Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dawn of the Pre-Fab Pols?

"I think this is a referendum on a lot of what's been going on in the country, which is moving radically to the left."
--Sean Hannity (2 Nov., 2009)

"This is where conservative Americans are drawing the line. New York-23. This is where we are fighting, this is where we will take a stand against both the liberal wing of the Republican Party and Obama and the Democrat [sic] party."
--Rush Limbaugh (3 Nov., 2009)

The battle over New York's 23rd congressional district easily made for the top sideshow of this off-off-year election season. It's a very strong Republican district, but it's a moderate Republican one, and when DeDe Scozzafava, a moderate Republican, was chosen as the party candidate, the ideological jihadists that have come to dominate the American right drew their long knives and went for the kill. The teabaggers, Fox news, and right-wing talk radio moved in. Scozzafava was angrily denounced as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), a "liberal," a "Democrat-lite" candidate--not conservative enough, and completely unacceptable because of it. The righties chose, as their alternative champion, Doug Hoffman, a bookish, clueless, and extremely conservative candidate of the state's Conservative party, and threw their full and considerable weight behind making him the next congressman from NY23. As Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and other establishment elements of the Republican party saw the disaster that was in the making and moved in to advise against it, the Hoffman-ites elevated the importance of the contest to a referendum on the future and the very soul of the conservative movement. Scozzafava, demonized and low on funds, withdrew from the race, and endorsed the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens. Last week, on election day, Owens destroyed Hoffman, becoming the first Democrat to represent the region in congress since 1857.

No, 1857 is not a misprint. And the district has been in Republican hands since 1871.

The conservatives pimping Hoffman were right about his candidacy being significant, perhaps even of major significance; they just completely missed the mark on why. Hoffman didn't even live in the district he sought to represent--he hadn't lived there in nearly a decade. While refusing to speak in anything more than vague generalities about national issues, he demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge of the issues of local concern he would have to address as a member of congress if elected.[1] He ducked the candidates' debate, and mostly stuck to "campaigning" via appearances in national right-wing media outlets. Unable to raise money in "his" district, he had to depend, for funding, on his own personal wealth, and on massive donations from the conservative forces backing his candidacy, all of them outside both his district and the state. And they spent a bloody fortune (final figures won't be available until the next filing, but just one of Hoffman's benefactors--the Club For Growth--ponied up in excess of $1 million).

All of this points to Hoffman's real significance: he was, like the teabagger "movement," a fiction. A fabrication. A made-up candidate, built from huge injections of right-wing money, free access to a massive propaganda outlet in the form of the right-wing press, and endorsements by such figures as teabagger darling Sarah Palin and teabagger inventor Dick Armey (who took his FreedomWorks astroturf outfit to the district to stump for Hoffman). He was put together like a dummy corporation in the Bahamas and wheeled out to read his lines. He was astroturf.

Eric Boehlert has a column, over at Media Matters today, that posits the notion of Hoffman as a "media candidate," a creation of right-wing media. The contribution of the right-wing media to creating Hoffman is indisputable, but I think Boehlert focuses too narrowly on it to the exclusion of everything else I've just been outlining.

The teabagger "movement" has been waging ideological jihad against Republicans, and that's what Hoffman was created to do, so much so that the conservative elements who backed him declared his loss a moral "victory." The reason the party backed a moderate Republican in NY23, of course, is because NY23 is a moderate Republican district, and the party establishment didn't think a hardcore conservative could win it (a notion that now has the election results to support it). It's certainly not representative of the Republicans' standard operating procedure, particularly in recent years. Reading through the fever swamp that is the right-wing blogosphere, though, the portrait of the Republican party offered by the purists is one of an entrenched, overly moderate, even "liberal" party establishment that throws its support behind like-minded candidates, rather than conservatives. The purists are furious over this. They want the party to move radically to the right, and adopt an unwavering purist line, unattenuated by pragmatic considerations.

The narrative they offer, of course, bears no resemblance to reality. Where, after all, is this wave of "moderates" and "liberals" in the Republican party? You certainly don't find them in congress. The Obama's stupid "stimulus" plan got the votes of a grand total of 2 Senate Republicans. One (Arlen Specter), was then driven out of the party by the purists. The other (Olympia Snowe) became the sole Republican in congress, to date, to sign on to any iteration of health-care reform at any stage of the process (and even then, she said she was only doing it to keep her hands in the process).

So where are they? I read and sometimes participate in a conservative site called "The Next Right." A few days ago, I asked that question of the many teabagger jihadists there. None of them had good answers. Some threw out names like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, even George W. Bush!

Yes, George W. Bush, who enjoyed the fanatical devotion of the American right throughout his term--probably the most popular president among conservatives in the history of polling. The ABC/Washington Post poll asked respondents in January, as Bush was leaving office, to offer an overall rating of his administration: A whopping 82% of conservative Republicans rated him a success; 53% "strongly." If Bush was anything other than a devout conservative, it would come as a complete shock to the American right.

John McCain was, of course, crushed in last year's presidential election in large part because he was a Bush clone. He had a lifetime rating of 82.3% from the ACU (American Conservative Union),[2] and, as Congressional Quarterly pointed out, McCain voted for Bush's position 90% of the time during Bush's first 7 1/2 years in office. In the year leading into the election, he was with Bush 95% of the time, making him Bush's top ally in the congress--in the first half of 2008, he had voted with Bush 100% of the time.

