David Brooks uses his Tuesday column to take mainstream Republicans to task for not standing up to the “wingers.” He notes:
All across the nation, there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid. This year, they have an excellent chance to defeat President Obama, yet the wingers have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum.
But where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the G.O.P. were metastasizing? Where were they during the rise of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck? Where were they when Arizona passed its beyond-the-fringe immigration law? Where were they in the summer of 2011 when the House Republicans rejected even the possibility of budget compromise? They were lying low, hoping the unpleasantness would pass.
The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But that’s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, they’d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. They’re not rhinos. They’re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time they’re challenged aggressively from the right.
There are few times that I disagree with Brooks, but this is one of those times where I do disagree…for the most part.
Brooks is right that on the whole moderates or mainstream Republicans haven’t really stood up to the wingers. And there would have been a time when I would have said something as strong as he did about how the non-Tea Party, non-Religious Right were basically cowards.
But the thing is, the mainstream Republican pols have tried to counter their more extreme counterparts only to get their you-know-what handed back to them. There was South Carolina representative Bob Inglis, who got beaten in a GOP primary because he was deemed insufficiently conservative; or Bob Bennett the conservative Utah senator who was kicked out of office for daring to work with Democrats at times. I can name others who were good Republicans pols who were challenged and sent packing because they didn’t get with the new agenda.
We could also look at those that ran for President as a GOP alternative to the far right like John McCain’s 2000 campaign or Jon Huntsman’s run this year. Both got some attention, but neither won.
Brooks thinks that the problem is that mainstream Republicans lack the nerve. Maybe, but I tend to think a lot of them look a history of failed moderate GOP campaigns and decide to play it safe. Politicians in the end are interested in winning, after all.
I think that there are two issues that Brooks fails to notice. First, most mainstream Republicans might be leaders, but they don’t have followers. Jon Huntsman and the 2000 John McCain had a lot of admirers, but they didn’t have people who were willing to do the ground work to get their man elected. Brooks is right that the wingers aren’t interested in governing, but they do have people who will knock on doors and get people to the polls. Mainstreamers don’t have those kind of followers, they have admirers who might vote for them on election day, but that’s about it. If a mainstream Republican stands up against a winger, he or she will face an army of followers of said winger who will work to kick out the mainstream Republican. The mainstream Republican can’t rely on the same fervor from more conventional or moderate folks because…well, they are moderate. They don’t do fevor.
The second thing that Brooks misses is how politics has changed over the last 50 years or so. As Lee Seigel notes, the GOP is more of a movement these days, than it is a political party. Here’s what Seigel says about how one such mainstream Republican has had to navigate the changed political climate:
The Republican Party is now mostly a movement. It’s a party only in its upper echelons. You have a relatively small group of Republicans who, thanks to the amplifications of cable and the Internet, and thanks to the liberal media’s pornographic obsession with the hard right, have been wielding a disproportionate influence over the GOP. You have primaries in which traditionally only the hardcore faithful vote—and sometimes, in an open primary, Democrats out to make some trouble. It is hardly a shocker that the most fanatical candidate—first Gingrich, now Santorum—is going to come out on top for a while. There is nothing wild or astonishing about it.
In this fractured situation, it’s only natural that Romney should compartmentalize himself and try simultaneously to appease the fanatical hardcore primary voters while signaling to the swing voters and independents that he is, despite all the signaling, fundamentally sane. Instead of accepting this, however, the media makes him out to be a tin-eared idiot. That would be to perilously misread him.
The thing about movements is that they tend to be for the committed, they don’t want lukewarm followers. In that way, today’s GOP is more like a religion than it is a political party. Moderates aren’t true believers. Mitt Romney is at heart, a moderate like his father. But he is doing what Brooks finds abhorrent, learning to get along. I would love if Romney would run more as a moderate, but if he did, he would probably end up like Jon Huntsman as a footnote. He’d have his honor, but no one would remember him and no one would care.
Over the last few years, I’ve sort of given up the kind of righteous anger that I used to have. I don’t really expect politicians anymore to be some kind of heroic figure in some kind of epic struggle against evil. I know they are cagey and cunning folks who do what they can to get elected. I don’t blame them for wanting to do what it takes to win: that’s why they decided to run.
Actually, the people that need to stand up are not the pols as much as those like me who sit by their computers and rant and rave instead of helping to elect more responsible Republican leaders. We are the ones who don’t sacrifice, but expect our leaders to offer themselves up as lambs to the slaughter.
When we who bemoan the current state of the party decide to honorably rise up and be followers, then maybe we can expect our leaders to do the honorable thing.