The past few months have provided multiple lessons for the conservative movement on the danger of intemperance. Presidential candidates Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, who prided themselves on ”bold” (read, radical) and “fundamental” (read, constitutionally questionable) change floundered. No, the solution to activist judges is not to arrest them. No, the solution to the convoluted tax code is not 9-9-9. The party seems to be waking up to the extreme and weirdly paranoid vision propagated by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) As Jamie Kirchick points out in a must-read piece, the very thing that drives his supporters, is giving mainstream conservatives hives:
This is not the fervor of a healthy body politic — this is a less savory type of political devotion, one that escapes the bounds of sober reasoning. Indeed, Paul’s absolutist notion of libertarian rigor has always been coupled with an attraction to fantasies of political apocalypse.
House Republicans who revolted against their leadership and rejected a solid deal crafted by Senate Republicans (if one grudgingly accepts the notion that the payroll tax cut isn’t going back to its “normal” rate anytime soon) find themselves isolated and embarrassed.
On the other side of the aisle, President Obama’s fiery call seeking to stoke the embers of class envy has fallen flat. As my colleague Charles Lane wrote: “In a Dec. 16 Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans called the rich-poor gap “an acceptable part of our economic system.” Only 45 percent said it ‘needs to be fixed.’ This is the precise opposite of what Gallup found in 1998, the last time it asked the question, when 52 percent wanted to ‘fix’ inequality.” Conservatives can appreciate, when it is the other party’s error, that Americans are not radical nor envious nor desirous of massive social or economic dislocation. They’d just like a job and to accumulate some modest wealth, thank you.
Again and again we see that the loudest voices, egged on by talk show hosts whose success is built on confrontation and on right-wing bloggers who thrive in a tiny echo chamber, have initial appeal, but quickly fade once the extent of their radicalism is revealed and the lack of saleability of their ideas in the body politic becomes clear. (The talk show and blogging screechers, of course, never admit error. They merely scold the extremists for not sticking to their guns and the media for sabotaging their brilliant ideas.)
But for those not adverse to evidence, the message is that intemperance is not a winning message, even within the conservative movement. George Will today aptly sums up: “Gingrich’s unsurprising descent into sinister radicalism — intimidation of courts — is redundant evidence that he is not merely the least conservative candidate, he is thoroughly anti-conservative.” The same could be said of Cain and Ron Paul, and their enablers in some corners of the conservative media.
It’s all together fitting that as I was writing this post, word should come about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s solution to the payroll tax cut snafu. Has there ever been a more skilled conservative practitioner of the art of the possible than he? (And of course he is the target of the unhinged rightwing blogosphere, which labels all deals as sell-outs and all deal-makers as traitors to the conservative cause.)
Perhaps even Republicans are exhausted by and vaguely disgusted with the perpetual call to arms and the disdain for half-a-loaf politics. They want Obama gone, but they didn’t sign up for a revolution, let alone a poorly conceived one. If they are exhausted and vaguely disgusted, and the determined but prudent Republican voters have their way, the GOP might win the White House in 2012 and come up with an attainable agenda. If not, the Republicans can nominate Gingrich or Paul and learn the hard way what American voters believe.