It wasn't a surprise to me that Lindsey Graham's name was thrown out. He became a target of the purists earlier this year, as teabaggers appeared at his "townhall meeting" to heckle him, denigrate his conservatism, ask him when he planned to switch parties. In the real world, of course, Graham is even more conservative than McCain. The reactionary Family Research Council granted him their "True Blue Award," Americans for Tax Reform has named him "Hero of the Taxpayer," Graham has an 89.79% rating by the American Conservative Union, and is persistently ranked among their "Senate Standouts" (made up of the 20 most conservative Senators). He has more "honors" from similar right-wing orgs than can be easily counted. The notion that Lindsey Graham is some sort of RINO or moderate or "liberal" or anything other than a very rock-solidly conservative Republican says nothing about Graham and everything about the reactionary idiots who make such claims.

And these were the examples I was given. Even if we ignored reality and pretended as if every one of them was legitimate, does such a small number really justify the ludicrous narrative we've been given by the purists? Is it worth the amount of rage we've seen, or the remarkable degree of it, or the extraordinary expenditure in time, effort, and money advanced to combat it? I can see no case for it, even if we ignored the fact that these are all extremely conservative politicians, and if we aren't willing to ignore that--as there's absolutely no reason to do so--there's certainly no case for it.

What really places the teabagger narrative in a realm of fantasy that, in any other context, would earn its purveyors a slot in a mental health facility, is the fact that, in the real world, the Republican party, which has been driving out its moderates for years, now, is, today, as far to the right as it has been in the lifetime of anyone reading these words. One of the simple souls who threw out McCain as an example of a mushy moderate Republican inadvertently demonstrated this when he pointed out that John McCain's 82.3% conservative rating from the ACU only made him the 39th most conservative Senator by the ACU's estimation. McCain only disagreed with the ACU--hardcore conservatives--17.7% of the time, and even that only puts him as high as #39.

The purists present themselves as great knights on white horses waging the Good Fight against an implacable Dragon, that being Republican heresy. The astroturfers behind the teabagger contingent know better, but seem to have concluded that whatever can drag the Republicans even further to the right will serve their ends. They've had great success, this year, in manufacturing a "movement." Doug Hoffman was an experiment, an attempt to do the same thing with a candidate. He failed, but I doubt he's going to be the last. The astroturfers have already told their minions his loss was a "moral victory." As one who doesn't want the right to rule, I can only hope they continue with such "victories," but as one who sees the need for an effective, credible opposition, I must concede this has been an unfortunate turn of events.



[1]Asked questions about these subjects by the editorial board of the local Waterton Daily Times, Hoffman, lost at sea, became quite frustrated--"flustered and ill-at-ease"--and angrily complained that he should have been given such questions beforehand.

[2] The ACU ratings aren't comprehensive--like most orgs that offer such ratings, it cherry-picks issues in order to put its favored politicians on top. Still, their lifetime ratings do represent a far broader cross-section of a politicians' career than the ravings of the clown who wanted to make a fight of this--like any purist, he picked out three or four examples of non-conservative "heresies"--several of which weren't non-conservative heresies--and rested his entire case for the apostasy of pols like McCain on them.


Kevin Kelley said...

Well said. I feel that I am one of those moderate republicans that have been inched out of the party. I had been told by the purists that I am some progressive liberal who tries to undermine conservatives by claiming to be one. My friend, who is a Glenn Beck lover but a social liberal was even told by one purist that "the party doesn't need him".

What these purists fail to realize is that the party does need moderates. The ultra-right would always vote for the GOP, but the moderates are what wins elections. Considering NY-23, The GOP had that one in the bag, but the Hoffman siphoned off too many votes. Scozzafava was still doing better then Hoffman, but the right wing propaganda machine made Hoffman appear to be the populist candidate, and look where that got him... but beware, the Hoffman camp is awakening again, with reports that absentee ballots are closing the gap between him and Owens, and if they somehow put him ahead, they will come back demanding to be the true victor of the district (and as could be expected in a situation like that, they will subsequently ignore the opposing constituents in the district and legislate more like the Taliban).

classicliberal2 said...

The Republicans could function for a while as a purist party, but as one, they'd be a permanent minority party, whose loudest and most influential voices are reactionary kooks who actively drive away everyone else.

Which sort of gets to why this is such a bad idea, because such a course is unsustainable. They'd go from permanent minority to third-party status to complete irrelevancy in very short order.

Throughout all of this, they'd be no real opposition to the Democrats at all, and that's not good for America or the world. I don't want the right to rule, but I do want them to be credible, because it prevents the other side from falling into laziness and decadence. I have enough problems with the two-party state in the U.S. I certainly don't want a one-party state.

There's absolutely no chance absentee ballots could put Hoffman over the top, or even on par with Owens. Hoffman only received something like 44% of the vote on election day. I don't know how voluminous the absentee vote is in NY23, but it's usually only a tiny fraction of the total vote--one or two percent. If that holds true for NY23, it wouldn't matter if Hoffman captured 100% of it. It still wouldn't be enough to even put him in striking range.

Anonymous said...

We were talking about ideology in my class on globalization the other day, noting how emotional right wing ideology vastly over-estimates its own appeal (this happens on the left too). Also interesting is the strange bedfellows right wing ideology creates. Jihadism and Osama Bin Laden represents that kind of extremism, as do folk like Glenn Beck and the teabagger movement.

Yes, this undermines the GOP and my prediction would be that after Obama overcomes early problems with sinking popularity (also experienced by Reagan and Clinton), the Democrats will be in a strong position in 2012 (and probably only moderate loses in 2010, maybe none in the Senate). But if things get really bad in the economy or there are more terror attacks, it is possible for the fringe to grab power. My specialty is German politics, and I just finished teaching a course on Germany between the wars. So I'm maybe over-sensitive to that possibility. But we live in strange times.