On other issues, the gap between Washington Republicans and GOP voters back home is less dramatic, but still significant. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Republicans opposed extending tax cuts for the wealthy or wanted the cuts ended across the board, for everybody. Yet Washington Republicans were unanimous in demanding the cuts for the wealthy be extended. Forty-three percent of Republicans, and 38 percent of conservative Republicans, supported extending unemployment benefits, but again that division of opinion was not reflected at all in Washington.
On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell the gap is even bigger. What we’re staring at here is one of the major imbalances in American politics, the incredible institutional weakness of moderate conservative politics.
There’s just no equivalent in Washington of an organization like the DLC/PPI or Third Way or the network of former Democratic members of congress who work for business associations and who together provide an institutional platform for Democratic moderation. Consequently, even if large minorities of the GOP base might favor compromise on this or that issue, there’s no institutional context through which that diversity of opinions might come to be represented as a diversity of political stances. Interestingly, this worked differently when there was an actual Republican presidential administration in office. In that context, the Bush administration itself served as an institutional platform for moderation. When Bush wanted to take a hard-right stance (as he did on Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, lax regulation, etc.) he was able to command unanimous support for his position. But when Bush wanted to tack to the center on immigration or with a giant expansion of Medicare, he was able to bring non-trivial numbers of his co-partisans along with him. With Bush out of office, though, the party’s drifted to the right on basically everything.
On a conventional view of American politics this should be electorally toxic for the GOP. But the conventional view massively overstates the role of ideology in determining electoral outcomes. Conservative fundamentalism is a drag on GOP election prospects (see, e.g., the Delaware and Nevada Senate races) but the extent of the drag is relatively minor.