Over the winter the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party did what traditional conservatives have been doing consistently for more than a decade. He quit.
Chairman Wadhams was facing a surreal re-election battle against a Tea Party/Fundamentalist coalition and the toll was beginning to show. What drove his decision? He explained, “I’m tired of the nuts.”
Every party has its fringe and those extremists play an important role in the political ecology. But when something happens to throw off the balance between serious public service and nutjobbery, it is very difficult to return to relevance. The Democrats have silly characters like Sheila Jackson Lee, but she’ll never be a serious Presidential candidate. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are. That’s what’s wrong with the GOP.
So why can’t serious Republicans in the Goldwater/Reagan mold fight back? Why does John Boehner pretend he can ride this dragon of costumed crackpots? Why have genuine conservative public servants been consistently steamrolled by fundamentalists and Neo-Confederates since Reagan left office? Because of history.
It’s tough to remain politically relevant if you can’t get elected. For most of the 20th Century the Republican Party was locked out of real, national, political power by the Democratic Party’s corrupt patronage machine. The only way to survive in that atmosphere was to maintain discipline in internal disputes and focus your public message on ideology. Republicans don’t fight in public because for generations they couldn’t afford to.
The only major internal purge in the GOP in the past three generations was William F. Buckley’s successful campaign against the Tea Partiers of his day. Even that battle, which was so bitter it left the Birch Society completely locked out of mainstream conservative politics until last year, was carried out with white-gloved civility. Republicans have built an institutional culture that abhors the kind of chaotic, bare-knuckled internal politics that has always prevailed on the left.
Republicans have learned to smile for the cameras while quietly seething. Democrats’ family photos at the end of each primary season feature battered figures standing on a carpet of broken beer-bottles leaning on each other arm in arm with black eyes, missing teeth, ripped clothing, and heartfelt smiles. It would be nice to find some happy medium.
Discipline is an asset until the wrong people are in charge. The “no enemy on the right” attitude adopted in the late eighties has wreaked havoc, with the ’94 election marking a turning point. The GOP’s internal discipline was a luxury we could afford when we had no real power. Republican Presidential candidates could hold their noses and give a speech each election cycle at Bob Jones University because it was just for show. They needed the votes and the lunatics in the audience would never be in a position to influence policy.
But times have changed. A generation ago Reagan placed us in a position to dominate American politics for a generation or more. We had built a center-right coalition that captured the optimism of the age. With Europe finally free we were living in Churchill’s “broad sunlit uplands.”
We were ready to roll back the 19th Century machine politics that dominated Northern cities, make the Party a natural home for the emerging ranks of the Black and Latino middle class, and bring sanity to national spending the way we had done in pockets of local government all over the country for decades. We were going to replace the backwards, defensive, union-dominated politics that assumed all economics was a zero-sum game. We were going to eliminate a culture of permanent dependence and build a social safety net that preserved the notion that everyone has potential and poverty is no one’s fate.
Those were good times. But that coalition was been hijacked, especially after ’94, getting the Party hooked on the cheap high of fear-based politics. The conservative movement’s crazy cousin is out of the basement and making business decisions for the family.
These days it takes a deliberate effort to devise a political message too absurd, too imaginary, or too stupid to sell on the far right. Who fought back – in earnest, not just with a wink and a shrug – against the Birther madness? Who publicly put Michele Bachmann in her place over the FEMA reeducation camps? Who is standing up to Newt Gingrich’s ridiculous blather about Sharia law or calling out Glenn Beck on his hysterical ranting?
No one in a position of power in the Party has the courage to risk their hide to stem the Party’s long-term slide into entertainment. They all think they can keep their heads down and ride out this “phase.” There is no William F. Buckley around this time to right the ship.
The Tea Party, the Neo-Confederates, Birthers, AM-radio ranters, and self-appointed RiNO hunters long ago declared war on the Republican Party and no one from the Party’s traditional core is publicly resisting. The GOP stalwarts have tried to maintain decorum and remain above the fray.
This increasingly dysfunctional family needs a good fight. Does anybody in the Party’s reasonable center have the courage to step up? Governor Daniels, are you listening?
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