The Existential Battle for the Soul of the GOP

What happens when extremism becomes mainstream?

National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Norm Ornstein
July 23, 2014, 5:33 p.m.

The most in­ter­est­ing, and im­port­ant, dy­nam­ic in Amer­ic­an polit­ics today is the ex­ist­en­tial struggle go­ing on in the Re­pub­lic­an Party between the es­tab­lish­ment and the in­sur­gents — or to be more ac­cur­ate, between the hard-line bed­rock con­ser­vat­ives (there are only trace ele­ments of the old-line cen­ter-right bloc, much less mod­er­ates) and the rad­ic­als.

Of course, tugs-of-war between es­tab­lish­ment forces and ideo­lo­gic­al wings are noth­ing new with our polit­ic­al parties. They have been a con­tinu­ing factor for many dec­ades. The Re­pub­lic­an Party had deep-seated struggles between its Pro­gress­ive wing, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Fol­lette, and its con­ser­vat­ive es­tab­lish­ment, led by Wil­li­am Howard Taft and House Speak­er “Uncle Joe” Can­non, go­ing back to the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

The Pro­gress­ives suc­ceeded in strip­ping Speak­er Can­non of his dic­tat­ori­al powers in 1910, and TR’s will­ing­ness to bolt the GOP and run in 1912 as a Pro­gress­ive on the Bull Moose Party line killed Taft’s chances of win­ning and elec­ted Demo­crat Woo­drow Wilson. The struggles con­tin­ued with mod­er­ates Wendell Wilkie and Tom Dewey bat­tling Taft’s pro­geny Robert through the 1940s. And, of course, the in­sur­gents’ struggles con­tin­ued through Barry Gold­wa­ter and Ron­ald Re­agan. Re­agan first moved in­to na­tion­al polit­ics in 1968, with an abort­ive chal­lenge to cent­rist Richard Nix­on, who won and gov­erned in the middle on do­mest­ic policy, pro­mot­ing lib­er­al so­cial policies on wel­fare and health re­form. Re­agan ree­m­erged in 1976, and his for­ay against cent­rist Pres­id­ent Ford cost Ford the elec­tion — but Re­agan’s own elec­tion as pres­id­ent in 1980 led to an era of re­l­at­ively prag­mat­ic cen­ter-right policy-mak­ing. At the same time, however, the on­go­ing re­gion­al changes in the coun­try were elim­in­at­ing the bases of mod­er­ate and lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans and mov­ing the GOP cen­ter of grav­ity to a lily-white and hard-line base in the South and rur­al West.

Demo­crats have had their own battles. The rad­ic­al pop­u­list Wil­li­am Jen­nings Bry­an won con­trol (and lost the White House three times) around the turn of the cen­tury. But the vic­tory of the es­tab­lish­ment with Woo­drow Wilson ushered in an era of re­l­at­ive calm. However, a Demo­crat­ic Party built on two dis­par­ate wings — South­ern rur­al con­ser­vat­ives de­term­ined to main­tain se­greg­a­tion, North­ern urb­an lib­er­als de­term­ined to de­ploy and main­tain the New Deal — had an un­easy al­li­ance that en­abled the party to keep a ham­mer­lock on Con­gress for dec­ades but began to un­ravel in the 1960s with the Civil Rights and Vot­ing Rights Acts.

A more tur­bu­lent schism de­veloped in the 1970s, when the an­ti­war and anti­es­tab­lish­ment lib­er­al wing led by Eu­gene Mc­Carthy and George McGov­ern fought the es­tab­lish­ment of Lyn­don John­son, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Da­ley, with a bloody con­front­a­tion in Chica­go in 1968, McGov­ern’s short-lived tri­umph in 1972, and a re­sur­gent lib­er­al move­ment in the Wa­ter­gate elec­tions of 1974. The lib­er­al wing res­isted many of the policies of Jimmy Carter; the lib­er­al chal­lenge of Ed­ward M. Kennedy to Carter in 1980 helped to doom his reelec­tion chances. But more con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988 by lib­er­als Wal­ter Mondale and Mi­chael Duka­kis moved the party in a more prag­mat­ic dir­ec­tion with the Clin­ton era — Bill Clin­ton hav­ing been a mod­er­ate gov­ernor of Arkan­sas and the lead­er of the cent­rist Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil.

Clin­ton’s elec­tion in 1992 moved the Demo­crats firmly to the cen­ter on pre­vi­ously di­vis­ive is­sues like wel­fare and crime. But it also provided the im­petus for the forces that have led to the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an prob­lem. These forces were built in part around in­sur­gent Newt Gin­grich’s plans to over­turn the Demo­crat­ic 38-year he­ge­mony in Con­gress, and in part around a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic de­cision by GOP lead­ers and polit­ic­al strategists to hamper the pop­u­lar Clin­ton by del­e­git­im­iz­ing him and us­ing the post-Wa­ter­gate flower­ing of in­de­pend­ent coun­sels to push for mul­tiple crip­pling in­vest­ig­a­tions of wrong­do­ing (to be sure, he gave them a little help along the way). No one was more adroit at us­ing eth­ics in­vest­ig­a­tions to de­mon­ize op­pon­ents than Newt. In 1994, Gin­grich re­cruited a pas­sel of more rad­ic­al can­did­ates for Con­gress, who ran on a path to over­turn most of the wel­fare state and who them­selves de­mon­ized Con­gress and Wash­ing­ton. At a time of rising pop­u­list an­ger — and some dis­il­lu­sion­ment on the left with Clin­ton — the ap­proach worked like a charm, giv­ing the GOP its first ma­jor­ity in the House in 40 years, and chan­ging the face of Con­gress for dec­ades to come.

