APRIL 23, 2007
Is there anything sorrier than the modern party boss? Once, bossespresided over Congress like emperors. They sealed who would live andwho would die, picking the incumbents who could face reelection andinstructing a few doomed souls to spend more time with theirfamilies. But that era is gone. Gunning to take the bosses' placeare blogger NZ Bear, talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, and WashingtonTimes columnist Frank Gaffney. This trio helped start the newlyminted Victory Caucus--dedicated, in part, to defeating Republicanincumbents who have criticized George W. Bush's Baghdad surge. Inthat capacity, the group has not only angled to usurp the bosses'old job of forcibly retiring pesky congressmen; it has invited themasses to help wield the hatchet, encouraging its website's chatforums to nominate the most deserving and conquerable victims, a la"American Idol." Virginia Senator John Warner and FloridaRepresentative Ric Keller are particular favorites. But, as onecommenter announces, "Lawn Boy Keller is just the beginning!"
Washington is now awash in ideological groups intent on purifyingthe parties. First, there came the supply-side Club for Growth,which has spent several election cycles trying to purge Republicanswho fail to genuflect before the Laffer curve. But Ned Lamont'striumph over Joe Lieberman in last summer's Democratic primary--andthe Club for Growth's near-toppling of Lincoln Chafee in hisprimary--has inspired a new mania for purging. In Lamont's wake,MoveOn, some unions, and the blogger Markos Moulitsas foundedWorking For Us (WFU), a liberal PAC, which targets Democraticcongressmen who deviate on core issues like trade or laborpractices. WFU's nonprofit counterpart has already raised $200,000to spend on ads and phone blitzes in the run-up to the 2008primaries. Everywhere you look, it seems, there's a wannabeRobespierre.
It is a strange time for such an outburst of internecine struggle.The two parties are locked in an epic struggle for control ofCongress, where every incumbent occupies precious turf. And whatmakes the fratricide even more striking is that many of itsparticipants were so recently relatively content with the party.Take NZ Bear (he won't disclose his real name), a dirty blond fromSouthern California who holds the exalted title ConservativePolitical Action Committee (cpac) Blogger of the Year. Before themidterms, NZ never imagined that he would launch a movement tosabotage the National Republican Senatorial Committee (nrsc). But,after the majority had been lost and the Republican leadershipfreed its members to vote for the Democrats' antiwar resolution, NZbegan to feel deeply frustrated. "Basically, Hugh [Hewitt] and Isort of mentally snapped," he recalls. The result was the VictoryCaucus's precursor, a petition where more than 30,000 signerspromised not to donate to the nrsc unless it withheld money fromanti-surge senators. They expressed their mood with a poem on thepledge's website: k
There's 100 seats
Where the Senate meets
And they serve at our command,
As the derrieres
That sit on those chairs
Had better understand
The nrsc only found out about the pledge when an employee ran acrossit on a blog--the Internet equivalent of finding a dead horse'shead in your bed. Likewise, Maryland Representative Al Wynn's teamdiscovered he was on the WFU top offenders list when somebody inthe office Googled the boss. At first, Wynn's team thought it was ahoax, on the level of those loopy faxes that pour into Washingtonoffices sprinkled with boldface and exclamation points. But, whenthey and other targeted representatives figured out what it reallywas, a small firestorm ignited, especially among members who werescared they might be next. Steny Hoyer called WFU's founder tocomplain, and the list was taken down- -temporarily: The group hassince launched its own contest to "Nominate a rep. today." "Intimes like these, no one is safe," says a House aide.
In a gesture toward pragmatism, WFU has vowed to target Democratswho are more conservative than their districts, so as not to riskthe seats changing hands. But the nonprofit's first official actionwas to launch a flurry of radio ads against Senator Max Baucus ofMontana, hardly a safe liberal state. No matter what you think ofBaucus--this magazine has called on the leadership to strip him ofhis chairman's gavel--to attack him carries political risks, giventhat the Democrats have a one-seat Senate majority. But the groupprides itself on working beyond the narrow calculus of preservingincumbents. Tom Mattzie, a WFU board member and MoveOn's Washingtondirector, tells me the group decided "to stay focused on the biggoal: a progressive majority in Congress, not a minority." In otherwords, an ideological majority--not a party majority. That's not anoutlandish goal, but it's bound to set up more conflicts with thecongressional leadership and groups like the nrsc, who exist toprotect party majorities.
If party bosses are being replaced, they have only themselves toblame. Parties long cultivated the likes of Hugh Hewitt to spouttheir line in the face of evidence to the contrary. Hewitt's ownelevation to party hero began when he tried to bar Bob Woodwardfrom entering the Nixon Library; last year, he could be founddoggedly defending Harriet Miers even after most Republicanlawmakers had abandoned her nomination. He's one of the last men youwould have expected to start an intraparty insurgency. But if youbreed an attack dog, you shouldn't be surprised when it bitesback.