When the John Birchers had to be kicked out of the Republican Party, William F. Buckley Jr. effectively excommunicated them from the GOP. When the “smoking gun” Watergate tape came out, it was the late Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) who urged Richard Nixon to resign. And when Pat Buchannan’s views could no longer be called anything but anti-Semitic, it was Buckley who called him out.
If the GOP has one big problem now it is that there is no Goldwater, no Buckley to tell Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his ilk that enough is enough. The Republicans interested in governance are now participants in the political scrum. The biggest of the conservative magazines, whose editors should know better, are too timid. They poke and prod here and there, but really stand up to the destructive right wing? No. They fear a full throttle debunking would put at risk their place in the conservative cosmos. They mistakenly believe that their role is to rebuke only liberals.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page or a conservative eminence like George Will or Charles Krauthammer can call the tune of charlatans, but the Cruz crowd dismisses even them as pawns in the Great GOP Sell-out. They are thought leaders, but, by definition, influence only those who prize rationality. These days that is but one faction of the conservative movement.
Former GOP presidents prefer to stay completely off the political stage, and even if they wanted to weigh in the Cruz cult would pay them no heed.
There is no single governor, no party senior statesman to say, “It is intolerable to impugn the motives of those who fought long and hard against the liberal welfare state. Mr. Cruz, you are not helping; you are hurting. Please sit down and learn for a few years.”
We live in a time of highly fractionalized politics and equally fractured media. The small universe of right-wing talk radio is now further divided between the Cruz sycophants and the Cruz skeptics. The politics of the right becomes akin to university politics — bitter and small-minded with small spoils at stake. And the architecture that encompasses Cruz, talk radio, Heritage Action and the rest can sustain itself –in fact does better — when the party loses. It is not obvious how or even if the GOP gets back on track.
So there are a few ways this might pan out.
The conservative readership/viewership perhaps will tire of the angry-man resentment and decide it would actually like to win elections outside of Texas and Alabama. They stop listening, watching, financially supporting and encouraging the antics. The practitioners of screechy, self-defeating politics dry up and fade from the scene. We should be so lucky.
Alternatively, some conservative emerges from the pack, a young face or an older one, to grab the faithful by the collar and talk reality. The enemies are not the guys who have voted 47 times against Obamacare. He or she becomes the un-Cruz, just as Ronald Reagan became the un-stereotypical leader of the GOP (happy not angry, inclusive not divisive) and leads the party back from the wilderness. A new ethos and new tone to conservative politics, as far from Cruz as he is from Reagan, can take hold.
Or maybe there is no antidote to the right-wing machine. The party fractures, the GOP nominees become more and more intolerable to statewide and national electorates. We go through an era as we did from 1933 through 1952 when there was always a Democrat in the White House. (Recall the GOP didn’t have a House majority for over 40 years.) And that’s the way national politics goes for a while. Republicans may win at local and state levels, but become a virtual permanent minority except for (and maybe not even including) the gerrymandered House.
The saying goes that we get the government we deserve. The same is true of political parties. Republicans collectively have to decide what they want to be and what role they want to play in the next few decades. They can be participants in a majority party — eager and capable of governing, optimistic and inclusive — or they can be the party run by Heritage Action/Ted Cruz. But they can’t be both.