The Existential Battle for the Soul of the GOP

What happens when extremism becomes mainstream?

A protester carries an historic flag during a 'tea party' demonstration against taxes in Lafayette Park across from the White House on April 15, 2009 in Washington, DC. Coast-to-coast demonstrations against Obama's big-spending economic stimulus package are promised for the day that is also the deadline for filing federal income tax returns. The protests are named after the 1773 Boston Tea Party in which disgruntled Americans rebelled against British colonial taxes, an iconic moment in the path to US independence.
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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.

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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