The GOP establishment pandered to Tea Party extremism to win the 2010 midterm elections. Now, it's reaping the whirlwind
If you're looking for a Republican congressman who truly embodies the ethos of the Tea Party, Maryland Representative Andy Harris is a pretty good pick.
Harris, you see, is no fan of "big government" and he's definitely not a fan of Rinos ("Republicans in name only").
Harris made a national name for himself in 2008, when he successfully launched a primary campaign against insufficiently conservative 18-year congressional veteran Wayne Gilchrest. Although Harris lost in the general election, he was more successful two years later, joining his Tea Party contingent in the House of Representatives.
As a congressman, Harris has had a difficult time finding a single government program or legislative initiative he doesn't hate. He opposed the debt limit deal in the summer of 2011; he was one of the handful of Republicans to vote against the fiscal cliff deal in January 2013; he's against immigration reform, foreign aid, more money for Pell grants, and even the Violence Against Women Act.
And, of course, he hates Obamacare.
This record of conservative allegiance would, you might imagine, inoculate Harris from Tea Party criticism. Yet, earlier this month, in a town hall meeting in his home district, he was assailed by his constituents – for not being strident and uncompromising enough.
"You guys are being nice guys" and "I want to see more defiance!" were just some of the accusations hurled at the congressman in a heated session that included questions about the supposed IRS scandal and the current lodestar of conservative lunacy – Benghazi.
Harris is not alone.
Blake Farenthold, another Tea Party Republican from Texas, who voted against the fiscal cliff deal as well, and told constituents "there are several [cabinet] departments we could completely get rid of", was assailed by "birthers" for the GOP's failure to impeach President Obama. (His defense was not that impeachment would be insane, but that it would be infeasible.) Tea Partiers in North Carolina pummeled Congressman Robert Pittenger for refusing to support defunding Obamacare even thought he has supported a number of bills repealing Obamacare.
Indeed, across the nation, Republican senators and congressmen are finding themselves under withering assault from Tea Party critics.
After three and a half years of legislative hostage-taking and policy nihilism and unceasing, uncompromising obstructionism of President Obama's agenda, the message from the Tea Party is a simple one: we want more crazy.
So what's going on here? Quite simply, Republicans are being destroyed by the rightwing monster they created.
Although, once upon a time, the divide in the GOP was between moderates and conservatives; today, the intra-party cleavage is between the Republican establishment and the lunatic fringe. And the fringe is not so fringe-y.
For years, the GOP establishment mined this wellspring of racial and economic anxiety. They railed against gay marriage and abortion; attacked big government and out-of-control federal spending and demonized welfare and social programs.
But once in office, Republicans had a funny way of never really carrying through with their tough rhetoric. Rather than do away with social security or Medicare – they strengthened it and expanded it. Rather than slash government spending or the size of the federal bureaucracy – they increased it. The more visceral imperative for Republican officeholders was to provide tax breaks for their wealthy supporters, weaken regulation (be it financial, environmental or workplace) and, above all, hold on to their political power. Going after sacred cows like social insurance programs or popular spending programs, or working to enact abortion restrictions, were political nonstarters (or were quickly shelved once they became political liabilities).
Then, in 2009, things began to take a turn. With the election of Barack Obama, Republicans found themselves with a new political adversary uniquely capable of upsetting the far right – and the GOP made sure this was exactly what happened. Playing on fears of social change, racial anxiety and expanding big government, Republican leaders inveighed against the evils of Obamacare and the president's alleged profligate spending.
They pulled out every stop to thwart Obama's legislative agenda, and even went far down the political rabbit hole as they flirted with "birtherism", charges of socialism, and allegations that the president was a secret Muslim. In the process, they both enraged and energized the party's most radical followers.
The result was a short-term political victory (control of the House of Representatives, won in the 2010 midterms) – but an increasingly long-term political headache, like the one playing out in GOP town hall meetings across America right now. The establishment players in Congress found themselves with a host of new Tea Partier colleagues little interested in following the usual GOP script of compromise in the name of political necessity. They were willing to undermine the full faith and credit of the US government in order to force draconian spending cuts upon the White House. They've continued their assault on Obamacare, voting to repeal it 40 times, and now, one of the group's biggest bomb-throwers, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is talking about shutting down the government in order to defund it. They've allowed sequestration – and its devastating affect on communities across the country – to continue. And they have resisted any and all effort to moderate the party's image, dragging the Republican establishment under the bus with them.
On immigration reform, the Tea Party contingent has made clear that the Senate immigration bill is dead-in-the-water – thus, gravely undermining national GOP efforts to improve the party's image among Hispanic voters. On abortion rights, state legislatures filled with ultra-conservatives continue to pass legislation restricting access to reproductive health services and, in the process, further devastated the party's already poor relationship with women voters. In the struggle between those who want to moderate the party (albeit only slightly) and those who want to ride the train straight to crazy-ville, the latter are winning.
Finally, they've turned their guns on their own leaders and, in the process, driven the party more and more toward their uncompromising positions.
With deadlines coming soon on a possible government shutdown and an extension of the debt limit, Republican leaders like Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who is facing a Tea Party primary challenge are under growing pressure to not get off the politically suicidal path on which they find themselves – but instead to stay the course.
The result of all this is more dysfunction, more budgetary shutdowns and more political black eyes for a Republican party unable to reason with its most ideologically fervent followers. None of this should really be unexpected. If you're going to tell radical conservatives that Obamacare is the worst thing to ever happen to America, is it really a surprise that those same extremists are not going to meekly nod when you tell them that it's now a fact of life? If you're going to tell voters that government debt is destroying the country, is it really a surprise when those voters demand that every step must be taken to reduce it?
Any hope that the defeat of Mitt Romney in November 2012 would begin to drain the GOP's fever swamp has gone by the wayside – and Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. In nurturing and radicalizing its extremist fringe – in pursuit of short-term gain – the Republican establishment created a political Frankenstein. Increasingly, however, it looks as though the monster's first victim is going to be them.
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