For the moment, the beltway seems to be to finally be focused on the fact that a rump group of extremists in the House Republican caucus are behaving like... well, extremists.
This is, of course, no surprise to people who've been paying attention. After all, 20 years ago, Republicans launched ludicrous witch hunts about alleged ancient Clinton misdeeds in Arkansas and even impeached a president over a sexual indiscretion. In other words, they attempted to overturn a legal election by abusing the oversight power of Congress. That's pretty extreme. And they so inured the country to their zealotry that, by the 2000 election, their "take no prisoners" tactics in Jeb Bush's Florida were accepted with barely a protest. The media sagely advised everyone to get over it. And they did.
What's happened ever since is an inexorable slide toward right-wing fanaticism, so much so that the House of Representatives is now paralyzed by a group of reactionary zealots who simply will not budge, no matter how many people disagree with them or how loathed they are by a majority. It's a very odd position for the GOP to be in. It has always been known as the more disciplined and mature of the two parties, devoted to hierarchy and order. Those days are long gone.
The modern conservative movement has been on the march since the late 1960s, and it reached the highest levels of power with the election of Ronald Reagan. But it wasn't until the mid-'90s and the election of Bill Clinton that they started to go a little mad. They had been led to believe that the Reagan era was going to be a 1,000 year reign, and they simply couldn't accept that a Democrat would once again be president. That it was some baby boomer hippie was simply more than they could bear.
And yet the sad fact remains that, two full decades later, they have yet to pay a price for any of their acts of extremism. So why would they stop?
Sure, since 1995, they have only won the presidency twice (and the popular vote once). But after many decades of being in the minority in the Congress, they have cracked that nut and are now looking at decades of dominance in the House, and probably winning at least half the time in the Senate. Even though they've only had two presidential terms out of the last six, they've managed to keep the courts much more conservative than liberal. At the state level they are a juggernaut, dominating the majority of them and using their power to turn the laboratories of democracy into little political Manhattan Projects all over the country. They have transformed the media landscape with the help of deregulation and big money devoted to the right-wing cause. Their inability to legitimately win the White House and hold it isn't something they want exactly, but it isn't the worst outcome in the world. After all, it's not as if their agenda has been stymied. Tax rates are still low, the military is still powerful and the religious right is one the move. And after the Bush debacle, they may have realized that only having some of the power means never having to say you're sorry.
How did they go from being swashbuckling, conservative Reagan warriors wanting to "make America great again" to mutinous revolutionaries determined to bring down the state by any means necessary? There are, no doubt, many reasons for it, from a highly influential demagogic media to the final realignment of the two parties after the civil rights movement. Certainly the ascension of the young Reagan backbenchers, led by Newt Gingrich, put the revolution in warp drive before it careened out of control.
But the recent emergence of the Tea Party right and the intransigent "Freedom Caucus"in the House evinces an anarchistic spirit that even Gingrich couldn't have imagined. (And he has quite an imagination.) No this slash-and-burn style was modeled elsewhere, by an ultra-successful right-wing institution which continues to flex its muscle today: the NRA.
The NRA had once been a sportsman and safety organization, which took a turn toward the political back in the '70s, just as the conservative movement was gaining steam. By the '90s it had transformed itself into a potent political institution which perversely thrived when it was attacked, and built its clout by never giving an inch. Ever.
This strategy was devised and carried out by their very able leader, Wayne LaPierre. According to this article by Joel Achenbach, Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz in the Washington Post about the NRA's rise, LaPierre understood very early that the organization could leverage any attempts at gun regulation into an expansion of its membership (and its coffers):
LaPierre knew what notes to hit to satisfy the hard-liners. At the annual meeting in 1993, LaPierre told the members, “Good, honest Americans stand divided, driven apart by a force that dwarfs any political power or social tyrant that ever before existed on this planet: the American media.”
Democrats in Congress and some Republican allies passed an assault-weapons ban in 1994. That fired up the NRA base. The NRA’s rhetoric grew harsher. Out on the political fringe, the militia movement grew in influence, as anti-government activists warned of black helicopters carrying federal agents dressed like ninjas. The militants cited the 1992 shooting deaths of two civilians in a federal raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 siege by federal agents of a religious sect’s compound in Waco, Tex., that culminated in a fire killing 76 people.
They were hardcore and completely intransigent. The article quotes the head of the ATF who attempted to set up meetings with the NRA to try to find common ground or even communicate. He was met with silence. LaPierre wouldn't even speak with the head of the agency when they ran into each other in an airport. The NRA didn't want compromise, it wanted confrontation.
Of course, the NRA's mission wasn't without its challenges. For example, LaPierre had a setback in 1995 with the Oklahoma City Bombing, when even supporters became unnerved by his anti-government rhetoric; he eventually had to back-pedal to retain legitimacy. But soon the writing was on the wall that the parties were polarizing completely on this issue, and LaPierre went all-in with the GOP to defeat Al Gore for the presidency in 2000. The Democrats were predictably cowed by the beltway conventional wisdom and decided that guns were no longer an issue for which they were prepared to fight. Thus, the NRA became the lobbying juggernaut it is today.
And despite board member Grover Norquist's silly bleating that gun safety activists communicate to gun owners that "you don’t like me” -- and therefore no communication is possible -- the fact remains that gun-safety advocates are asking for very little, and the NRA spits in their faces and laughs every time they bring it up. Just remember LaPierre's cynical response to Newtown to get the drift. The organization gets its power from its unwillingness to compromise even one little bit.
And you can't really argue with results: We are overwhelmed with gun violence, people are dying in large numbers, and yet it's impossible to address the problem. This is the power of the NRA.
The right-wingers in the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus have learned LaPierre's lesson well. They too are unwilling to bend even a little bit. And they've managed to bring the House of Representatives to a crashing halt -- a win in their books. Indeed they have issued a list of demands which are impossible to meet, including some ludicrous policy promises virtually designed to fail, including full repeal of Obamacare, "entitlement" reform and welfare reform in the FY 2016 budget, ensuring that no House bill would contain funding for Planned Parenthood, "unconstitutional Amnesty" or the Iran deal. And this is on top of demands for process changes that pretty much put the Freedom Caucus in charge of the House. From what we heard from members of this crew, they have no intention of compromising.
If you wonder how we got to this place, ask Wayne LaPierre. He's the guru who showed them how it's done.