Newt’s strategy and tac­tics were abet­ted and amp­li­fied by the new force of polit­ic­al talk ra­dio, which had been ac­tiv­ated by the dis­astrous fed­er­al pay raise in 1989-90, and of tri­bal cable tele­vi­sion news. As Sean Theri­ault de­tails in his book The Gin­grich Sen­at­ors, many of Newt’s pro­geny moved on to the Sen­ate and began to change it from an old club in­to a new for­um for tri­bal war­fare. Move on through right-wing frus­tra­tion with George W. Bush’s com­bin­a­tion of com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism and un­fun­ded so­cial policy (and wars) and then the elec­tion of Barack Obama, and the in­gredi­ents for a rise of rad­ic­al­ism and a more ex­plos­ive in­tra-party struggle were set. They were ex­pan­ded again with the eager ef­forts in 2010 of the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Young Guns (Eric Can­tor, Kev­in Mc­Carthy, and Paul Ry­an) to ex­ploit the deep pop­u­list right-wing an­ger at the fin­an­cial col­lapse and the bail­outs of 2008 and 2009 by in­cit­ing the tea-party move­ment. But their ex­pect­a­tion that they could then co-opt these in­sur­gents back­fired badly.

A lot of his­tory to get to the point. What began as a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic, take-no-pris­on­ers par­lia­ment­ary style op­pos­i­tion to Obama was linked to con­stant ef­forts to del­e­git­im­ize his pres­id­ency, first by say­ing he was not born in the U.S., then by call­ing him a tyr­ant try­ing to turn the coun­try in­to a So­cial­ist or Com­mun­ist para­dise. These ef­forts were not con­demned vig­or­ously by party lead­ers in and out of of­fice, but were in­stead de­flec­ted or en­cour­aged, help­ing to cre­ate a mon­ster: a large, vig­or­ous rad­ic­al move­ment that now has large num­bers of ad­her­ents and true be­liev­ers in of­fice and in state party lead­er­ship. This move­ment has con­tempt for es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and the money to go along with its be­liefs. Loc­al and na­tion­al talk ra­dio, blogs, and oth­er so­cial me­dia take their mes­sages and re­in­force them for more and more Amer­ic­ans who get their in­form­a­tion from these sources. One res­ult is that even today, a Rasmussen sur­vey shows that 23 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans still be­lieve Obama is not an Amer­ic­an, while an ad­di­tion­al 17 per­cent are not sure. Forty per­cent of Amer­ic­ans! This is no longer a fringe view.

The most in­ter­est­ing, and im­port­ant, dy­nam­ic in Amer­ic­an polit­ics today is the ex­ist­en­tial struggle go­ing on in the Re­pub­lic­an Party between the es­tab­lish­ment and the in­sur­gents — or to be more ac­cur­ate, between the hard-line bed­rock con­ser­vat­ives (there are only trace ele­ments of the old-line cen­ter-right bloc, much less mod­er­ates) and the rad­ic­als.

Of course, tugs-of-war between es­tab­lish­ment forces and ideo­lo­gic­al wings are noth­ing new with our polit­ic­al parties. They have been a con­tinu­ing factor for many dec­ades. The Re­pub­lic­an Party had deep-seated struggles between its Pro­gress­ive wing, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Fol­lette, and its con­ser­vat­ive es­tab­lish­ment, led by Wil­li­am Howard Taft and House Speak­er “Uncle Joe” Can­non, go­ing back to the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

The Pro­gress­ives suc­ceeded in strip­ping Speak­er Can­non of his dic­tat­ori­al powers in 1910, and TR’s will­ing­ness to bolt the GOP and run in 1912 as a Pro­gress­ive on the Bull Moose Party line killed Taft’s chances of win­ning and elec­ted Demo­crat Woo­drow Wilson. The struggles con­tin­ued with mod­er­ates Wendell Wilkie and Tom Dewey bat­tling Taft’s pro­geny Robert through the 1940s. And, of course, the in­sur­gents’ struggles con­tin­ued through Barry Gold­wa­ter and Ron­ald Re­agan. Re­agan first moved in­to na­tion­al polit­ics in 1968, with an abort­ive chal­lenge to cent­rist Richard Nix­on, who won and gov­erned in the middle on do­mest­ic policy, pro­mot­ing lib­er­al so­cial policies on wel­fare and health re­form. Re­agan ree­m­erged in 1976, and his for­ay against cent­rist Pres­id­ent Ford cost Ford the elec­tion — but Re­agan’s own elec­tion as pres­id­ent in 1980 led to an era of re­l­at­ively prag­mat­ic cen­ter-right policy-mak­ing. At the same time, however, the on­go­ing re­gion­al changes in the coun­try were elim­in­at­ing the bases of mod­er­ate and lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans and mov­ing the GOP cen­ter of grav­ity to a lily-white and hard-line base in the South and rur­al West.

Demo­crats have had their own battles. The rad­ic­al pop­u­list Wil­li­am Jen­nings Bry­an won con­trol (and lost the White House three times) around the turn of the cen­tury. But the vic­tory of the es­tab­lish­ment with Woo­drow Wilson ushered in an era of re­l­at­ive calm. However, a Demo­crat­ic Party built on two dis­par­ate wings — South­ern rur­al con­ser­vat­ives de­term­ined to main­tain se­greg­a­tion, North­ern urb­an lib­er­als de­term­ined to de­ploy and main­tain the New Deal — had an un­easy al­li­ance that en­abled the party to keep a ham­mer­lock on Con­gress for dec­ades but began to un­ravel in the 1960s with the Civil Rights and Vot­ing Rights Acts.

A more tur­bu­lent schism de­veloped in the 1970s, when the an­ti­war and anti­es­tab­lish­ment lib­er­al wing led by Eu­gene Mc­Carthy and George McGov­ern fought the es­tab­lish­ment of Lyn­don John­son, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Da­ley, with a bloody con­front­a­tion in Chica­go in 1968, McGov­ern’s short-lived tri­umph in 1972, and a re­sur­gent lib­er­al move­ment in the Wa­ter­gate elec­tions of 1974. The lib­er­al wing res­isted many of the policies of Jimmy Carter; the lib­er­al chal­lenge of Ed­ward M. Kennedy to Carter in 1980 helped to doom his reelec­tion chances. But more con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988 by lib­er­als Wal­ter Mondale and Mi­chael Duka­kis moved the party in a more prag­mat­ic dir­ec­tion with the Clin­ton era — Bill Clin­ton hav­ing been a mod­er­ate gov­ernor of Arkan­sas and the lead­er of the cent­rist Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil.

