The Gambit Gets Out of Hand
Nothing says “I’m a Fundamentalist and I Vote,” quite like someone holding a six-foot tall blow-up image of an aborted fetus. Of all the test-issues rolled out to manipulate fundamentalist voters, nothing has ever been quite as elegant as abortion.
So, how does the Nutjob Gambit fit this picture? Stay with me. In the late 70’s as Reagan was preparing his run against Carter, the Reaganites recognized the threat of the Goldwater Conundrum. Some tragically brilliant folks hit on an idea. A small movement was beginning to take shape among conservative Christians, particularly in the South where the local Democratic machinery was becoming increasingly unpopular.
These religious folks had been on the fringes of the GOP for years, dismissed by the establishment as unstable weirdoes. But they were growing, motivated, and at that point still mostly up for grabs. Their positions on matters like individual liberty and federal power were a poor fit for the dominant, Goldwater wing of the GOP. But they were anti-communist beyond all reason and willing to get out in the streets to work. It was a match made in Heaven, no pun intended.
The central issue for this constituency, abortion, was absolutely ideal because it was completely impossible for any politician to actually do anything about it. As a Republican candidate, you only had to give a few rousing speeches about the ‘right to life’ and suddenly you had campaign volunteers organized from local churches. You might be uncomfortable limiting a woman’s reproductive freedoms (remember that Reagan himself had legalized abortion as Governor of California), but it didn’t really matter one way or the other.
Thanks to Roe v. Wade, you would never be forced to vote on any bill that could meaningfully affect that right. It just didn’t matter. Hold your nose and get it done. It was an absurd spectacle that continues today. It gives rise to the consistent, and until recently, valid suspicion among fundamentalists that most GOP politicians are just telling them what they want to hear. It was a primitive form of the Nutjob Gambit.
Fundamentalists were a fine constituency for Reagan though he manipulated them with the Nutjob Gambit and gave them almost nothing. What the Reaganites seemed not to understand (until too late) was that merely by acknowledging them, they unwittingly provided the fundamentalists a new, powerful place in the political spectrum. And by basing their winning strategy on a version of the Nutjob Gambit, they were digging a groove that would constrain the party for a generation.
By the late ‘80’s when Uncle Barry made his comment about the ‘kooks,’ efforts were already underway to try to rein in these suddenly less-convenient idiots. It was too late. They ate George Bush Sr., alive and in ’94 took control of the local party structure across a huge chunk of the country. The fundamentalists had been brought into the party by a relatively cautious use of the Nutjob Gambit. The time was coming when the Gambit would be deployed without checks.
Bush Jr. let go of the emergency brake and pushed the nutjob machine into maximum overdrive, feeding the wild-eyed new Republican base on bitterly divisive and completely counterproductive issues like gay marriage and terror hysteria. Meanwhile he abandoned any concern about practical Republican priorities like spending, liberty, federalism, or responsible government.
So, now what? How do we break the special relationship of the GOP to the nutjob fringe without cutting ourselves off from a massive, and badly needed pool of volunteers?