsley once remarked that liberals were always looking for heretics while conservatives were always looking for converts. But that was a long time ago, when conservatives were on the upswing.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.