Clin­ton’s elec­tion in 1992 moved the Demo­crats firmly to the cen­ter on pre­vi­ously di­vis­ive is­sues like wel­fare and crime. But it also provided the im­petus for the forces that have led to the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an prob­lem. These forces were built in part around in­sur­gent Newt Gin­grich’s plans to over­turn the Demo­crat­ic 38-year he­ge­mony in Con­gress, and in part around a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic de­cision by GOP lead­ers and polit­ic­al strategists to hamper the pop­u­lar Clin­ton by del­e­git­im­iz­ing him and us­ing the post-Wa­ter­gate flower­ing of in­de­pend­ent coun­sels to push for mul­tiple crip­pling in­vest­ig­a­tions of wrong­do­ing (to be sure, he gave them a little help along the way). No one was more adroit at us­ing eth­ics in­vest­ig­a­tions to de­mon­ize op­pon­ents than Newt. In 1994, Gin­grich re­cruited a pas­sel of more rad­ic­al can­did­ates for Con­gress, who ran on a path to over­turn most of the wel­fare state and who them­selves de­mon­ized Con­gress and Wash­ing­ton. At a time of rising pop­u­list an­ger — and some dis­il­lu­sion­ment on the left with Clin­ton — the ap­proach worked like a charm, giv­ing the GOP its first ma­jor­ity in the House in 40 years, and chan­ging the face of Con­gress for dec­ades to come.

Newt’s strategy and tac­tics were abet­ted and amp­li­fied by the new force of polit­ic­al talk ra­dio, which had been ac­tiv­ated by the dis­astrous fed­er­al pay raise in 1989-90, and of tri­bal cable tele­vi­sion news. As Sean Theri­ault de­tails in his book The Gin­grich Sen­at­ors, many of Newt’s pro­geny moved on to the Sen­ate and began to change it from an old club in­to a new for­um for tri­bal war­fare. Move on through right-wing frus­tra­tion with George W. Bush’s com­bin­a­tion of com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism and un­fun­ded so­cial policy (and wars) and then the elec­tion of Barack Obama, and the in­gredi­ents for a rise of rad­ic­al­ism and a more ex­plos­ive in­tra-party struggle were set. They were ex­pan­ded again with the eager ef­forts in 2010 of the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Young Guns (Eric Can­tor, Kev­in Mc­Carthy, and Paul Ry­an) to ex­ploit the deep pop­u­list right-wing an­ger at the fin­an­cial col­lapse and the bail­outs of 2008 and 2009 by in­cit­ing the tea-party move­ment. But their ex­pect­a­tion that they could then co-opt these in­sur­gents back­fired badly.

A lot of his­tory to get to the point. What began as a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic, take-no-pris­on­ers par­lia­ment­ary style op­pos­i­tion to Obama was linked to con­stant ef­forts to del­e­git­im­ize his pres­id­ency, first by say­ing he was not born in the U.S., then by call­ing him a tyr­ant try­ing to turn the coun­try in­to a So­cial­ist or Com­mun­ist para­dise. These ef­forts were not con­demned vig­or­ously by party lead­ers in and out of of­fice, but were in­stead de­flec­ted or en­cour­aged, help­ing to cre­ate a mon­ster: a large, vig­or­ous rad­ic­al move­ment that now has large num­bers of ad­her­ents and true be­liev­ers in of­fice and in state party lead­er­ship. This move­ment has con­tempt for es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and the money to go along with its be­liefs. Loc­al and na­tion­al talk ra­dio, blogs, and oth­er so­cial me­dia take their mes­sages and re­in­force them for more and more Amer­ic­ans who get their in­form­a­tion from these sources. One res­ult is that even today, a Rasmussen sur­vey shows that 23 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans still be­lieve Obama is not an Amer­ic­an, while an ad­di­tion­al 17 per­cent are not sure. Forty per­cent of Amer­ic­ans! This is no longer a fringe view.

As for the rad­ic­als in elec­ted of­fice or in con­trol of party or­gans, con­sider a small sampling of com­ments:

“Sex that doesn’t pro­duce people is de­vi­ate.” — Montana state Rep. Dave Hag­strom.

“It is not our job to see that any­one gets an edu­ca­tion.” — Ok­lahoma state Rep. Mike Reyn­olds.

“I hear you loud and clear, Barack Obama. You don’t rep­res­ent the coun­try that I grew up with. And your val­ues is not go­ing to save us. We’re go­ing to take this coun­try back for the Lord. We’re go­ing to try to take this coun­try back for con­ser­vat­ism. And we’re not go­ing to al­low minor­it­ies to run rough­shod over what you people be­lieve in!” — Arkan­sas state Sen. Jason Rapert, at a tea-party rally.

Pres­id­ent Obama has “be­come a dic­tat­or” and needs to face the con­sequences of his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions, “wheth­er that’s re­mov­al from of­fice, wheth­er that’s im­peach­ment.” — Iowa state Sen. (and U.S. Sen­ate can­did­ate) Jodi Ernst, one of a slew of elec­ted of­fi­cials call­ing for im­peach­ment or at least put­ting it front and cen­ter.

“I don’t want to get in­to the de­bate about cli­mate change. But I’ll simply point out that I think in aca­demia we all agree that the tem­per­at­ure on Mars is ex­actly as it is here. Nobody will dis­pute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There’s no factor­ies on Mars that I’m aware of.” — Ken­tucky state Sen. Brandon Smith (fact-check: the av­er­age tem­per­at­ure on Mars is -81 de­grees).

The most in­ter­est­ing, and im­port­ant, dy­nam­ic in Amer­ic­an polit­ics today is the ex­ist­en­tial struggle go­ing on in the Re­pub­lic­an Party between the es­tab­lish­ment and the in­sur­gents — or to be more ac­cur­ate, between the hard-line bed­rock con­ser­vat­ives (there are only trace ele­ments of the old-line cen­ter-right bloc, much less mod­er­ates) and the rad­ic­als.

