Tactical Radicalism And The End Of The GOP Establishment

by Jonathan Chait | July 18, 2010

One interesting sidelight of the current election cycle is that there are several races in which the Republican establishment has either lost control of the race or lost any sense of its own partisan self-interest. The Nevada Senate race is a prime example. Harry Reid, once a dead man walking, is now sitting on a nice lead because Republicans nominated a lunatic to oppose him. "A total f*** up by the state and national Republicans to allow Angle to get nominated," a source notes to Ben Smith.

But of course there are numerous such fuckups. In Kentucky, Republicans turned a rock-solid safe seat into a toss up by nominating ultra-radical Rand Paul over party hack Trey Grayson. In Pennsylvania, they turned a relatively safe seat in Arlen Specter, who had been almost completely housebroken by the right since 2004, into another toss-up. (More importantly, they drove Specter from the party and made him the 60th Senate seat, allowing the passage of health care reform.) And in Florida, they turned another safe hold into a toss-up by challenging, and driving from the party, Charlie Crist.

Florida is actually the closest thing to a rational move for the right. First, I think Crist's current lead is far from safe, because the Democratic vote is likely to consolidate above its current abysmal level and that will come out of Crist's hide. Second, Crist is a genuine moderate, so there really was a more reasonable risk-reward calculation for conservatives looking to gain a more ideologically reliable Senator at the risk of losing the seat altogether. There's at least a strong chance that the Rubio challenge will burn them.

This is four Senate seats put at serious risk by running right-wing primary challenges, plus one enormous liberal domestic policy accomplishment. In all these instances, conservatives either celebrated the right-wing primary challenge or, at the very least, quietly accepted it. There was very little pushback at the time from the party establishment, other than a feeble effort in Kentucky. I have seen no recriminations whatsoever in hindsight. And yet it seems perfectly clear that the effect of these challenges has been a disaster from the conservative perspective.  You don't have to love Sue Lowden to understand that a 90% chance of Lowden winning is better than a 20% chance of Sharron Angle winning. Nor is there any recognition on the right that conservatives paved the way for health care reform by driving Specter out. In conservative lore, the Pat Toomey primary challenge remains a glorious triumph, when in fact it's a disaster of historic proportions.

Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist. It's a tactical radicalism, a belief that ideological purity carries no electoral cost whatsoever. Right-wing tactical radicalism has an old pedigree, and of course there is an equivalent (though less influential) tactical radicalism on the left-wing of the Democratic Party. Tactical radicalism is not the same thing as ideological radicalism. Tactical radicals are a subset of ideological radicals; some ideological radicals have clear-eyed of the pragmatic steps needed to advance their goals incrementally.

In the past, the Republican Party has always managed to hold in check the tactical radicalism of its base. It's starting to run wild. In past elections, I would have totally discounted the possibility that the party might nominate a figure like Sarah Palin, because the party establishment has always been strong enough to push aside candidates who were not strong electoral vehicles for conservatism. I'm no longer sure they have that power anymore.

It's possible that the GOP wave will be strong enough in 2010 to push most or even all these weak candidates into office. If that doesn't happen, I wonder if we'll start to see some recriminations. If it does, tactical radicals will be even more emboldened, and I don't see what could stop Sarah Palin from taking the 2012 nomination if she wants it.

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