I finally got around to reading Hugh Hewitt’s latest book, the delightfully titled “If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat (Crushing the Democrats in Every Election, and Why Your Life Depends on It).”
Hugh Hewitt has been very kind to me personally. He has mentioned my blog on the radio and on his own blog, helping me to build a steady, growing readership of people interested in media bias issues generally, and the bias of the Los Angeles Times in particular.
But Hugh has a different political philosophy from mine. And in this post I intend to be brutally honest about the differences, including where I find Hugh to be persuasive — and where I don’t.
[UPDATE: Prompted by reading more than one blog post characterizing this post as a negative review or sharp criticism, it is not intended as such. I think this is a great book that everyone should read. I wouldn't be giving copies of it away if I thought otherwise.]
I come from the school of principled Republicans exemplified by Spoons, Kevin Murphy, the Angry Clam, and Kathryn Jean Lopez. We are the most upset when Republicans fail to fight for what we believe to be core Republican principles: limited government, free speech, conservative judges, gun rights, and other bedrock conservative ideals.
We fought the selection of Arlen Specter as head of the Judiciary Committee. We are outraged by campaign finance reform laws like McCain/Feingold, which we see as a direct assault on the First Amendment. Our favorite Supreme Court Justices are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. We would rather lose a slim majority in the U.S. Senate than kowtow to self-aggrandizing scoundrels like Jim Jeffords.
We value truth and credibility above all else, and we hate hypocrisy. As a result, we are among the most vocal critics of bias in the media, because we believe it is a thumb on the scales, significantly interfering with people’s ability to weigh the truth. Our unswerving allegiance to the truth, and the value we place on our personal credibility, makes it a point of pride for us to denounce hypocrisy wherever we see it — even when it’s on our side of the aisle.
We agree with many tenets of the Libertarian party, and we sometimes vote Libertarian, just to make a point. While we may sympathize with the plight of illegal immigrants, we are nevertheless enraged by the federal government’s refusal to take genuine action to defend our borders. We think Roe v. Wade is an abomination that has done more damage to proper constitutional interpretation than any other decision of the last 50 years or more.
If we live in California, we voted for Tom McClintock over Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We are not utterly blind to pragmatism. We may have railed about the obvious shortcomings of George W. Bush — but most of us ended up voting for him. And of the group I mentioned, I am probably further along the spectrum towards pragmatism than most. But I still consider myself a purist more than a pragmatist.
Hugh Hewitt is here to tell us that purists like us are a danger to the Republican party, and consequently to the nation as a whole. His message is simple: “Majorities matter. Majorities matter. Majorities matter.” And I think that the primary message of his book is that any behavior that stands in the way of garnering consistent Republican majorities is counterproductive.
So while Hugh says his book is for everyone, I believe that his primary audience is people like me: the purists who are more concerned with maintaining our principles than we are in building working majorities that may not share all of our core convictions. Hugh’s book is something of a modern-day “The Prince,” designed to persuade us that power in the service of Republican principles is the highest good — and to show us how to achieve that power, through building majorities.
As such, Hugh’s book is a fairly direct challenge to the way I look at politics. I’m not sure I’m convinced — yet — but he makes some good arguments. I think those arguments are worth discussing, which is why I have issued a proposal to discuss Hugh’s book in the blogosphere — and to buy the book for a few people whose philosophies are similar to mine, and in whose opinions I am interested.
The primary thesis of Hugh’s book is that 9/11 made it clear that national security is far and away the most important issue facing the country. And, Hugh argues, the Democrats cannot be trusted to do what is necessary. The Democrats, in short, are going to get us killed. So we have to beat them.
And, he argues, we must beat them soundly — because if we don’t, they may cheat. Democrats have a proven track record of election fraud. Whether it’s Tammany Hall, JFK’s fraud in Texas and Illinois, the “Torricelli option” for replacing a wounded candidate in violation of clear state law, Al Gore’s cynical manipulations in Florida in 2000, or the use of the partisan Ninth Circuit to delay the California recall election, there is a real track record of cheating by Democrats. So Republicans have to face the ugly but real possibility of electoral fraud in close elections. Hence the book’s title.