Of course, tugs-of-war between es­tab­lish­ment forces and ideo­lo­gic­al wings are noth­ing new with our polit­ic­al parties. They have been a con­tinu­ing factor for many dec­ades. The Re­pub­lic­an Party had deep-seated struggles between its Pro­gress­ive wing, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Fol­lette, and its con­ser­vat­ive es­tab­lish­ment, led by Wil­li­am Howard Taft and House Speak­er “Uncle Joe” Can­non, go­ing back to the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

The Pro­gress­ives suc­ceeded in strip­ping Speak­er Can­non of his dic­tat­ori­al powers in 1910, and TR’s will­ing­ness to bolt the GOP and run in 1912 as a Pro­gress­ive on the Bull Moose Party line killed Taft’s chances of win­ning and elec­ted Demo­crat Woo­drow Wilson. The struggles con­tin­ued with mod­er­ates Wendell Wilkie and Tom Dewey bat­tling Taft’s pro­geny Robert through the 1940s. And, of course, the in­sur­gents’ struggles con­tin­ued through Barry Gold­wa­ter and Ron­ald Re­agan. Re­agan first moved in­to na­tion­al polit­ics in 1968, with an abort­ive chal­lenge to cent­rist Richard Nix­on, who won and gov­erned in the middle on do­mest­ic policy, pro­mot­ing lib­er­al so­cial policies on wel­fare and health re­form. Re­agan ree­m­erged in 1976, and his for­ay against cent­rist Pres­id­ent Ford cost Ford the elec­tion — but Re­agan’s own elec­tion as pres­id­ent in 1980 led to an era of re­l­at­ively prag­mat­ic cen­ter-right policy-mak­ing. At the same time, however, the on­go­ing re­gion­al changes in the coun­try were elim­in­at­ing the bases of mod­er­ate and lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans and mov­ing the GOP cen­ter of grav­ity to a lily-white and hard-line base in the South and rur­al West.

Demo­crats have had their own battles. The rad­ic­al pop­u­list Wil­li­am Jen­nings Bry­an won con­trol (and lost the White House three times) around the turn of the cen­tury. But the vic­tory of the es­tab­lish­ment with Woo­drow Wilson ushered in an era of re­l­at­ive calm. However, a Demo­crat­ic Party built on two dis­par­ate wings — South­ern rur­al con­ser­vat­ives de­term­ined to main­tain se­greg­a­tion, North­ern urb­an lib­er­als de­term­ined to de­ploy and main­tain the New Deal — had an un­easy al­li­ance that en­abled the party to keep a ham­mer­lock on Con­gress for dec­ades but began to un­ravel in the 1960s with the Civil Rights and Vot­ing Rights Acts.

A more tur­bu­lent schism de­veloped in the 1970s, when the an­ti­war and anti­es­tab­lish­ment lib­er­al wing led by Eu­gene Mc­Carthy and George McGov­ern fought the es­tab­lish­ment of Lyn­don John­son, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Da­ley, with a bloody con­front­a­tion in Chica­go in 1968, McGov­ern’s short-lived tri­umph in 1972, and a re­sur­gent lib­er­al move­ment in the Wa­ter­gate elec­tions of 1974. The lib­er­al wing res­isted many of the policies of Jimmy Carter; the lib­er­al chal­lenge of Ed­ward M. Kennedy to Carter in 1980 helped to doom his reelec­tion chances. But more con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988 by lib­er­als Wal­ter Mondale and Mi­chael Duka­kis moved the party in a more prag­mat­ic dir­ec­tion with the Clin­ton era — Bill Clin­ton hav­ing been a mod­er­ate gov­ernor of Arkan­sas and the lead­er of the cent­rist Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil.

Clin­ton’s elec­tion in 1992 moved the Demo­crats firmly to the cen­ter on pre­vi­ously di­vis­ive is­sues like wel­fare and crime. But it also provided the im­petus for the forces that have led to the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an prob­lem. These forces were built in part around in­sur­gent Newt Gin­grich’s plans to over­turn the Demo­crat­ic 38-year he­ge­mony in Con­gress, and in part around a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic de­cision by GOP lead­ers and polit­ic­al strategists to hamper the pop­u­lar Clin­ton by del­e­git­im­iz­ing him and us­ing the post-Wa­ter­gate flower­ing of in­de­pend­ent coun­sels to push for mul­tiple crip­pling in­vest­ig­a­tions of wrong­do­ing (to be sure, he gave them a little help along the way). No one was more adroit at us­ing eth­ics in­vest­ig­a­tions to de­mon­ize op­pon­ents than Newt. In 1994, Gin­grich re­cruited a pas­sel of more rad­ic­al can­did­ates for Con­gress, who ran on a path to over­turn most of the wel­fare state and who them­selves de­mon­ized Con­gress and Wash­ing­ton. At a time of rising pop­u­list an­ger — and some dis­il­lu­sion­ment on the left with Clin­ton — the ap­proach worked like a charm, giv­ing the GOP its first ma­jor­ity in the House in 40 years, and chan­ging the face of Con­gress for dec­ades to come.

Newt’s strategy and tac­tics were abet­ted and amp­li­fied by the new force of polit­ic­al talk ra­dio, which had been ac­tiv­ated by the dis­astrous fed­er­al pay raise in 1989-90, and of tri­bal cable tele­vi­sion news. As Sean Theri­ault de­tails in his book The Gin­grich Sen­at­ors, many of Newt’s pro­geny moved on to the Sen­ate and began to change it from an old club in­to a new for­um for tri­bal war­fare. Move on through right-wing frus­tra­tion with George W. Bush’s com­bin­a­tion of com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism and un­fun­ded so­cial policy (and wars) and then the elec­tion of Barack Obama, and the in­gredi­ents for a rise of rad­ic­al­ism and a more ex­plos­ive in­tra-party struggle were set. They were ex­pan­ded again with the eager ef­forts in 2010 of the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Young Guns (Eric Can­tor, Kev­in Mc­Carthy, and Paul Ry­an) to ex­ploit the deep pop­u­list right-wing an­ger at the fin­an­cial col­lapse and the bail­outs of 2008 and 2009 by in­cit­ing the tea-party move­ment. But their ex­pect­a­tion that they could then co-opt these in­sur­gents back­fired badly.

