Knee-Capping: Why the Club for Growth Does It (And Why It Will Never Work)
My colleagues here at The Moderate Voice – many of them moderate Republicans of the Arlen Specter ilk – have eloquently explained the larger significance of Specter’s defection from the Republican Party. I want to focus on the Pat Toomey angle. More to the point: why does the Club for Growth consistently “knee-cap” its own moderates in the GOP, knowing full well that the primary winner will almost assuredly get destroyed by a Democrat?
It happened in my former district (MI-07) when the CFG knocked off Joe Schwarz and put wingnut extremist Tim Walberg in power…only to lose the seat to Democrat Mark Schauer the next election. It happened in MD-01 when Andy Harris knocked off Wayne Gilchrest, allowing Frank Kratovil to take the conservative Eastern Shore district. It even happened in northern Idaho, where Walt Minnick, a Democrat, defeated CFG star Bill Sali in 2008. In the Rhode Island Senate race in 2006, the CFG nearly eliminated Lincoln Chafee, thereby weakening him for the general election match against Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
And so former CFG head Pat Toomey put Arlen Specter in his sights – a job made easier with the defection of 200,000 moderate Republicans from the party registration lists since 2004. Toomey would have crushed Specter in the GOP primary…and gotten mauled by any number of Democrats (Sestak, Schwartz, Murphy to name a few) in the general election.
The big question is: why does the Club for Growth do this? Surely they know that they have contributed to a shrunken Republican Party – especially in the Northeast and Midwest. They aren’t just a gang of purity trolls in the blogosphere either; the left produces all manner of CFG-wannabes on Daily Kos calling for the heads of moderate Democrats (with Joe Lieberman as the only scalp). Unlike the liberal purists, the CFG has real money that it can ram into these campaigns. They play for keeps, and the national GOP is decidedly ambivalent about their influence in the party (some, like Gingrich, see them as true conservatives keeping the party rooted and others, like Mike Huckabee, call them the “Club for Greed”).
The reason they do this is simple: they believe that once the nation discovers the true horrors of Barack Obama’s left-wing socialist extremism and the destruction of the American way of life, voters will come back in droves to the Republican Party. And voters will only do that if the party has itself purged its wayward souls whose moderation is, of course, the only reason for Republican losses in 2006 and 2008.
Yes, they really believe that.
Even non-CFG conservatives like Newt Gingrich believe this. These Reagan Relics believe that that tea partiers represented a massive groundswell of opposition to Obama’s supposed radicalism. Once the public’s blinders are removed – hopefully with the help of the non-mainstream media that refuses to cover for Obama – the electorate will come to its senses and restore the great Era of Reagan again.
So, what’s wrong with this strategy? Isn’t the Long March approach taken by Republicans in 1964 necessary to prepare the party for a principled comeback to power? Won’t voters always vote the Democrat if opposed by a Democrat-lite? Won’t voters realize what a mistake they made in putting this cabal of radical leftists in power in Washington?
Well, there are a few big problems with this strategy.
1) It is transparently obvious that this strategy only succeeds if the Obama Administration fails miserably. And hoping for failure puts actual Republican politicians in all kinds of trouble (e.g. Limbaugh apologetics). Once the public picks up on the idea that the opposition is hoping for failure so that it can claw back into power, the opposition looks less viable. “Standing for conservative principles” begins to look like the “party of no”, when the public has just elected Democrats to power in two straight elections.
2) The American public just doesn’t believe in Reaganite conservatism anymore. Period. Reagan conservatism spoke to the particular political reality of 1980 America – years of stagflation, military demoralization, rising crime, bureaucratic ossification, Carterian incompetence, Sunbelt expansion, Reagan’s charisma, etc. In 1994, the GOP could make the same claim about Congress – too long it had been in the hands of increasingly corrupt Democrats who continued to stifle much of the still-popular Reagan agenda (including, especially, welfare reform). But after eight years in which the GOP controlled the White House and, for the most part, Congress, support for the conservative Republican agenda has cratered. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the importance of welfare reform in defanging much of the small-government conservative critique. Rove and Bush pressed for a big government, social conservatism largely because it was the only electable option after 1996. The problem was that it turned off the entire Northeast and Midwest, leaving the party in a Mormon-Dixie rump. Meanwhile, the country has turned to the Democrats to solve virtually all of the nation’s domestic problems, including health care, energy, education and even taxes. The financial collapse has only further strengthened calls for a more vigorous and interventionist government. The Reaganite refrain: Small government and low taxes just doesn’t appeal to the majority anymore.
So, even if the Democrats did fail spectacularly, it’s not likely that the Republicans would gain. If they did (as the Democrats did after Watergate in 1974), it wouldn’t last because the electorate rejects the conservative Republican ideology.
3) It furthers what Nate Silver calls the Republican Death Spiral, wherein the only survivors of the CFG purges are hard-right ideologues. And that small and decreasing percentage of American still willing to identify as Republicans will only demand the party move further to the right. The Club for Growth then effectively takes over the party. In the process, the most outspoken leaders are certifiable nutjobs like Michelle Bachmann who utterly repel 75% of the country. The base becomes more marginalized and paranoid, wondering when the nation will “snap out of it” – while carrying on more bizarre escapades like teabagging or worse. It’s a self-fulfilling process as the GOP gets locked in by the value set of a demographically dwindling regional minority. More importantly, it makes the party even less able to capitalize on inevitable Democratic overreach or foulups.
I have no idea what will turn this around. The Democratic Party can and will overreach. It will make genuinely significant mistakes. But can a purged GOP take advantage? If not, when will the moderates who don’t care for the Democratic base but who find the GOP repulsive form a viable third party movement to stand as the opposition?
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