Accordingly, Hugh argues, it is critical to the country’s very existence to maintain and build on the emerging Republican majority. And you can’t do that by being a purist, and refusing to support people who don’t share all your convictions. Hugh argues that the majority’s the thing. You can’t worry about the motivations of those voting with you. You just want them voting with you.
Hugh accordingly recommends that people be principled and pragmatic partisans. He urges Republicans to steer swing voters into our party. And the way to do this is by focusing on our winning issues. Many of us may have strong ideological beliefs concerning issues like gun rights and abortion, but Hugh points out that these issues alienate a lot of centrist voters. So Hugh urges us to work on those issues quietly. We should be more vocal about the war, national defense, and homeland security — and to a lesser degree, immigration, judges, gay marriage, and God. (Keep in mind that these are Hugh’s arguments, not mine.)
Hugh also encourages us not to take shots at our own. He argues that there are enough targets on the left to take shots at, without giving ammunition to the other side by criticizing those on the right.
I think Hugh makes some good points. His advocacy of pragmatism is a concept purists should take seriously. Hugh wants the same things most of us want; that comes across loud and clear. He just has a different idea about how to achieve them.
And sometimes he’s right. The Arlen Specter incident is a good example.
I was one of the opponents of Specter’s becoming chair of the Judiciary Committee. All along, I recognized that it probably would happen anyway, and I said that I could accept that — as long as Specter received the clear message that he needed to play ball. But my first preference was to deny him the chair position altogether.
Hugh very publicly suggested otherwise, saying this was the wrong battle at the wrong time. Time will tell, and the answer is not yet clear, but in retrospect, I tend to think he was probably right. I think that the way it worked out, with Specter essentially promising to work for Bush nominees in exchange for the chair position, is probably the ideal resolution. Hugh could see this early on, where many of us couldn’t. I give him credit for that.
At the same time, I think Hugh can be too willing to abandon principle for my taste. Thus, I found off-putting Hugh’s seemingly approving quotations of politicians saying cynical things like: “Damn your principles! Stick to your party” (Disraeli) or “Conscience indeed. Throw conscience to the devil and stand by your party” (Congressman Thaddeus Stevens). The use of these quotations may be tongue-in-cheek, but it bothered me.
My most serious disagreement with him is in his advice that we should almost never criticize our own. I think we have to be willing to criticize our own where appropriate.
The main reason for this is idealistic: I think that an allegiance to the truth is all-important. But if you need a practical reason, try this: an excessive partisanship can cost you credibility. And damaged credibility will turn off swing voters at least as much as extremism will — if not more.
For example, like many, I thought President Bush did horribly in the first debate. By contrast, Hugh thought that the President had done wonderfully. I have no doubt that this was a sincerely held opinion on Hugh’s part — but he was pretty much alone in this opinion. I think that if Hugh were less of a partisan, he might have been a bit more clear-eyed about the deficiencies in the President’s performance. And I think that by expressing these deficiencies, Hugh would have gained some credibility with swing voters — credibility that he could have used later on to persuade people.
You have to be able to call them like you see them, even if it hurts people on your side of the aisle. In the long run, I believe this is not only the right way to behave, but I think it’s best for the party as well.
By the way, Hugh’s book is much more than an argument for pragmatism. It has valuable things to say about how to participate effectively in the political process. It covers the role of money and the flow of information in politics, and is notable for the prominence it gives to blogging as a way to check the power of Big Media — concepts with which I completely agree. I have focused in this review on Hugh’s argument for principled pragmatism because it is the argument that speaks most directly to me and to people like me.
Hopefully, I have given some idea of where I agree and disagree with Hugh. (By the way, I hope I have not mischaracterized Hugh’s arguments in any way, and if I have, it has not been deliberate. But why take my word for it? Read the book yourself.)
So let this post serve as the opening of a blog discussion of this concept. Already I have had a couple of readers take me up on the free book offer, and some others have told me that they intend to buy it on their own. I am happy to see this, and I encourage people to take part in the discussion. Let me know what you think.