The Republican National Committee's top spokesman, Sean Spicer, took to CNN Friday to distance his party from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and slam the media for connecting the two. "The issue of Cliven Bundy has absolutely nothing to do with this party. Zero," an indignant Spicer said.
Unfortunately for the GOP, it hasn't been that easy to get off the hook.
The reasons why are less about whether Republican lawmakers by and large agree with the puerile remarks Bundy made to The New York Times; they don't—and many were quick to condemn them. And it isn't even so much about the party's lack of diversity, both within the party and among its base.
Rather, it's about some in the party's unceasing willingness, now in year six, to embrace any cause that can help drive a wedge between the electorate and President Obama, regardless of how suspect it might be. It's about favoring hot rhetoric and red meat over reason and about the refusal of the GOP's leaders to stand up to some of its more radical elements.
More specifically, it's about the narrative that Obama is power-mad, the enforcer of an ever-encroaching federal government that is a threat to life and liberty. (Not only is it an exaggeration, but it's entirely at odds with the inside-Washington view among some critics that the president is lacking when it comes to using the tools of office.)
In that context, Bundy was made-to-order until he revealed himself to be old-school in all the wrong ways. Two of the prime purveyors of the meme happen to be two of the most prominent contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination, Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. They, along with Fox News host Sean Hannity, voiced sympathy for the rancher, never mind the fact that Bundy was an avowed law-breaker with a taste for armed insurrection whose belief that the federal government has no authority over him stirs the echoes of the '50s—the 1850s.
A key part of the Cruz-Paul-Hannity narrative is that Obama's election has ushered in a period of decline of American values, that the basic social order is at risk. As Arizona conservative activist Constantin Querard told me last month in Phoenix, "We're getting close to the precipice. When you feel things slipping way, things become urgent."
On Friday, Wayne LaPierre, the often-apocalyptic head of the National Rifle Association, said that very thing in addressing the group's annual convention in Indianapolis. "Gun rights, where we are right now in this country, have become a metaphor for a feeling it's kind of all slipping away," he told the crowd.
"Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong," he continued. "You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing."
It would be easy to dismiss LaPierre's words as a simple fundraising pitch if not for the fact that Mitch McConnell, potentially the next Senate majority leader, followed him to the podium and compared the Obama administration to a "banana republic."
"They are trying to burn the rights of those they disagree with," McConnell said. "Whether it is your right to bear arms or it is your right to speak up without fear of government intimidation."
It isn't that great a leap from McConnell and LaPierre's words to the cries of " jack-booted thugs" during the Clinton administration, but Obama's status as the nation's first African-American president and the demographic shift he represents provides new interpretations to assertions of "core values" slipping away.
McConnell himself neatly encapsulates the push-pull within the party, an establishment figure trying to recast himself as a Tea Party Hero in response to a primary threat, a one-time Senate dealmaker turned committed obstructionist.
McConnell has had a front-row seat in which to witness the rise of Paul and the strain of Republicanism he represents—and he has rarely shown much willingness to take his fellow Kentuckian on. Just two months ago, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Paul warned of Obama's executive-order push. "A tyranny will ensue," he said. Cruz, for his part, has likened the president to a " corrupt dictator." (Google "Obamacare" or "Common Core" and "tyranny" is likely to be one of the first words to surface.)
None of this is new, of course. Obama's election seemed to grant license for Republican politicians to redefine acceptable discourse—from Rep. Joe Wilson yelling "you lie" during a presidential address, to Sarah Palin defending Ted Nugent, to Jim DeMint giving the federal government no credit for ending slavery. And yes, Democrats have their radical elements too and their own over-the-top media moments.
But like it or not, Cruz and Paul are two of the most charismatic personas the party has—and its establishment wing can't seem to find someone to rally behind to countermand their influence in advance of 2016, which means their power is likely to grow, not shrink. And that means that GOP officials such as Sean Spicer can't be surprised when their actions are viewed as the party's own.
This article appears in the April 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.