Is Total Resistance and Talk of ‘Revolution’ A Winning Strategy for the GOP In 2010? Not Likely.

March 8, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Current political commentary has it that voters will flee from the Democrats this year driven by fears that Democrats are spending too much and are too inclined to exercise government control over a myriad of areas best left to the private markets.

A corollary to that theory is that the Democratic base will sit this one out, disappointed that the big majorities they helped to elect in 2008 haven’t delivered on the promises of progressive change.

All that could happen. But five bucks says it won’t.

For that to happen non-partisan, independent voters would have to see the Republicans as a better alternative. For most, the Republicans would have to be convincing as a party that seems better able to govern and take care of the country’s most pressing problems—-like jobs, and health costs. The Republicans would have to grab the political center, where most independents and moderates live.

But none of that is happening. Instead, Republicans are putting on their fright wigs and scampering to the far right just as fast as their speeches, congressional votes and public appearances will take them there. In their effort to harness the runaway tea party movement, they are embedding themselves on the scary right, leaving the center wide open for the Democrats to recapture.

We’re not talking fringe Republicans here. Virtually the entire Republican House leadership lined up, hat in hand, to woo delegates to the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington, D.C., a conference notable for its theme that American freedom is in danger and that extreme measures are needed to save it.

CPAC’s keynote speaker was Fox commentator Glenn Beck who used the occasion to denounce Teddy Roosevelt (that’s right—Teddy Roosevelt, not Teddy Kennedy) for starting the progressive movement. Included among CPAC’s sponsors were the John Birch Society and the Oath Keepers, a militia group organized to militarily combat what it sees as the U.S. government’s plans to declare martial law and disarm the citizenry.

Into this group marched House Minority Leader John Boehner, talking “revolution,” a theme he’s been pushing since the first tea partier screamed “I want my country back” last summer. Republican leaders Eric Cantor and Mike Pence were there, trying to outdo each other with one liners about the dangers facing America because of the Democrats. Newt Gingrich, as usual, trumped them all. He packaged everyone’s fears into a perceived “Secular Socialist Machine,” that he said posed the greatest threat to America he’s ever known.

This is the language of people who see the opposition as mortal enemies, not political opponents.

To raise campaign money, the Republican National Committee produced a 72-page Powerpoint presentation designed to capitalize on this theme. Before it could go to the party’s heavy financial hitters, the Powerpoint found its way out of a Florida hotel room and into the light of day. Once exposed, the odor got too intense for even the party’s chairman Michael Steele.

But it’s far too late into the 2010 campaign season for Steele or anyone to redirect the GOP’s veer toward the hard right. There’s an old Indian saying that “He who rides the tiger sometimes winds up inside.” Boehner and his Republicans grabbed onto the tea party tiger last summer and now it’s carrying them to places they might want to go.

The more GOP leaders play ball with their fringe extremists, the more tension they raise in the primaries between experienced, mainstream conservatives and tea party outriders. Worst of all for the Republicans, the primary contests and congressional GOP intransigence as naysayers will do nothing to assure voters that the GOP is a better governing alternative than the Democrats.

Ray Blunt, a long-time GOP House leader, is desperately trying to curry favor with the hard right in Missouri to fend off a bunch of rivals for Missouri’s U.S. Senate nomination. Governor Charlie Crist, who looked like a cinch to hold a Florida U.S. Senate seat for the Republicans might well loose the nomination to a right wing opponent who in turn will lose the political center to a Democrat.

The Republicans lost their Pennsylvania Senate seat when Arlen Specter saw a political tsunami coming at him from his state’s far right. The far right is disenchanted with Rob Portman in Ohio, who once had a virtual lock on that state’s Senate seat for the GOP. The same is true in Delaware with Mike Castle and Illinois with Mark Kirk.
It could well be the far right Republican voters who stay home on election day and withhold votes from what they see as centrist candidates.

And the threat from the right is having another impact: It’s stirring the unhappy left into action.

The coalitions and grass roots workers who made the current Democratic majority possible may no longer believe that helping the Democrats will answer their prayers for health reform, energy reform, massive job programs and withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. But they do know they don’t want the Tea Party Right getting its hands on the levers of government. That’s plenty of incentive to rouse them from their funk and bring them out to the streets again.

Elections in the U.S., for better or worse, almost always come down to a choice between two people, one a Democrat, one a Republican. In most congressional districts it isn’t a fair fight. The fix is in. Friendly apportionment committees have seen to it that Republicans and Democrats have such a head start in terms of party registration that they have to be convicted ax murderers to lose.

But there are other districts, maybe 100 of the 435 in all, where the strength of the candidate and his or her party’s “brand” makes a difference. These are not districts that go readily for political extremists or extremism. Calls to reason count for more than calls for revolution. These districts may be swayed by arguments that the Democrats are on the wrong track, but not by claims that they are enemies of the state.

The Republicans have a clear shot at a lot of these districts. At least they would have a clear shot if they offered reasonable alternatives to acknowledged problems. But defined by their votes as the party of “no,” talking about “revolution” and tolerating noisy extremist foot soldiers isn’t a formula for success.

No matter what the polls say now, my $5 bucks says that by Halloween the Republicans will look scarier than the Democrats as a political party worth trusting with the reins of power.