The yahoos have fired on Fort Sumter, and the civil war has begun.
Back in the old days it was enough for Republicans to attack centrist Democrats like Clinton, so that no Blue Dog could command the political center and marginalize the GOP. But now the GOP wingnuts are going much further, purging their own ranks like the Khmer Rouge did, and the KGB, and the Jacobins of the French Revolution. In their zeal to win the civil war within the GOP, they even attack perfectly conservative Republicans who make the mistake of incurring their wrath. This political pressure could end up pushing BOTH political parties to the right.
The Republican wingnuts have spent eight years on a “RINO hunt”, driving moderates like Chafee, Jeffords and Specter out of the party (they would have nailed Colin Powell if he hadn’t retired); Snowe is trying to fix the GOP from with in, but people like her and Collins are being targeted also. The wingnuts have openly expressed contempt for moderates, they actually cheered when some moderate Republicans lost in 2008, and they are setting up primary challenges and even general election challenges against Republicans with insufficient zeal for extremism. They specifically targeted Scozzafava in New York because she was pro-choice.
They are not stopping at moderate Republicans, either. Even perfectly-reliable conservatives have felt their wrath. They slammed Bush and McCain for betraying conservatism. They attacked rock-ribbed conservatives like John Cornyn and Jon Huntsman, they targeted Lindsey Graham (the guy who impeached Clinton!) for preaching pragmatism, and “treasonous” Snowe and Bob Bennet for daring to even talk to Democrats on health care, Gingrich for endorsing Scozzafava up in New York, the GOP Congressional leadership for not being extreme enough, and Charlie Crist (could he switch parties?). If Reagan, who reached out to Democrats and labor, were still around, they would probably target him too.
They are pushing policies which antagonize entire sectors of the electorate: blacks, Hispanics, women, gays; they warned that Republican Senators who didn’t block the Sotomayor nomination would be driven out of the party just like Specter.
Usually the issues which drive third-party efforts are swallowed up by one of the larger parties; by that logic, the issues raised by the wingnut teabaggers would be taken over by the GOP. But the wingnuts have already insisted that they have no intention of letting that happen. So the wingnuts are not going to just make peace with the GOP and fade away into the mist. They fully intend to rule a political movement, and if it ain’t the GOP, they clearly will create their own.
The Republican leaders are pragmatists who like winning: Gingrich, Steele and Boehner endorsed Scozzafava, McConnell is willing to tack to the left to get a win, and Steele is trying in his own goofy way to reach out to blacks. The leadership knows they have enough problems already: support for their party outside the South is down to 7-10 percent and dropping, and they are now being attacked from both left and right. Their major voices are aimed at each other: Savage fights with Beck, Limbaugh fights with Steele, Dobbs fights with John Stossel. And they now face the dangerous choice of either running to the left and rejecting the wingnuts, who form the party base and control the party’s direction, or running to the right and rejecting the centrists, moderates and independents who elect all our presidents.
Logic dictates that they go left: one strategist even advocates a radical restructuring of the presidential primary process, to prevent the extremely likely event of a far-right wingnut like Huckabee or Palin winning the nomination but losing the general election badly. But for the most part, the GOP leaders not only refuse to accept that America has rejected the doctrines of Reagan (now that Reagan is no longer around to sell it and the GOP simply has no one left remotely like him), but they are also terrified of antagonizing the wingnut movement they created. They are beginning to realize that their control over the wingnuts has now passed into the hands of people like Rush Limbaugh, who can slap around guys like Michael Steele whenever he wants. The party leaders no longer even have the courage to point out the potential dangers of going so far to the right.
So, to the right they will go. Steele admitted that they want moderate votes but not moderate voices; Huckabee has rejected moderation, and Pawlenty is belatedly singing from the wingnut sheet music also. The congressional Republicans will tack to the right to forestall challenges from the wingnuts in the 2010 elections, and people like Snowe have little room to maneuver on the public option. This will cost them the voters they need for general elections – independents, blacks, women, Latinos. And moderate Republicans.
Obama signaled long ago how he was going to play this. He is has taken centrist positions on Bush’s policies, tax cuts, FISA, the hunt for bin Laden, free-market economics, merit pay for teachers, nuclear power, faith-based programs, government waste, policy on Israel and Iran, gun control, the death penalty, evangelicals, the Patriot Act, and Guantanamo. This suggests that he could also swing to the right on health reform: if he has a chance to sign a health bill that is actually good, but also philosophically centrist, he has a better chance of scooping up most of America’s centrists and independents, destroying the GOP, and then going back and getting more health reform later. In such a context, the notion of Snowe’s trigger plan doesn’t seem so crazy, as long as the worst policy flaws are fixed therein. Obama could also alternate between tacking left and right on cap-and-trade (which is already splitting the Democratic caucus anyway), gay issues, and immigration. He can also reach out to moderates and give Snowe and Collins a chance to get their voices heard. And of course continue to slap down all the lies when Rush and the wingnut gang spew them, because the media are afraid to do it. His main risk is avoiding the prospect of going too far to the right, so as to keep the far-left wing of the party from splitting off and Nadering him like Nader did to Gore: if the left gets screwed on health care, Obama will need to throw them some bones, and fast, to ensure both loyalty and turnout in 2010.
So the GOP will continue to slide to the right, away from the sentiments of most American voters, and then Obama will also slide to the right, and park in the center, where all political battles are won. Already, the gap between the GOP wingnut faithful and the rest of the country was so wide that McCain was unable to bridge the gap with his vice-presidential choice: his staff told him that the party would reject a moderate selection like Ridge, forcing him to go with Palin. But now the gap between the GOP and the rest of America will be Grand-Canyon-gigantic.
If the Republican leaders do try to resist the slide to the right, the wingnuts could fight back by taking the Hoffman-Scozzafava squabble national, now that the New York adventure has shown them that it’s possible: forming a national Conservative party, building on Armey’s teabagger infrastructure, siphoning off the GOP’s campaign troops and money, and presumably trying to find some national leaders who don’t look as insane as their rank and file. In 2010 watch for them to begin organizing in the spring, praying for bad unemployment performance, and working to ensure that the congressional seats in the red states go to true-blue wingnuts, not the hated moderates.
In 2012 the Republicans face at least two major dangers. First, if the wingnuts dominate the Republican primaries and nominate one of their own like Huckabee; moderate Republicans point out, in vain, that nominating said wingnut will hurt them in the electoral college, particularly since Obama quite obviously never did all the crazy things the wingnuts warned about in 2008, but the wingnuts ignore them and proceed with their Huckabee/Pawlenty ticket or whatever, and lose badly. Secondly, if, for example, the Republican primary voters don’t pick Palin, which is very likely, then Palin, faced with the choice of a third-party run or political oblivion, could Go Rogue and lead the Conservative Party, or some new face could run on the Conservative ticket. That would lead to a debacle of biblical proportions in the electoral college – Obama might lose Utah and that’s about it.
And the Republicans face more danger down the road. Right now the Obama factor is driving every category of wingnut crazy, but as the years go by, people will realize that the Obama Marxist Terrorist Apocalypse isn’t really coming as promised, and then in seven years the Democrats will nominate a couple of white guys, blunting one of the GOP’s most potent weapons, racist fear – all while the oldest, nuttiest wingnuts age off the system and reduce the GOP demographic even further. The Republicans will try to emerge beyond their far-right southern base and reach out to moderates in the north and west, only to find that Obama has rounded them up already (that said, however, the Scozzafava-Hoffman-Owen race happened a long way from Dixie).