Last year, during the August recess, there was an outbreak of unruly behavior at congressional town hall meetings. At the time, there was a lot of debate about how organic or synthetic the outbreak was. I think the matter is settled now. There is nothing to explain the lack of unruly behavior this year other than that someone gave the order to stand down and the money to support the campaign was redirected elsewhere. That is not to say that there wasn’t any genuinely spontaneous rudeness last year, but a lot of that was probably a copycat effect. It makes me wonder what could be accomplished by the left if they put their mind to manufacturing outrage.
The Republicans are still riding high, believing that they are on the crest of a giant wave. Where that wave crashes and how quickly it recedes remain to be seen. At a recent RNC meeting in Kansas City, chairman Michael Steele was talking smack:
Wearing a red hat emblazoned with “Fire Pelosi,” Steele told committee members on Friday that the GOP has undergone a resurgence, in response to anger over government spending, the national health-care law and President Obama’s handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“In less than two years, we have gone from a demoralized super-minority party to a legion of effective citizens who are on the offense and making Democrats sweat,” he said.
He’s right. We are sweating. But the Republicans still have a problem. One problem is the RNC itself, which is mired in scandal, infighting, and leaks. But another problem is deeper and likely to be important whether the Republicans win big in the fall or not. The GOP base has nominated a lot of crazy anti-establishmentarian candidates, some of whom are quite high profile.
“Forget this fighting — just send us money,” Nevada committee member Heidi Smith said she told fellow party members, as she tries to help Sharron Angle unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) back home. “We must be focusing on getting Harry Reid — and we can get him.”
The fighting that Heidi Smith is referring to is embodied in former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s warning to Republicans.
…the problem with political waves is that they generate misleading momentum and exaggerated ideological confidence. Parties tend to interpret shapeless public discontent as the endorsement of their fondest ambitions. Obama mistook his election as a mandate for the pent-up liberalism of his party. Some Republican activists are intent on a similar but worse mistake.
The Republican wave carries along a group that strikes a faux revolutionary pose. “Our Founding Fathers,” says Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, “they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.”
Angle has managed to embrace the one Founding Father with a disturbing tolerance for the political violence of the French Revolution. “Rather than it should have failed,” enthused Jefferson, “I would have seen half the earth desolated.” Hardly a conservative model.
It’s clear that Mr. Gerson would prefer to see Harry Reid reelected than to see Sharron Angle in the U.S. Senate.
But mainstream conservatives have been strangely disoriented by Tea Party excess, unable to distinguish the injudicious from the outrageous. Some rose to Angle’s defense or attacked her critics. Just to be clear: A Republican Senate candidate has identified the United States Congress with tyranny and contemplated the recourse to political violence. This is disqualifying for public office. It lacks, of course, the seriousness of genuine sedition. It is the conservative equivalent of the Che Guevara T-shirt — a fashion, a gesture, a toying with ideas the wearer only dimly comprehends. The rhetoric of “Second Amendment remedies” is a light-weight Lexington, a cut-rate Concord. It is so far from the moral weightiness of the Founders that it mocks their memory.
Whether or not Angle wins, many Republicans who are not much different from her are going to be newly elected freshmen next year. The Steve King/Michele Bachmann caucus is going to grow significantly. This will be especially problematic in the Senate, should any of the crazies (like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle) win, because intransigent senators can tie the body up in knots even when their leadership would prefer to cut deals. In the House, (provided the Dems retain control) the main problem for Republicans will be the optics of unhinged rhetoric.
The Republicans are genetically an opposition party. They adapted to the oppositional role during the sixty-two years between 1933 and 1995 when they were in an almost perpetual minority in Congress. But, when called upon to run the federal government, they realize that there is no juice in cutting it to pieces and they merely continue sailing the ship of state on much the same course, but without any skill or ability. That is the reason that the Republican Party shut down the government in 1995 but then quickly reverted to the form of a majority party. The true believers in the Gingrich Revolution had to be tamed, and that took some time. The taming was actually done by Gingrich himself. He didn’t entirely succeed, as the impeachment of Bill Clinton showed, but he did eventually get the Republicans to realize that they had to govern and not just rip shit up and eliminate whole departments of the executive office. What he couldn’t do, and probably didn’t even try to do, is to get the GOP to act in a fiscally sane manner. The booming late-1990’s economy that allowed for a balanced budget papered over the craziness of a no-new-taxes-ever ideology.
The present crop of Republican candidates suffers from the same tax-aversion malady, but they’ve added in faux-Revolutionary talk and some extreme libertarian views, with a pinch of conspiracy theory thrown into the mix. Frankly, a bunch of these candidates scare the crap out of the Republican establishment. Their lunacy may reflect badly on the party as a whole during the midterm season, with the effect of significantly downsizing Republican gains. Or, it may take until next spring, when these people are sworn into office and begin acting like fruitcakes and bucking their leadership, for the Republicans to pay a price for flirting with this movement.
Either way, it’s bad news for the GOP and for the country. Rather than telling people to stifle their concerns and just send money, responsible Republicans should join Mr. Gerson in openly admitting that there are some of these races they’d prefer to lose…for simple patriotic reasons.