This Jonathan Rauch article has been making the rounds. Rauch argues that the Tea Parties (which he usefully links to the phenomenon of conservative independents who operate as "debranded Republicans") are providing Republicans with a short-term jolt of energy, and a highly motivated voting base, but threatening to pull the Republican Party too far right for the long-term health of the party. Rauch argues that these conservative independents are highly ideological and will abandon the party if it seems to be adopting policies aimed at winning over swing voters. So the Republicans will face the lose/lose choice of either losing a large segment of its voting base or turning off swing voters.
I'm not sure that is true. For one thing, I'm not sure that conservative independents are moving the Republican Party in a more conservative direction - well not exactly. I believe they might be moving the party in an identity politics direction in which the identity is "real conservative", but where the policy implications are hazy.
Sharron Angle, with her talk of privatizing Social Security and Medicare and using "Second Amendment remedies" if her side loses, seems to be the ideal example for what happens when the Republican Party goes too far right. But I'm not sure how much her distinctive opinions on the issues helped her win the nomination. She seems to have won primarily by constructing an identity as the authentic, insurgent conservative rather than the servant of any political establishment.
She didn't do this by highlighting any positions that would be clearly alienating to the majority. She didn't campaign on denying abortions to victims of incestuous rape or cutting off grandpa's Social Security check. Looking at her television ads during the primary (I went on YouTube and might have missed some) I was struck by how identitarian they are. They are almost entirely about how Angle in a "true conservative" and "one of us." It isn't that ideological appeals are completely absent, but they consist of "limited government, lower taxes, more freedom, reduce government" blah blah you hear from every Republican to the right of Scott Brown, and contain no explanation about how those principles would be applied to the real world. When it came to the issues she emphasized in the campaign, Angle wasn't any more conservative than Bobby Jindal, Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan. When she was called out for her comments about privatizing Social Security and Medicare, she talked about how she supported the Ryan Roadmap.
In one sense Angle seems incredibly inarticulate, but she mastered a way of talking to an audience that considers itself conservative, is familiar with certain buzzwords, and is alienated from the Republican establishment. The details of how or if private accounts are introduced into Social Security are less important than that the candidate be someone who will stay "one of us." She didn't win a contest of policy or principle. She won a contest of authenticity. Her "Second Amendment remedies" comment can at least partly be explained not as a threat of violence, but as a hyperbolic gesture of solidarity. The problem is that the candidate best positioned to win the conservative authenticity derby, isn't necessarily the candidate best able to speak intelligibly to people who don't self-identify as conservative. Most people don't care if you are a real conservative and to the tens and tens of millions of Americans who don't consume much right-leaning media, many of the stock phrases drawn from the right-leaning media are either meaningless or vaguely threatening. It isn't that these people disagree with this or that policy (though they might.) It is that they don't know what the heck you are talking about.
Rauch presents a seeming dilemma. The Republicans can move "right" and lose swing voters or move left and lose large numbers of conservative independents. It is not obvious that there is a potential Republican majority without both groups. The problem seems greatest when it is in its most abstract form. Our current version of conservative identity politics can be a problem, but the problem is not that it is too ideological, but that it is that it is too identity-driven. The best answer consists in finding ways of applying ideas like limited government, free markets, etc. to particular situations. The challenge would then be to explain to self-identified conservatives how specific policies were drawn from conservative principles (free markets, greater family stability, etc.) and explain to swing voters how those policies will produce tangible benefits - and maybe increase the appeal of conservative politics in the process.