In a time of partisan gridlock and a political scene that's become so dull and predictable that cable networks are devoting weeks of 24-hour news coverage to an airplane that doesn't exist, progressive news junkies can turn to one bright spot to lift their spirits and feed their political souls: the open warfare breaking out between the various factions of the Republican coalition. The tension between the radicals and the establishment has been around for decades and the energy waxes and wanes depending on the circumstances. Even in the bright glow of the Reagan apotheosis, Newt Gingrich and his revolutionaries were making trouble from the back benches. But this time is a little different.
What makes this episode refreshing is not the Tea Party/far right screeching about the GOP establishment. That's just their longtime business model. As the conservative movement godfather Richard Viguerie likes to say:
Sometimes a loss for the Republican Party is a gain for conservatives. Often, a little taste of liberal Democrats in power is enough to remind the voters what they don’t like about liberal Democrats and to focus the minds of Republicans on the principles that really matter. That’s why the conservative movement has grown fastest during those periods when things seemed darkest, such as during the Carter administration and the first two years of the Clinton White House.
Conservatives are, by nature, insurgents, and it’s hard to maintain an insurgency when your friends, or people you thought were your friends, are in power.
As Rick Perlstein explained in his piece called "The Long Con," maintaining an insurgency is how Conservative Movement Inc. stays in business. The above Viguerie quote is from 2006. The morning after the 2012 election, Viguerie wrote "[O]ut of that disaster comes some good news: conservatives are saying 'Never again' are we going to nominate a big government establishment Republican for President." He put this on his website along with a fundraising pitch:
They've been making a nice profit at this sort of thing for a very long time.
What's new in this cycle is the rise of the agitated "moderates" who are taking to the pages of their traditional media to lash out in anger at Tea Party excesses -- or at least at a certain "non-mainstream" Republican who can sit in as the far right's all-purpose sin-eater. (You don't want to directly confront that rabid Tea Party base. It bites.) That man is Sen. Rand Paul.
Take, for example, this raging screed from none other than GOP strategist John Feehery, who has to count as one of the most reasonable of Republican fellows, a man who is commonly seen on MSNBC's daytime shows sparring genially with Democrats and otherwise giving the impression of having a very even temperament. He's taking issue with Obama's foreign policy, but uses Paul's dovishness to stake out the "True Republican" position on national security and civil liberties --- just in case some Tea Partyers might get it in their heads that when they rail against Big Government, they'd better not be talking about the Military or Intelligence agencies. That's sacred GOP territory:
Paul is practicing the politics of paranoia, aimed directly at the American government. It’s a form of populist libertarianism that posits that the biggest threat to our liberty comes not from foreign powers but from our own government.
That kind of paranoia is not grounded in reality, but it unquestionably has a following in this country. Edward Snowden, for example, enjoyed a warm welcome at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, despite being the houseguest of Putin.
That Snowden could somehow continue to attract admirers despite his obvious betrayal of American national security says a lot about the deep vein of distrust that Paul is exploiting for his own political purposes.
But we live in an ever more dangerous world, and neither Paul’s paranoia nor Obama’s weakness is going to make America any safer.
But the best example in recent days is this scathing "modest proposal" by Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Stephens, in which he sarcastically advises the GOP to nominate Rand Paul so as to hasten its final descent into madness after which it can rise from the ashes with a new and better party. Ironically (and I'm sure he didn't mean it that way) he seems to think Jeb Bush is just the guy to lead the moderate New Jerusalem.
His indictment of Paulism is centered on Paul's (admittedly lame) attempt at Hispanic and African-American outreach, considering his own racist associations. But what seems to bother him the most is the fact that back in 2009 Paul implied that Dick Cheney might have been influenced to go into Iraq because of his long-standing ties to the military contractor Halliburton. Them's fighting words:
Cui bono—to whose benefit? It's the signature question of every conspiracy theorist with an unhinged mind. Cheney. Halliburton. Big Oil. The military-industrial complex. Neocons. 9/11. Soldiers electrocuted in the shower. It all makes perfect sense, doesn't it?
If Mr. Paul wants to accuse the former vice president of engineering a war in Iraq so he could shovel some profits over to his past employer, he should come out and say so explicitly. Ideally at the next Heritage Action powwow. Let's not mince words. This man wants to be the Republican nominee for president.
If there's one thing that really gets these nice moderate "grown-ups" upset, apparently, it's the suggestion that Dick Cheney might not be one of those nice moderate "grown-ups."
Stephens concludes with this:
[M]aybe what the GOP needs is another humbling landslide defeat. When moderation on a subject like immigration is ideologically disqualifying, but bark-at-the-moon lunacy about Halliburton is not, then the party has worse problems than merely its choice of nominee.
I don't know if he's being serious, but I wouldn't be surprised to see plenty of Republicans quietly whispering to each other that a landslide defeat would be just what the doctor ordered. The Holy Grail of an enduring Republican majority rests on the myth of the epic Goldwater loss propelling a grass-roots conservative movement that in 16 years, and in the wake of a monumental Republican disgrace, came to dominate American politics for a generation. One could easily see many of them dreamily traveling back in time to 1965 and thinking they could repeat those glory days.
But the purpose of all that was to build a grass-roots movement. And they succeeded wildly. Today it forms the core of the Republican base, it elects conservatives to office and it wields considerable power over the political establishment. If what these Republican writers want is for the moderate wing of the GOP to rise like Pheonixes from the ashes of a major landslide they are going to have to activate a group of people who are unlikely insurgents: temperamentally low-key, judicious, restrained Republicans. I don't know how many of them even exist anymore but they would seem to be an unlikely group to organize as an insurgent political movement.
It's true that they will have millionaires on their side. That is, after all, the real "moderate" constituency that opposes both the anti-immigrant right wing and the potential isolationists among the Paulites. There's a whole lot of money at stake. But even in this upside-down democracy of ours, they still only have one vote. It's very hard to see how they can find enough moderate Republicans out there to mobilize a partisan insurgency against the conservative movement they helped build over the course of 40 years. After all, as Richard Viguerie makes very clear, no amount of losing will change their course: Conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed. It's going to take more than a mere embarrassing landslide to tame that beast. They thrive on such losses.
It seems that the Republican establishment is finally seeing that enabling their radicals might have been a mistake. Unfortunately for all of us, it's probably too late. Their monster is feeling his oats and it's going to be very hard to stop him.