A lot of his­tory to get to the point. What began as a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic, take-no-pris­on­ers par­lia­ment­ary style op­pos­i­tion to Obama was linked to con­stant ef­forts to del­e­git­im­ize his pres­id­ency, first by say­ing he was not born in the U.S., then by call­ing him a tyr­ant try­ing to turn the coun­try in­to a So­cial­ist or Com­mun­ist para­dise. These ef­forts were not con­demned vig­or­ously by party lead­ers in and out of of­fice, but were in­stead de­flec­ted or en­cour­aged, help­ing to cre­ate a mon­ster: a large, vig­or­ous rad­ic­al move­ment that now has large num­bers of ad­her­ents and true be­liev­ers in of­fice and in state party lead­er­ship. This move­ment has con­tempt for es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and the money to go along with its be­liefs. Loc­al and na­tion­al talk ra­dio, blogs, and oth­er so­cial me­dia take their mes­sages and re­in­force them for more and more Amer­ic­ans who get their in­form­a­tion from these sources. One res­ult is that even today, a Rasmussen sur­vey shows that 23 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans still be­lieve Obama is not an Amer­ic­an, while an ad­di­tion­al 17 per­cent are not sure. Forty per­cent of Amer­ic­ans! This is no longer a fringe view.

As for the rad­ic­als in elec­ted of­fice or in con­trol of party or­gans, con­sider a small sampling of com­ments:

“Sex that doesn’t pro­duce people is de­vi­ate.” — Montana state Rep. Dave Hag­strom.

“It is not our job to see that any­one gets an edu­ca­tion.” — Ok­lahoma state Rep. Mike Reyn­olds.

“I hear you loud and clear, Barack Obama. You don’t rep­res­ent the coun­try that I grew up with. And your val­ues is not go­ing to save us. We’re go­ing to take this coun­try back for the Lord. We’re go­ing to try to take this coun­try back for con­ser­vat­ism. And we’re not go­ing to al­low minor­it­ies to run rough­shod over what you people be­lieve in!” — Arkan­sas state Sen. Jason Rapert, at a tea-party rally.

Pres­id­ent Obama has “be­come a dic­tat­or” and needs to face the con­sequences of his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions, “wheth­er that’s re­mov­al from of­fice, wheth­er that’s im­peach­ment.” — Iowa state Sen. (and U.S. Sen­ate can­did­ate) Jodi Ernst, one of a slew of elec­ted of­fi­cials call­ing for im­peach­ment or at least put­ting it front and cen­ter.

“I don’t want to get in­to the de­bate about cli­mate change. But I’ll simply point out that I think in aca­demia we all agree that the tem­per­at­ure on Mars is ex­actly as it is here. Nobody will dis­pute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There’s no factor­ies on Mars that I’m aware of.” — Ken­tucky state Sen. Brandon Smith (fact-check: the av­er­age tem­per­at­ure on Mars is -81 de­grees).

“Al­though Is­lam had a re­li­gious com­pon­ent, it is much more than a simple re­li­gious ideo­logy. It is a com­plete geo-polit­ic­al struc­ture and, as such, does not de­serve First Amend­ment pro­tec­tions.” — Geor­gia con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Jody Hice.

“Slavery and abor­tion are the two most hor­rendous things this coun­try has done, but when you think about the im­mor­al­ity of wild, lav­ish spend­ing on our gen­er­a­tion and for­cing fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to do without es­sen­tials just so we can live lav­ishly now, it’s pretty im­mor­al.” — U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to un­der­stand that. All that stuff I was taught about evol­u­tion and em­bry­ology and the big-bang the­ory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from un­der­stand­ing that they need a sa­vior.” — U.S. Rep. (and M.D.) Paul Broun of Geor­gia.

“Now I don’t as­sert where he [Obama] was born, I will just tell you that we are all cer­tain that he was not raised with an Amer­ic­an ex­per­i­ence. So these things that beat in our hearts when we hear the Na­tion­al An­them and when we say the Pledge of Al­le­gi­ance doesn’t beat the same for him.” — U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

As for the party lead­ers, con­sider some of the things that are now part of the of­fi­cial Texas Re­pub­lic­an Party plat­form, as high­lighted by The New York­er’s Hendrik Hertzberg:

  • That the Texas Le­gis­lature should “ig­nore, op­pose, re­fuse, and nul­li­fy” fed­er­al laws it doesn’t like.
  • That when it comes to “un­elec­ted bur­eau­crats” (mean­ing, Hertzberg notes, al­most the en­tire fed­er­al work­force), Con­gress should “de­fund and ab­ol­ish these po­s­i­tions.”
  • That all fed­er­al “en­force­ment activ­it­ies” in Texas “must be con­duc­ted un­der the aus­pices of the county sher­iff with jur­is­dic­tion in that county.” (That would leave the FBI, air mar­shals, im­mig­ra­tion of­fi­cials, DEA per­son­nel, and so on sub­or­din­ate to the Texas ver­sions of Sher­iff Joe Arpaio.)
  • That “the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, co­di­fied and up­dated in 1973, be re­pealed and not reau­thor­ized.”
  • That the U.S. with­draw from the United Na­tions, the In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund, the World Trade Or­gan­iz­a­tion, and the World Bank.
  • That gov­ern­ments at all levels should “ig­nore any plea for money to fund glob­al cli­mate change or ‘cli­mate justice’ ini­ti­at­ives.”
  • That “all adult cit­izens should have the leg­al right to con­scien­tiously choose which vac­cines are ad­min­istered to them­selves, or their minor chil­dren, without pen­alty for re­fus­ing a vac­cine.
  • That “no level of gov­ern­ment shall reg­u­late either the own­er­ship or pos­ses­sion of fire­arms.” (Peri­od, no ex­cep­tions.)

Texas, of course, may be an out­lier. But the Maine Re­pub­lic­an Party ad­op­ted a plat­form that called for the ab­ol­i­tion of the Fed­er­al Re­serve, called glob­al warm­ing a myth, and de­man­ded an in­vest­ig­a­tion of “col­lu­sion between gov­ern­ment and in­dustry” in per­pet­rat­ing that myth. It also called for res­ist­ance to “ef­forts to cre­ate a one world gov­ern­ment.” And the Benton County, Ark., Re­pub­lic­an Party said in its news­let­ter, “The 2nd Amend­ment means noth­ing un­less those in power be­lieve you would have no prob­lem simply walk­ing up and shoot­ing them if they got too far out of line and stopped re­spond­ing as rep­res­ent­at­ives.”

One might ar­gue that these quotes are highly se­lect­ive — but they are only a tiny sampling (not a single one from Michele Bach­mann, only one from Gohmert!). Im­port­antly, al­most none were countered by party of­fi­cials or le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers, nor were the in­di­vidu­als quoted rep­rim­anded in any way. What used to be widely seen as loony is now broadly ac­cep­ted or tol­er­ated.

