"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. 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), 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.
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.
 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.
An August Gallup poll yielded up an intriguing result: nationally, self-identified conservatives outnumbered self-identified liberals by a margin of 2-to-1, and outnumbered them in all 50 states as well, usually by large margins. This led to much back-slapping in conservative circles in the days and weeks after the poll's release. Right-wing talk radio offered "told you so"s. The conservative blogosphere rubbed its belly with a contented sigh. The Media Research Center whined about the lack of press coverage given the finding. The results played into a well-worn conservative narrative spun over the decades about the U.S. being, at heart, a conservative nation and hyping the results was, it seems, a handy way to bolster morale at a time when conservatives seem to be on the ropes. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't a great deal of attention given to what the poll really meant.
The hard, cold political reality facing the right today--the one that's still there after the poll results, and after all that back-slapping--is that the U.S. isn't a conservative nation. What's more, that conclusion isn't even particularly controversial for anyone who has examined the matter in any detail; for the most part, it isn't even close. Public opinion is more heavily polled in the U.S. than in any other country on earth. On issue after issue, Americans are not only with the liberals but with them overwhelmingly.
A few Google searches offer a glimpse of the polling this year:
--An AP/Roper poll from October showed that 64% of Americans oppose the war in Iraq. 67% told the CBS/New York Times poll in September that the war wasn't even worth fighting. Though conservatives have been utterly opposed to setting a timetable for withdrawal, the public has supported doing so for quite some time. A Newsweek/Princeton poll from April asked about Obama's then-proposed timetable for withdrawal by 2010 and found that 74% said that was either "about right" or wanted to withdraw even sooner.
--On the matter of health care, Americans have favored a single-payer plan, wherein the government provides health insurance for all, by about 60%, a number which has been stable for years. This is well to the left of any of the health care "reform" measures presently being debated in congress.
--66% told the CBS/New York Times poll in June they favored either gay marriage or gay civil unions. More importantly, opposition to such arrangements are centered in older adults (those over 40) and heavily concentrated in the elderly (those over 65)--the younger generations to whom the future belongs have adopted the more liberal views.
--The polling on global warming has shown huge majorities (over 60%) concerned about the problem for the last 11 years (and probably further back--that's the info I was able to track down with a Google search). The number, as measured by Gallup in May, had dropped from the year before (down to 57%), but it has briefly gone down before, and the long-term polling is very clear on the point. The boilerplate conservative position, on the other hand, is, of course, that global warming is either "exaggerated" or an outright hoax (the same Gallup poll showed that 66% of Republicans held to that view).
--A long-running majority of Americans favor abortion rights and have for decades. The Republican party platform position--a blanket ban on abortions without exception--polls at 6%-11%. A CBS/New York Times poll in June asked "in general, do you think the Court's decision [in Roe v. Wade] was a good thing or a bad thing?" 62% said it was a good thing vs. 32% bad. An interesting finding from that same poll is that, while (unsurprisingly) 74% of Democrats said it was a good thing, 40% of Republicans also said it was a good thing vs. 51% bad.
--In January, the ABC/Washington Post poll found that, while 55% of Republicans opposed loosening Bush-era restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, 59% of Americans favored doing so. Support has generally hovered around that level for a few years, now, and a more recent Pew Research Center poll in July found no change--support still at 58%.
And so on. One is hard pressed to find a single major public policy issue on which the liberals don't hold an overwhelming advantage in public sentiment.
Conservatives hold a different kind of advantage though, that of money. Lots and lots of money, which is made available to them because they're the natural allies of the Establishment.
Any liberal movement has to start from nothing or virtually nothing and build itself the hard way, from the ground up. They are grassroots efforts that have virtually nothing in the way of resources, are generally marginalized, often feared and despised, even criminalized and have to fight like hell, often for decades, to get anything at all. Look at the movement for extending marriage benefits to homosexuals. Twenty-five years ago, it was the pipe-dream of a hated micro-minority and probably wouldn't have polled out of single digits. Today, it's not only a majority position, it's an overwhelmingly majority one.
Conservatives, on the other hand, rarely have to build anything. They find millions of dollars available to them on the first day they launch a "movement." Money from powerful interests looking to maintain their prerogatives or looking to keep the general public fighting amongst itself over hot-button wedge issues in order to keep it from challenging those prerogatives. If one is a conservative, that must feel great but that money is as dirty as an old carburetor, and conscientious conservatives--if the breed isn't entirely extinct by now--haven't really come to terms with that. Their vastly superior monetary resources have meant conservatives are grossly overrepresented in just about every major institution. It also seems to generate a significant disconnect between the conservatives and the general public. Because they can call upon such vast resources at the drop of a hat, the conservatives are insulated from the concerns of the very real people they claim to represent, rather than being born of those concerns. Because they can so easily appear to have a significant advantage by virtue of their greater visibility, they believe they do have that significant an advantage. This gives them a warm security blanket beneath which they can proclaim America The Conservative.
It just isn't there in the public opinion data though. Self-identification as "conservative" outscores self-identification as "liberal" only because the omnipresent American conservative machine has spent decades of time and a kingdom's fortune demonizing the word "liberal." Most people aren't ideologues or policy-wonks and don't give a great deal of thought to what catch-all word may most precisely describe their politics. "Liberal" is, for them, only a word they perceive as having acquired some sort of negative taint in political discourse. They shy away from applying it to themselves. But for all that conservative money and noise and all the advantages it appears to give the right, the people are still with the liberals--and with them overwhelmingly--on the issues.
Just ask them.