This is the question that the turmoil within the Republican Party prompts these days, as the moderate wing of the party battles to maintain control over a grass-roots extremism it has legitimated.
Is this what a dying political party looks like? This is what flashes through my mind when I read or hear about the Republican Party. The party isn’t dying, at least not yet: but the very forces of intolerance and intransigence it encouraged are assailing it from within. Unless the moderate wing of the GOP can reassert itself and prevail, the party will continue its disastrous turn to the right. Not only will its prospects for power dim, but the entire country will suffer, too.
Extreme conservatism is a minority view
Despite the media hype—fanned by talk radio and cable TV—extreme conservatism is not the dominant American viewpoint. We are not a nation of extremists. The desire of the country’s majority for sophisticated, moderate leadership was expressed in its 2008 rejection of Sarah Palin and, more recently, in Republican voters’ resounding rejection of conservative presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry. Each of these candidates received lavish publicity, arousing fears that they represented the new face of America; in each case, support for these candidates proved meager indeed.
Weakening the fiber of nation and party
Yet the fate of the Republican Party is being directed by this assertive minority. It’s the faction that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich chose to pander to. It’s the faction that hates the separation of church and state, that would attack the independence of our judiciary. It’s the faction that’s against modern medicine. That’s against female contraception. That’s uncomfortable with racial equality. In their quest for power, these conservatives have begun chipping away at principles and institutions that formerly sacred to all Americans and protective of us all.
Moderate Republicans are captive
In the face of this, the only Republicans to speak out against extremism have been members of the Bush family. During the primary season, Jeb Bush distanced himself from the new conservatism while signalling disappointment at the Party’s loss of vision. Barbara Bush has repeatedly expressed dismay at Republicans’ uncivil conduct and their disavowal of compromise.
These, though, are just two voices in a party that, by and large, has chosen to amplify and accommodate spurious right-wing demands. Prior to 2010, there were reasons to hope that the social conservative wing of the party, for want of a victory, was moving into a more quiescent, marginal phase. Unfortunately, the emergence of the Tea Party, with its new crop of faces, its fiscal focus, and its idealistic hatred of our federal tradition, has given new energy to the disparate elements that make up social conservatism.
Citizens United has further exaggerated the significance of rabble-rousing candidates like Newt Gingrich, whose funding was all out of proportion to the support he enjoyed.
A terrible tactical decision
All along, moderate Republicans could have tamped down and disavowed right-wing extremism as it began taking hold, like crabgrass, on their impeccably manicured property. Republicans could have chosen not to assimilate the Tea Party. They could have refused funding to candidates whose intolerance is extreme enough to qualify as unpatriotic. They could have silenced the racist “dog whistle” that goes by the name of the birther movement. Instead, moderates have chosen to go along and get along with a dangerous minority. Why? Because they need the support and approval of these voters too badly. Without this virulent sub-population, moderate Republicans cannot hope to attain the majority needed to elect a president or control Congress.
Consumed by a wasting disease from inside
Now this emboldened faction is paralyzing and destroying moderate Republican leaders. In recent primaries, Tea Partiers have targeted old-line Republicans like Richard Lugar for defeat. They have reduced House Speaker John Boehner to impotence by stalemating last year’s negotiations over the debt ceiling by refusing to compromise. Boehner bristled at David Axelrod’s recent allusion to a “Republican reign of terror” but, in truth, moderate Republicans are beginning to bear the brunt of a “reign of terror” that their conservative wing is waging from inside.
Is Mitt Romney the man to speak truth to power?
It’s hard to imagine Mitt Romney, who wants so badly to be liked, disciplining and harmonizing the unwieldy elements that now constitute “the Grand Old Party.” In his eagerness to gain office, Romney has promised to be the conservatives’ standard-bearer, while hoping the rest of us won’t consider what that means. Unlike Jeb and Barbara Bush, Romney lacks the gumption to speak out against a strain of political intolerance that could spell the ruin of Republicanism—and that’s begun to harm the republic, too.
Is the Republican Party Dying?