I am not sug­gest­ing that the lun­at­ics or ex­trem­ists have won. Most Re­pub­lic­ans in the Sen­ate are not, to use John Mc­Cain’s term, “wacko birds,” and most Re­pub­lic­ans in of­fice would at least privately cringe at some of the wild ideas and ex­treme views. At the same time, the “es­tab­lish­ment” is fight­ing back, pour­ing re­sources in­to primar­ies to pro­tect their pre­ferred can­did­ates, and we are see­ing the rise of a new and en­cour­aging move­ment among con­ser­vat­ive in­tel­lec­tu­als — dubbed “Re­formi­cons” by E.J. Di­onne — to come up with a new set of ideas and policy pre­scrip­tions to re­define the ideo­logy and the party in a pos­it­ive way.

But there is a dark­er real­ity. Many of the “pre­ferred” can­did­ates — in­clud­ing Ernst as well as James Lank­ford in Ok­lahoma and Jack King­ston in Geor­gia — are any­thing but prag­mat­ic. 

A few years ago, they would have been labeled hard-liners. (King­ston, a fa­vor­ite of the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, was beaten in the Sen­ate primary Tues­day by busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due, who has said he would not vote for Mitch Mc­Con­nell as party lead­er in the Sen­ate.) It is a meas­ure of the nature of this in­tra-party struggle that the main­stream is now on the hard right, and that it is close to apostasy to say that Obama is le­git­im­ate, that cli­mate change is real, that back­ground checks on guns are de­sir­able, or even that the Com­mon Core is a good idea. When we see pre­sum­ably sane fig­ures like Louisi­ana Gov­ernor Bobby Jin­dal shame­lessly pander to the ex­trem­ists, it tells us where the cen­ter of grav­ity in the GOP primary base, at least, is set. Of course, there are still cour­ageous main­stream fig­ures like Jeb Bush who are will­ing to de­vi­ate from the new or­tho­doxy, and it is pos­sible that he can run and get the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion, win the White House, and be­gin the pro­cess of re­cal­ib­ra­tion.

But when one looks at the state of Re­pub­lic­an pub­lic opin­ion (es­pe­cially among the likely caucus and primary voters), at the con­sist­ent and per­sist­ent mes­sages com­ing from the in­form­a­tion sources they fol­low, and at the su­pine nature of con­gres­sion­al lead­ers and busi­ness lead­ers in coun­ter­ing ex­trem­ism, it is not at all likely that what passes for main­stream, prob­lem-solv­ing con­ser­vat­ism will dom­in­ate the Re­pub­lic­an Party any­time soon.

The most in­ter­est­ing, and im­port­ant, dy­nam­ic in Amer­ic­an polit­ics today is the ex­ist­en­tial struggle go­ing on in the Re­pub­lic­an Party between the es­tab­lish­ment and the in­sur­gents — or to be more ac­cur­ate, between the hard-line bed­rock con­ser­vat­ives (there are only trace ele­ments of the old-line cen­ter-right bloc, much less mod­er­ates) and the rad­ic­als.

Of course, tugs-of-war between es­tab­lish­ment forces and ideo­lo­gic­al wings are noth­ing new with our polit­ic­al parties. They have been a con­tinu­ing factor for many dec­ades. The Re­pub­lic­an Party had deep-seated struggles between its Pro­gress­ive wing, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Fol­lette, and its con­ser­vat­ive es­tab­lish­ment, led by Wil­li­am Howard Taft and House Speak­er “Uncle Joe” Can­non, go­ing back to the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

The Pro­gress­ives suc­ceeded in strip­ping Speak­er Can­non of his dic­tat­ori­al powers in 1910, and TR’s will­ing­ness to bolt the GOP and run in 1912 as a Pro­gress­ive on the Bull Moose Party line killed Taft’s chances of win­ning and elec­ted Demo­crat Woo­drow Wilson. The struggles con­tin­ued with mod­er­ates Wendell Wilkie and Tom Dewey bat­tling Taft’s pro­geny Robert through the 1940s. And, of course, the in­sur­gents’ struggles con­tin­ued through Barry Gold­wa­ter and Ron­ald Re­agan. Re­agan first moved in­to na­tion­al polit­ics in 1968, with an abort­ive chal­lenge to cent­rist Richard Nix­on, who won and gov­erned in the middle on do­mest­ic policy, pro­mot­ing lib­er­al so­cial policies on wel­fare and health re­form. Re­agan ree­m­erged in 1976, and his for­ay against cent­rist Pres­id­ent Ford cost Ford the elec­tion — but Re­agan’s own elec­tion as pres­id­ent in 1980 led to an era of re­l­at­ively prag­mat­ic cen­ter-right policy-mak­ing. At the same time, however, the on­go­ing re­gion­al changes in the coun­try were elim­in­at­ing the bases of mod­er­ate and lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans and mov­ing the GOP cen­ter of grav­ity to a lily-white and hard-line base in the South and rur­al West.

Demo­crats have had their own battles. The rad­ic­al pop­u­list Wil­li­am Jen­nings Bry­an won con­trol (and lost the White House three times) around the turn of the cen­tury. But the vic­tory of the es­tab­lish­ment with Woo­drow Wilson ushered in an era of re­l­at­ive calm. However, a Demo­crat­ic Party built on two dis­par­ate wings — South­ern rur­al con­ser­vat­ives de­term­ined to main­tain se­greg­a­tion, North­ern urb­an lib­er­als de­term­ined to de­ploy and main­tain the New Deal — had an un­easy al­li­ance that en­abled the party to keep a ham­mer­lock on Con­gress for dec­ades but began to un­ravel in the 1960s with the Civil Rights and Vot­ing Rights Acts.

A more tur­bu­lent schism de­veloped in the 1970s, when the an­ti­war and anti­es­tab­lish­ment lib­er­al wing led by Eu­gene Mc­Carthy and George McGov­ern fought the es­tab­lish­ment of Lyn­don John­son, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Da­ley, with a bloody con­front­a­tion in Chica­go in 1968, McGov­ern’s short-lived tri­umph in 1972, and a re­sur­gent lib­er­al move­ment in the Wa­ter­gate elec­tions of 1974. The lib­er­al wing res­isted many of the policies of Jimmy Carter; the lib­er­al chal­lenge of Ed­ward M. Kennedy to Carter in 1980 helped to doom his reelec­tion chances. But more con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988 by lib­er­als Wal­ter Mondale and Mi­chael Duka­kis moved the party in a more prag­mat­ic dir­ec­tion with the Clin­ton era — Bill Clin­ton hav­ing been a mod­er­ate gov­ernor of Arkan­sas and the lead­er of the cent­rist Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil.

