Politics

Beware “If This, Then That” Conservatism

by Jim Swift
January 16, 2019
Featured Image
Rep. Steve King. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Monday, Iowa’s Steve King was formally rebuked by his House colleagues by a vote of 424-1 over his comments about white nationalism, and has (justifiably) been stripped of all committee assignments.

Politically, 2019 will be Steve King’s lonely walk into the wilderness. Having no influence other than a vote—in the minority—does not help one’s re-election prospects. Especially when the seat you lost is on the agriculture committee and you’re the only House Republican from Iowa.

Whether King will resign or hang around the House floor until Iowa voters (almost certainly) dump him is anyone’s guess.

But on the outside, King is already hemorrhaging support. A number of people on the right had kept quiet about Steve King for months and years until his latest outburst made it necessary (or convenient, depending on how cynical you are) to dump him. Even belatedly, this is an improvement. But now a new narrative has emerged on the right: “If you think Steve King should be punished, so, too should [insert name of choice target.]”

Call it “If This, Then That” or IFTT reasoning. Recent examples include: Jonathan S. Tobin, a long-time King critic, in the New York Post, GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Face the Nation, and Sinclair Media’s Boris Epshteyn. All of whom in some form or another have suggested that, sure, “Steve King is bad, but what about Rashida Tlaib, huh? When are Democrats going to go after her?”

In the media business, this is called the “block and bridge.” Normal people call this “changing the subject.” Whatever you call it, it’s unhelpful.

Some of the people doing the block-and-bridge seem to be doing so to emphasize that “they fight.” Others to cover up their silence, or friendship, with King. (See: Ernst, Joni; Cruz, Ted.) And, of course, some are doing it because it’s what tribal loyalty demands.

This is not to say that offensive, racist, anti-semitic, or inflammatory comments on the other side shouldn’t be called out. They should! But politics is a bloodsport, not an accounting ledger. Just because King finally got tagged after being allowed to fester for 15 years doesn’t mean that conservatives are then allowed to take down a problematic liberal. Sometimes you have to take the hit, learn from it, and move on. A prisoner trade this is not.

Especially when the “hit”—in this case the destruction of Steve King—is both morally good and likely to be electorally helpful. Raise your hand if you think other Iowa Republicans will be less competitive without Steve King to hang around their necks.

But the biggest problem with IFTT thinking is that it ignores the central truth about politics: Which is that you can only police your own side. Democrats didn’t care when Republicans criticized Bill Clinton for his improprieties. And they weren’t moved to push Al Franken out because Republicans freaked out about his behavior. And vice versa: Trent Lott didn’t leave his leadership post because Democrats were braying for his head. He left because Republicans were outraged.

Policing your own side used to be, if not exactly the norm, then a very real part of party politics. Both parties have tried very hard to abdicate this basic responsibility and the effect has been . . . well, just take a look at American political life.

Instead of yelling IFTT, conservatives should get back to the basics of policing their own movement if for no reason other than self-interest. Because the midterm elections were a good look at what happens when you don’t.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the vote in the House was to censure King. It wasn’t. The lone nay vote, Bobby Rush, dissented because he felt the rebuke was not as harsh as censure.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.