Monday, May 10, 2010

The Grand Old Purge

Three-term Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett was in tears on Saturday. “At the risk of getting a little emotional ... I want to thank my staff ... I get dewy-eyed at the dedication of a parking lot, so this is not unusual for me.”

What set Bennett off wasn’t the death of a friend, a defeat in the Senate or even the loss of an election. At a Salt Lake City news conference, Bennett was effectively announcing the death of a career: his own.

Bennett was cast out of office Saturday by delegates at the state’s GOP convention, placing third in a three-way beauty contest pitting him against unknowns Tim Bridgewater, who got 37 percent of delegate votes, and Mike Lee, who garnered 36 percent. Bridgewater and Lee, who both served in former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s administration, will face off in the state primary in June.

Bennett, the once-popular incumbent, trailed badly with 27 percent.

Bennett hung tough on Saturday, the best he could. “"The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic, and it's very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," Bennett said to reporters.

"Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently, even if I had known at the time they were going to cost me my career."

What made it so clearly bad, so obviously painful was the source of this political demise. Bennett is apparently the leading indicator of a purge of the Republican rolls, an absolute and unswerving retreat to the redoubts of the True Believers in the Republican cause. Apostates — the reasonable, the consensus-minded, the civically-motivated — need not apply.

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In gearing up for the November midterms, the party leadership and its outliers have started the process of excommunicating all those in the GOP seen as too moderate or inconsistently obedient to the party doctrine of countering the agenda of President Obama, At All Costs.

It’s not as bad as what Pol Pot did back in the day, when the opportunistic Khmer Rouge warlord, running roughshod over Cambodia in the days of vacuum after the Vietnam War, declared war on “intellectuals” — basically anyone in or around Phnom Penh wearing eyeglasses — and transported them to the killing fields.

But the Republicans’ grand old, brand new purge of its own ranks tells a story almost as tragic: a once-proud political party reduced to the reflexive talking points of its most extreme champions, an orthodoxy of rage.

Bennett is the first congressional incumbent to get offed this year this way, and the punditburo that bestrides the mediascape has made it almost a catechism from the start of the year: 2010 would be the Year of the Incumbent in the Crosshairs. No party has embraced that idea quite like the GOP.

What some say may have cost Bennett re-election was his inability or unwillingness to adopt the strategies of the right wing. Brock Vergakis of The Associated Press reported today: “Recently, he has said part of his problem with delegates has been that he doesn't go on conservative cable talk shows and offer angry sound bites. Instead, he said he likes to work on finding practical solutions.”

Practical solutions? No angry sound bites? For the GOP 2010, this is blasphemy. Bennett would have been more easily forgiven if he’d been caught selling crack outside Salt Lake Temple.

These shots across the bow of the U.S.S. Consensus first started in January, when Republican Scott Brown, an unknown in a barn coat and a truck, won the Massachusetts Senate seat occupied for decades by the late Democrat Edward Kennedy.

Last week, Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, seen as something of a centrist, made the decision to run as an independent in his Senate campaign against challenger Mario Rubio, instead of risking a loss at the hands of his own party.

Arizona Sen. John McCain is in the "High Noon" showdown of his political life as he faces a fierce challenge from conservative talk-radio host and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. And in Pennsylvania, Democratic incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter faces a Republican challenge from Club for Growth founder Pat Twoomey. In an online ad, the GOP candidate calls on backers to “Support the Pat Twoomey Moneybomb” by donating to his campaign.

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This is largely a matter of an internal cultural war, a litmus-test-based conflict that’s not really being waged between Republican moderates and the hardboiled members of the right. At this point, those on the right are trying to move even further to the right (begging the question: How far to the right can you go before you start moving left again?).

This rigidity has shown up in ethnically xenophobic ways that don’t end on the border between Arizona and Mexico. In Alabama, Tim James, Republican candidate for governor, recently unveiled a campaign ad in which he said that if he wins, Alabamans could count on a return to nativism — starting with his intent to get rid of ballots and other official communications printed in any language other than English.

“The GOP is going through a revolutionary change at the grassroots, but the national GOP has been tone-deaf," Craig Shirley, a longtime GOP op, told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post. "The conservative/Tea Party/populist movement has been liberated from having to explain and apologize for the past transgressions of the national GOP and are in no mood to be dictated to. The status quo no longer holds sway over the base of the party, rather it is they who hold sway over the national GOP."

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One of the bigger questions is why the Republican Party, or its current less-than-reasonable facsimile thereof, believes the American people are inclined to reward a party in such internal disarray with election in November. The old saying once was that the Democrats were like a circular firing squad; these days the GOP is a circular firing squad with machine guns instead of rifles.

The other unknown is how widely this anti-incumbent virus is really circulating. The pundits have darkly warned that all incumbents, Democratic and Republican alike, are in danger. An inconvenient truth: there are distinctions to be made between officeholders. There are incumbents and there are incumbents. It’s likely to be difficult to crank up the same level of outrage against Specter, whose time in Congress can be measured in tree rings, as that against a relative newcomer in his first or second term.

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Terry Holt, a partner in the Republican PR firm HDMK, tried to spin the current Republican exclusionary rule for HuffPost’s Stein as business as usual. "I think it is a fairly typical pre-primary season where the various players sort out their position," he said.

"The party sees a lot of opportunity to grow again and to appeal to both groups who are intense and motivated about participating in the next election and independents who gave the Democrats a chance but immediately regretted it. So I look at the jockeying for position as part of a typical indicator as a season for growth among Republicans."

But no. Holt’s benign metaphorical invocation of the sport of kings doesn’t apply here. The Republicans are engaged in internal bloodletting, a ruthless test of ideological purity, an example of “jockeying for position” according to the chariot race in “Ben-Hur.”

The punditburo, and any number of analysts predict that the Democrats will lose seats this November in the face of the perceived anti-incumbent sentiment loose in the country. We will see. When all’s said and done, the conventional wisdom bases its current thinking on previous elections, and the persistence of the idea that the tidal forces of American politics almost obligate the Democrats to lose seats this year, regardless of how well the administration is doing.

But past performance is no guarantee of future results. Sports fans have long been surprised by how well (or how badly) one team won (or lost) a contest they were expected to lose (or win). The standing truism for such events is the same in sports as it is in politics: You don’t play the game on paper.

Image credits: Robert Bennett: Associated Press. Tim James: Still from James campaign video. Chariot race: Still from "Ben-Hur," © 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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