Clin­ton’s elec­tion in 1992 moved the Demo­crats firmly to the cen­ter on pre­vi­ously di­vis­ive is­sues like wel­fare and crime. But it also provided the im­petus for the forces that have led to the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an prob­lem. These forces were built in part around in­sur­gent Newt Gin­grich’s plans to over­turn the Demo­crat­ic 38-year he­ge­mony in Con­gress, and in part around a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic de­cision by GOP lead­ers and polit­ic­al strategists to hamper the pop­u­lar Clin­ton by del­e­git­im­iz­ing him and us­ing the post-Wa­ter­gate flower­ing of in­de­pend­ent coun­sels to push for mul­tiple crip­pling in­vest­ig­a­tions of wrong­do­ing (to be sure, he gave them a little help along the way). No one was more adroit at us­ing eth­ics in­vest­ig­a­tions to de­mon­ize op­pon­ents than Newt. In 1994, Gin­grich re­cruited a pas­sel of more rad­ic­al can­did­ates for Con­gress, who ran on a path to over­turn most of the wel­fare state and who them­selves de­mon­ized Con­gress and Wash­ing­ton. At a time of rising pop­u­list an­ger — and some dis­il­lu­sion­ment on the left with Clin­ton — the ap­proach worked like a charm, giv­ing the GOP its first ma­jor­ity in the House in 40 years, and chan­ging the face of Con­gress for dec­ades to come.

Newt’s strategy and tac­tics were abet­ted and amp­li­fied by the new force of polit­ic­al talk ra­dio, which had been ac­tiv­ated by the dis­astrous fed­er­al pay raise in 1989-90, and of tri­bal cable tele­vi­sion news. As Sean Theri­ault de­tails in his book The Gin­grich Sen­at­ors, many of Newt’s pro­geny moved on to the Sen­ate and began to change it from an old club in­to a new for­um for tri­bal war­fare. Move on through right-wing frus­tra­tion with George W. Bush’s com­bin­a­tion of com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism and un­fun­ded so­cial policy (and wars) and then the elec­tion of Barack Obama, and the in­gredi­ents for a rise of rad­ic­al­ism and a more ex­plos­ive in­tra-party struggle were set. They were ex­pan­ded again with the eager ef­forts in 2010 of the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Young Guns (Eric Can­tor, Kev­in Mc­Carthy, and Paul Ry­an) to ex­ploit the deep pop­u­list right-wing an­ger at the fin­an­cial col­lapse and the bail­outs of 2008 and 2009 by in­cit­ing the tea-party move­ment. But their ex­pect­a­tion that they could then co-opt these in­sur­gents back­fired badly.

A lot of his­tory to get to the point. What began as a ruth­lessly prag­mat­ic, take-no-pris­on­ers par­lia­ment­ary style op­pos­i­tion to Obama was linked to con­stant ef­forts to del­e­git­im­ize his pres­id­ency, first by say­ing he was not born in the U.S., then by call­ing him a tyr­ant try­ing to turn the coun­try in­to a So­cial­ist or Com­mun­ist para­dise. These ef­forts were not con­demned vig­or­ously by party lead­ers in and out of of­fice, but were in­stead de­flec­ted or en­cour­aged, help­ing to cre­ate a mon­ster: a large, vig­or­ous rad­ic­al move­ment that now has large num­bers of ad­her­ents and true be­liev­ers in of­fice and in state party lead­er­ship. This move­ment has con­tempt for es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and the money to go along with its be­liefs. Loc­al and na­tion­al talk ra­dio, blogs, and oth­er so­cial me­dia take their mes­sages and re­in­force them for more and more Amer­ic­ans who get their in­form­a­tion from these sources. One res­ult is that even today, a Rasmussen sur­vey shows that 23 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans still be­lieve Obama is not an Amer­ic­an, while an ad­di­tion­al 17 per­cent are not sure. Forty per­cent of Amer­ic­ans! This is no longer a fringe view.

As for the rad­ic­als in elec­ted of­fice or in con­trol of party or­gans, con­sider a small sampling of com­ments:

“Sex that doesn’t pro­duce people is de­vi­ate.” — Montana state Rep. Dave Hag­strom.

“It is not our job to see that any­one gets an edu­ca­tion.” — Ok­lahoma state Rep. Mike Reyn­olds.

“I hear you loud and clear, Barack Obama. You don’t rep­res­ent the coun­try that I grew up with. And your val­ues is not go­ing to save us. We’re go­ing to take this coun­try back for the Lord. We’re go­ing to try to take this coun­try back for con­ser­vat­ism. And we’re not go­ing to al­low minor­it­ies to run rough­shod over what you people be­lieve in!” — Arkan­sas state Sen. Jason Rapert, at a tea-party rally.

Pres­id­ent Obama has “be­come a dic­tat­or” and needs to face the con­sequences of his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions, “wheth­er that’s re­mov­al from of­fice, wheth­er that’s im­peach­ment.” — Iowa state Sen. (and U.S. Sen­ate can­did­ate) Jodi Ernst, one of a slew of elec­ted of­fi­cials call­ing for im­peach­ment or at least put­ting it front and cen­ter.

“I don’t want to get in­to the de­bate about cli­mate change. But I’ll simply point out that I think in aca­demia we all agree that the tem­per­at­ure on Mars is ex­actly as it is here. Nobody will dis­pute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There’s no factor­ies on Mars that I’m aware of.” — Ken­tucky state Sen. Brandon Smith (fact-check: the av­er­age tem­per­at­ure on Mars is -81 de­grees).

“Al­though Is­lam had a re­li­gious com­pon­ent, it is much more than a simple re­li­gious ideo­logy. It is a com­plete geo-polit­ic­al struc­ture and, as such, does not de­serve First Amend­ment pro­tec­tions.” — Geor­gia con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Jody Hice.

