February 11, 2013

Lots of chatter about the news that GOP Rep. Steve Stockman, who threatened Obama with impeachment over guns, has invited Ted Nugent to the State of the Union address. Nugent has accepted:

“I am excited to have a patriot like Ted Nugent joining me in the House Chamber to hear from President Obama,” Stockman said in a press release.  “After the Address I’m sure Ted will have plenty to say.”

That’s a good bet; apparently Stockman is encouraging reporters to interview Nugent after the speech. Nugent, of course, is best known for making this claim, which was investigated by the Secret Service:

“If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year,” Nugent said, according to a video that the NRA posted on YouTube. “If you can’t go home and get everybody in your lives to clean house in this vile, evil, America-hating administration, I don’t even know what you’re made out of.”

That’s bad, but if I were the GOP leadership, the prospect of further comments from Nugent after the speech would have me a bit worried. After all, there’s little doubt that reporters will seek him out, and there’s really no telling what Nugent will say. The GOP leadership has not commented on the news.

But really, this episode is significant for reasons that go well beyond Nugent. The key actor here who matters is Steve Stockman. The problem lies in all the over-the-top stuff GOP lawmakers say regularly that isn’t quite crazy enough to earn widespread condemnation, as Nugent’s quotes have, but are still whacked out enough to encourage an atmosphere that helps keep millions of GOP base voters sealed off from reality. The problem is the perpetual winking and nodding to The Crazy that is deemed marginally acceptable –  the hints about creeping socialism, the claim that modest Obama executive actions amount to tyranny, the suggestions that Obama’s values are vaguely un-American and that Obama is transforming the country and the economy into something no longer recognizably American, and so on — more so than the glaringly awful stuff that gets the media refs to throw their flags.

As Jonathan Bernstein put it the other day, Republican lawmakers who flirt with this type of talk regularly are helping create an environment in which moderate Republicans are forever on the defensive and in fear of the base. If moderate Republicans want to change this, they will have to dial this stuff back:

They have to stop educating their rank-and-file voters to accept crazy stuff. That means cutting out the teleprompter jokes, the winks to birthers, the claims that Democrats are anti-American — all of it. It means that if a backbench member of the House yells out “you lie” during a presidential speech, he gets censured instead of praised.  That’s going to mean some short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. It may be hard to go in front of a conservative crowd and resist an applause line calling Barack Obama a socialist. [...]

Can Republicans shut it all down? Of course not. But they could choose to minimize it. That means politicians steering clear of it; it means those party actors who care about winning elections doing what they can to discourage it from those party actors who have different incentives (such as those hawking that merchandise or who can make a very good living selling to a group which is a large market but a small portion of the electorate).

The problem isn’t so much Ted Nugent as it is the Steve Stockmans of the world telling their constituents that Obama’s sensible gun reforms rise to the level of impeachment.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.