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Some Democrats have cheered the success of right-wing extremists in the Colorado primaries yesterdays. They have a point. Republican gubernatorial nominee John Maes, who called Denver's bicycle program a "well-disguised" plot to destroy the "personal freedoms" of Denver's citizens by transforming the city into "a United Nations community," will now split the crazy vote with famed xenophobe Tom Tancredo, who blamed immigrants for electing "a committed socialist ideologue" to the White House. If Tancredo stays in the race, Democrat John Hickenlooper will likely sail into the governor's house.
Meanwhile, the senate nomination of Ken Buck, who wants to eliminate Social Security and the Department of Education and who supports an Arizona-style anti-immigrant law, will make life easier for Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet, though Bennet is currently behind Buck in the polls.
But Democrats who cheer the success of right-wing extremists are short-sighted. The extremist slate may lose a few elections this year, but history demonstrates that the success of the far right has not hurt the GOP in the long run. Instead, it has lowered expectations, turned fringe figures into viable candidates, and pressed the soupy gestalt of American politics ever rightward.
In 1978, two brilliant if misguided conservative strategists set about remaking the Republican Party. Paul Weyrich, who founded the Moral Majority and the Heritage Foundation, joined forces with direct marketing genius Richard Viguerie in an effort to purge liberal "Rockefeller Republicans" from GOP. They knocked out senators Clifford Case (R-NJ) and Edward Brooke (R-MA). Both seats went to Democrats. In subsequent years, right-wing challenges dislodged the remaining liberal Republicans and generously handed almost the entire northeast to the Democratic Party. Then they started hunting the moderates.
Moderate Republicans had controlled the GOP for decades by balancing the demands of the conservative and liberal wings of the party. With the liberals gone and moderates in decline, that balance collapsed. Conservatives took control of the Republican caucus and elected Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey to leadership positions in 1992. One Democratic analyst predicted that the 1992 conservative uprising would be detrimental to the GOP, arguing, "They are silencing the more moderate elements in their party and seeking an ideological purity from the right. A marginalized, right-wing Republican Party will be less competitive with Bill Clinton in 1996 than a more inclusive and centrist Republican Party."
But that's not what happened. In the 1994 Republican Revolution, the GOP picked up fifty-four seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate, taking control of both houses for the first time since 1954.
A few years later, the Republican Revolution crumpled under the weight of ethics scandals and election losses. A Chicago Tribune political analyst wrote, "The emerging cliche seems to be that the Republicans, having lost an unexpected five seats in the House and a couple of statehouses they thought were forever in their camp, will forge a new political message that is pragmatic and much less ideological, a shift in emphasis that will endear the party to moderate voters." Some Republicans looked to emulate the "pragmatic" approach of Governor George W. Bush, who had developed a reputation for governing by consensus in Texas.
We all know how that turned out. Though Bush ran for president in 2000 as a "unifier," he soon embraced Karl Rove's "wedge issue" strategy to energize the base. In 2004, Bush lost the moderate vote by nine percentage points, but he won 84 percent of self-described conservatives, who made up a third of the electorate. Tom DeLay's Republican-controlled congress was even more extreme than Gingrich's, and conservative action groups like the Club for Growth continued to hunt down the few remaining moderates like Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI).
When the Republicans finally lost their majority in 2006 due to voter dismay over lingering wars, a deteriorating economy, and a string of ethics scandals, strategists again counseled moderation and the "California way" of moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But conservatives would have none of it. The problem was not that the party was too conservative, they argued, it was that it wasn't conservative enough. "There's no doubt in my mind it was not a repudiation of conservatives but it was a repudiation of the Republican Party," argued Pat Toomey, leader of the Club for Growth. Rush Limbaugh concurred, "Republicans lost last night but conservatism did not." Instead, he blamed "blue-blood, country club, corporate type...Rockefeller-type," even though the Rockefeller Republicans had long since gone extinct.
The Toomey-Limbaugh strategy clearly won over the GOP...again. Toomey is now the senate nominee in Pennsylvania, having previously forced Sen. Arlen Specter to flee to the Democrats. Many of Toomey's fellow Tea Party and Club for Growth backed candidates are even more extreme than he is. Some of these candidates may lose, but some will win, joining an elite group of paranoid extremists already in power--like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who has warned of a plot to establish a "one world currency" and "the eventual unraveling of our freedom"; Paul Broun (R-GA), who accused Obama of preparing a Nazi-like civilian security force to round up conservatives; Steve King (R-IA), who wants to abolish the IRS and attacked Obama for favoring black people; and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who is concerned about federal legislation to prosecute Christians for "thought crimes." These men and women represent the future chairpersons of powerful congressional subcommittees. When the wheel of American politics turns again, as it invariably does, the most conservative and paranoia-prone GOP in recent history may well come to power with a popular mandate to "take back the country."
So watch out what you wish for.
I'm currently writing a book about right-wing paranoia, Blowing Smoke, to be published in October. For updates, click the I Like button on the book's fan page.