“Slavery and abor­tion are the two most hor­rendous things this coun­try has done, but when you think about the im­mor­al­ity of wild, lav­ish spend­ing on our gen­er­a­tion and for­cing fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to do without es­sen­tials just so we can live lav­ishly now, it’s pretty im­mor­al.” — U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to un­der­stand that. All that stuff I was taught about evol­u­tion and em­bry­ology and the big-bang the­ory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from un­der­stand­ing that they need a sa­vior.” — U.S. Rep. (and M.D.) Paul Broun of Geor­gia.

“Now I don’t as­sert where he [Obama] was born, I will just tell you that we are all cer­tain that he was not raised with an Amer­ic­an ex­per­i­ence. So these things that beat in our hearts when we hear the Na­tion­al An­them and when we say the Pledge of Al­le­gi­ance doesn’t beat the same for him.” — U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

As for the party lead­ers, con­sider some of the things that are now part of the of­fi­cial Texas Re­pub­lic­an Party plat­form, as high­lighted by The New York­er’s Hendrik Hertzberg:

  • That the Texas Le­gis­lature should “ig­nore, op­pose, re­fuse, and nul­li­fy” fed­er­al laws it doesn’t like.
  • That when it comes to “un­elec­ted bur­eau­crats” (mean­ing, Hertzberg notes, al­most the en­tire fed­er­al work­force), Con­gress should “de­fund and ab­ol­ish these po­s­i­tions.”
  • That all fed­er­al “en­force­ment activ­it­ies” in Texas “must be con­duc­ted un­der the aus­pices of the county sher­iff with jur­is­dic­tion in that county.” (That would leave the FBI, air mar­shals, im­mig­ra­tion of­fi­cials, DEA per­son­nel, and so on sub­or­din­ate to the Texas ver­sions of Sher­iff Joe Arpaio.)
  • That “the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, co­di­fied and up­dated in 1973, be re­pealed and not reau­thor­ized.”
  • That the U.S. with­draw from the United Na­tions, the In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund, the World Trade Or­gan­iz­a­tion, and the World Bank.
  • That gov­ern­ments at all levels should “ig­nore any plea for money to fund glob­al cli­mate change or ‘cli­mate justice’ ini­ti­at­ives.”
  • That “all adult cit­izens should have the leg­al right to con­scien­tiously choose which vac­cines are ad­min­istered to them­selves, or their minor chil­dren, without pen­alty for re­fus­ing a vac­cine.
  • That “no level of gov­ern­ment shall reg­u­late either the own­er­ship or pos­ses­sion of fire­arms.” (Peri­od, no ex­cep­tions.)

Texas, of course, may be an out­lier. But the Maine Re­pub­lic­an Party ad­op­ted a plat­form that called for the ab­ol­i­tion of the Fed­er­al Re­serve, called glob­al warm­ing a myth, and de­man­ded an in­vest­ig­a­tion of “col­lu­sion between gov­ern­ment and in­dustry” in per­pet­rat­ing that myth. It also called for res­ist­ance to “ef­forts to cre­ate a one world gov­ern­ment.” And the Benton County, Ark., Re­pub­lic­an Party said in its news­let­ter, “The 2nd Amend­ment means noth­ing un­less those in power be­lieve you would have no prob­lem simply walk­ing up and shoot­ing them if they got too far out of line and stopped re­spond­ing as rep­res­ent­at­ives.”

One might ar­gue that these quotes are highly se­lect­ive — but they are only a tiny sampling (not a single one from Michele Bach­mann, only one from Gohmert!). Im­port­antly, al­most none were countered by party of­fi­cials or le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers, nor were the in­di­vidu­als quoted rep­rim­anded in any way. What used to be widely seen as loony is now broadly ac­cep­ted or tol­er­ated.

I am not sug­gest­ing that the lun­at­ics or ex­trem­ists have won. Most Re­pub­lic­ans in the Sen­ate are not, to use John Mc­Cain’s term, “wacko birds,” and most Re­pub­lic­ans in of­fice would at least privately cringe at some of the wild ideas and ex­treme views. At the same time, the “es­tab­lish­ment” is fight­ing back, pour­ing re­sources in­to primar­ies to pro­tect their pre­ferred can­did­ates, and we are see­ing the rise of a new and en­cour­aging move­ment among con­ser­vat­ive in­tel­lec­tu­als — dubbed “Re­formi­cons” by E.J. Di­onne — to come up with a new set of ideas and policy pre­scrip­tions to re­define the ideo­logy and the party in a pos­it­ive way.

But there is a dark­er real­ity. Many of the “pre­ferred” can­did­ates — in­clud­ing Ernst as well as James Lank­ford in Ok­lahoma and Jack King­ston in Geor­gia — are any­thing but prag­mat­ic. 

A few years ago, they would have been labeled hard-liners. (King­ston, a fa­vor­ite of the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, was beaten in the Sen­ate primary Tues­day by busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due, who has said he would not vote for Mitch Mc­Con­nell as party lead­er in the Sen­ate.) It is a meas­ure of the nature of this in­tra-party struggle that the main­stream is now on the hard right, and that it is close to apostasy to say that Obama is le­git­im­ate, that cli­mate change is real, that back­ground checks on guns are de­sir­able, or even that the Com­mon Core is a good idea. When we see pre­sum­ably sane fig­ures like Louisi­ana Gov­ernor Bobby Jin­dal shame­lessly pander to the ex­trem­ists, it tells us where the cen­ter of grav­ity in the GOP primary base, at least, is set. Of course, there are still cour­ageous main­stream fig­ures like Jeb Bush who are will­ing to de­vi­ate from the new or­tho­doxy, and it is pos­sible that he can run and get the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion, win the White House, and be­gin the pro­cess of re­cal­ib­ra­tion.

But when one looks at the state of Re­pub­lic­an pub­lic opin­ion (es­pe­cially among the likely caucus and primary voters), at the con­sist­ent and per­sist­ent mes­sages com­ing from the in­form­a­tion sources they fol­low, and at the su­pine nature of con­gres­sion­al lead­ers and busi­ness lead­ers in coun­ter­ing ex­trem­ism, it is not at all likely that what passes for main­stream, prob­lem-solv­ing con­ser­vat­ism will dom­in­ate the Re­pub­lic­an Party any­time soon.

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