Cliven Bundy Boxes GOP Into a Corner

And party leaders haven’t been doing enough to avoid connections to racist figures.

BUNKERVILLE, NV - APRIL 24: Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks during a news conference near his ranch on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management and Bundy have been locked in a dispute for a couple of decades over grazing rights on public lands. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
April 27, 2014, 7:44 a.m.

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.

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