Discipline is a tremendous asset until the wrong people are in charge.
One of the ways Reagan developed loyalty during his years in the wilderness was by working diligently to build the Party. He was a man of strong opinions, creating disagreements with people all over the spectrum, but he maintained a striking civility through all his battles. He is famous for his “11th Commandment,” speak no ill of a fellow Republican.
It was not easy to progress through the ranks without rancor. It was the long road. But by traveling that road he was able to inherit a Party that was ready to function when he reached the White House. It was ready to be a healthy asset instead of a smoking ruin.
This high road was open to him in part because of a vital purge that had been led by William F. Buckley in the early ’60’s. Buckley took on the Party’s lunatic wing, actively isolating the wackiest voices of the right.
At the time, the John Birch Society was organizing to fight back against the almost completed Communist takeover of America. Yup, according to these guys by 1958 the Soviets were 50-70% done with their secret conquest of the US. The Birch Society’s leader, Robert Welch, accused Eisenhower of being an agent of the Soviets. He claimed that preparations were under way to move everyone who understood the Communist threat to Alaska. And the main weapon of the Communist conspiracy – fluoridated water.
Others in the Birch Society, like Rev. Billy James Hargis, championed the fundamentalist cause. Hargis linked Martin Luther King to the Communists because, well, if Eisenhower can be a Communist than why not King? Or you, for that matter. Hargis urged fundamentalist Christians to become a political force and enjoyed some early success. Hargis predictably fell to a gay sex scandal in the ’70’s, but would continue warning of the Soviet conspiracy long after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Does anything about this scenario sound familiar?
These were the types that Buckley confronted in ’64. He was joined in his condemnation of the fanatic wing by Barry Goldwater, the soon-to-be GOP Presidential nominee, who wrote: “We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner.” Can you imagine a Republican leader repeating that statement in response to Christine O’Donnell’s nomination? Neither can I, and that’s a tragedy.
Fortunately for Reagan and for America, Buckley was successful in pushing these nutjobs off the radar. His achievement preserved a sphere of sane disagreement in which the struggle for the Party’s direction could be carried out free from insane ravings and wild conspiracy theories.
That quiet victory of courage, maturity, and integrity within the guts of the conservative movement may have done nothing to help them in the 1964 campaign, but it was the foundation of the Party’s rise to dominance. Buckley’s work, carried out in stern civility, let Reagan rise without a bloodbath. It was possible for Reagan to work (mostly) within his own 11th Commandment because the Party had reached a consensus in favor of reason.
That consensus has been lost.
The Birch Society never completely went away. This is the first year that they have been allowed to be a sponsor of CPAC. William F. Buckley is dead. Now crazy is back and it isn’t apologizing.
The ideological heirs of Welch have ignored the 11th Commandment and initiated a ruthless effort to purge any sane checks on their agenda. They have fielded whatever candidates they can find, no matter how incompetent or bizarre. They haven’t shied away from the nasty, utterly dishonest attacks against fellow Republicans. Then, after winning, they are trying to invoke the 11th Commandment. Very few Republicans are fighting back and only when left with no alternative. It may be too late.
The remaining leadership of the Party is huddled away, deluding themselves with fantasies of “co-opting” this lunatic mob when the storm is over. They lack anything resembling the insight or courage that drove our predecessors. Note to Boehner – they are coming for you. You can’t hide. They will follow your carroty glow.
The Party’s long tradition of disciplined disagreement has been an asset – but it is dead. It needs to be buried before the stench chokes us. Surrendering the Party to conspiracy theorists and fundamentalists out of some antique sense of unity would be unconscionable.
If principled Republicans, those still living in the reality-based community, are confined purely to third-party or independent bids for election, there will soon cease to be any responsible alternative to the Democrats. The damage to the country’s prosperity and place in the world would be long-lasting if not permanent.
It is time for the sensible adults who remain in the Republican Party to come out of their bunkers, drop the cowardly optimism, and realize that this fire will not burn out on its own. It is time to fight back. More Republican leaders should back Senator Murkowski’s and Gov. Christ’s independent bids. They should have encouraged Castle to fight. It is time for the core of the Republican movement to forcefully distance itself from the lunatic fringe as it has done when necessary in the past.
We cannot continue the cynical pretense that the “useful idiots” can be managed. It is a costly conceit that was long ago proven false.
For the sake of the country and our children’s future, the Republican Party needs to find its soul.
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