GOP Realists vs. the True Believers
It's not exactly firing on Fort Sumter, but it may be said that the Republican Civil War has begun in earnest as the "establishment," or "pragmatists," or "realists" -- or whatever derisive epithet you want to apply -- have thrown down the gauntlet to the righteous right and challenged their conception of political success. The notion that only the most "conservative" candidate should represent the party regardless of his or her chances of winning is under attack by GOP Whales who ultimately foot the bill for these forays into self-defeating, myopic fantasy land.
The money men, at the behest of Karl Rove, have formed the "Conservative Victory Project" -- a non-profit outfit that will supposedly vet Republican primary candidates, backing the most conservative candidate who can win. Specifically targeted for defeat will be the bomb-throwers, the extremists, the weird, the wacky, and the incompetents who have blown at least four slam-dunk, sure-thing, in-the-bank races in the last two election cycles. And despite claiming that they won't be in the "incumbent protection racket," there is little doubt that the formation of the Conservative Victory Project is a shot across the bow to Tea Party groups who have primaried several incumbent senators who displeased the right wingers either because they committed the mortal sin of compromising with the other side or because they were thought to be insufficiently incendiary in their rhetoric against the opposition.
The major problem for the Rove-backed group is that their own record of failure in electing candidates to the Senate -- especially in Wisconsin and Montana -- makes their criticisms ring hollow. Rove's American Crossroads spent more than $100 million in attack ads for eight Senate races and came away with two victories -- Nebraska's Deb Fischer and Dean Heller in Nevada. The notion that Rove and his deep-pocketed friends can do better than the Tea Party in picking winning candidates takes a hit when one considers their record.
Still, there's a difference between a Denny Rehberg, an establishment congressman who ran against incumbent Jon Tester, and Todd Akin, whose disastrous campaign ended in a loss to the most unpopular Democratic senator in the 2012 election cycle, Claire McCaskill. Rehberg's race was tough but winnable -- something that could have been said for the other Crossroads-backed Senate candidates who lost. Akin's race should have been a coronation. The party's major donors want to avoid debacles like Missouri in 2014, when 20 incumbent Democratic senators have to face the voters -- many in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012. With President Obama making these incumbents' lives difficult by pushing gun control and immigration reform, Republicans can ill-afford to field gaffe-prone candidates who suffer terminal cases of foot-in-mouth disease.
The right wing is understandably upset. Erick Erickson was in high dudgeon when he penned this rant:
American Crossroads is creating a new Super PAC to crush conservatives, destroy the tea party, and put a bunch of squishes in Republican leadership positions. Thank God they are behind this. In 2012, they spent hundreds of millions of rich donors’ money and had jack to show for it.
It is interesting though. The people who brought us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, TARP, the GM bailout, Harriet Miers, etc., etc., etc. are really hacked off that people have been rejecting them. In 2012, about the only successful Republican candidates were the ones who directly rejected the legacy of these people.
So now they will up their game. They don’t like being shut out. They blame the tea party and conservatives for their failure to win primaries. They’ll now try to match conservatives and, in the process, call themselves conservatives.
Not much exaggeration or hyperbole there, eh? Is American Crossroads really, truly, out to "crush" conservatives and "destroy the tea party"? Balderdash. The whole point of the Conservative Victory Project is to get Republicans elected. One doesn't have to be Mr. Wizard to figure out that's not going to happen without a massive turnout by conservatives. Erickson has to know better, but for some reason feels the necessity to portray the right wing as martyrs to the cause of "conservative" purity and dogma.
Jeff Goldstein sees even more sinister motives behind the formation of the Rove-backed group:
Seems Rove thinks he can play the left’s game against the right: define conservatism down so that centrist RINOism becomes the new “conservative right wing,” and the TEA Partiers, constitutional conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians can become the new fringe Birchers.
Of course, this has the effect of positioning the far left as moderate, but that doesn’t matter much to Mr Rove, whose hanger-on status — following a series of high profile losses and a 5-7 year history of bad party advice — is becoming legendary. And to the base, particularly troublesome.
Which is why we should simply just cut the umbilicus now and let Rove, et al., finish off the GOP
That may be the first time in history that Karl Rove has been referred to as a "centrist." Does Mr. Goldstein really believe that Rove wants to "finish off the GOP"? That kind of hysteria is what gives the right wing the deserved reputation of being disconnected from reality. Is there anything wrong with marginalizing Tea Party people who believe that Obama is a Muslim or that he's out to "destroy America"? Or constitutional conservatives who believe our founding document is akin to holy writ? Or libertarians who embrace objectivism? These people don't have to be shunted off to the fringe. They are the fringe already. Not all Tea Partiers, constitutionalists, or libertarians share these ridiculous views, but shouldn't an effort be made to kick the crazies to the sidelines?
Analyzing the clashing worldviews of the two sides is instructive. Neither sees the other as capable of fielding candidates that would be acceptable to a majority of voters. It's not that the right wing wants to lose -- far from it. They apparently feel that there are more important things than winning -- a childlike view of politics to be sure, but such thinking animates their cause and gives energy to their advocacy. Would that it would give wisdom to their actions.
The establishment is questioning their political acumen, not their conservative bona fides. Former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar could have won his race going away. Replacing him by throwing Richard Mourdock into the Republican primary was a titanic mistake, giving a moderate Democrat, Joe Donnelly, an opening he should never have had. Mourdock turned a laugher into a toss-up overnight. But Lugar, a conservative pragmatist whose collegiality with Democrats made him suspect with the paranoids who see any collaboration with the enemy as treason, was tossed not for being insufficiently conservative for the voters of Indiana, but because he was more interested in governance than ideological purity. This is an old-fashioned notion in our hyper-partisan age to be sure, but a strategy that proved to be a winner for five terms.
One could certainly make the argument that a group like the Conservative Victory Project has no business injecting itself into the private wars of Republicans in individual states. There is symmetry to the logic that the locals know the political landscape better than any Washington-based outfit -- no matter how much money they have. The congressional campaign committees usually run into trouble when they take sides in primary fights -- as well they should. The question then becomes, is an intervention necessary? Have things gotten so bad, so out of hand, that those who fund GOP campaigns with their own money feel that they can get more bang for their bucks if they take a hand in choosing local or statewide candidates for office?
Neither side covered themselves in glory in 2012. And Republicans need a lot more than money and even viable candidates to take control of the Senate, maintain control of the House in 2014, and position themselves for a White House run in 2016. It is unfortunate that the formation of the Conservative Victory Project is only going to drive the wedge between the establishment and right wing activists deeper, and open the chasm between the two sides wider. At a time when unity should be paramount, it is likely that the two sides tearing at each other for the next two years will only result in hurt feelings and erect a massive barrier of mistrust.
Indeed, victory seems farther away today than it did yesterday.