Republican v. Republican
April 19, 2006
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. His next book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, will be released in the spring by John Wiley & Sons.
For years, progressives have gazed across the aisle with envy at their conservative counterparts, admiring their unity, their message discipline, their lack of public infighting and the harmonious chorus that emits from the halls of their movement. Though there have always been as many conservative factions as progressive factions, the wings of the right—the business interests, the religious right, the gun nuts, the anti-government forces—all found ways to work together for their common goals.
But not anymore. As Republicans everywhere back away from a leader with the presidential equivalent of leprosy—low approval ratings and little reasonable prospect for bringing them back up—a passel of GOP senators jockeys for the 2008 nomination, thinking only of their own futures. Meanwhile, the coalition’s factions grow discontented with the limited fruits of one-party rule and worry about the potential waning of their influence. The post-Bush era in conservative politics is already here, and it isn’t pretty. But while the factions vie for supremacy, they find their feet stuck in the tar of their own corruption.
No one individual is more responsible for the conservative unity of the past few years than Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who has spent decades building and riding herd on what he calls the “leave-us-alone coalition.” But Norquist, it turns out, was knee-deep in the corrupt schemes of his old friend Jack Abramoff. Among other things, Norquist served as a money launderer between Abramoff and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed in a fight pitting one casino-owning Indian tribe against another. Abramoff had his Indian clients donate to ATR, and Norquist in turn passed the money to the Alabama Christian Coalition, which was fighting a casino plan with Reed’s help. Of course, Norquist took his own cut—“I need to give Grover something for helping, so the first transfer will be a bit lighter,” Abramoff wrote in an email to Reed. Displaying a characteristic shamelessness, Norquist recently filed a trademark application on the phrase “K Street Project.” Sponsorship opportunities no doubt abound—“This indictment was brought to you by the K Street Project – it’s corruptastic!”
You can bet that conservatives will be a little more reluctant in the near future to publicly join hands with Norquist. But it hardly stops with him—corruption is the termite colony eating away at the foundations of conservative unity. As the veins of that corruption spread their way through every outpost of the movement, they leave a crippling dissension in their wake.
The most high-profile casualty of the GOP corruption problem, of course, is former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. When the “DeLay rule” allowing him to maintain his leadership post even while under indictment proved too embarrassing for even House Republicans to stomach, DeLay saw that he was unlikely to ever get the full measure of his power back, and so decided to alight from what may be a sinking ship.
The only question to be resolved in DeLay’s upcoming trial is whether he stopped just short of breaking the law in his efforts to expand his majority, or if he stepped over that line. Either way, it was DeLay’s ethically bankrupt hardball tactics that yielded results, and that brought him down. The effects of his departure on Republican unity will be those that come with failure. When DeLay was in charge, Republican bills got passed and everybody got their taste. His combination of goodies distributed and disloyalty punished without mercy kept the House moving ever rightward.
Where Norquist was the organizer, DeLay was the powertrain of the movement, a true unifying figure. There was no facet of the conservative coalition, even those contradicting each other, in which he did not claim membership. NRA honoree? Check. Enemy of pointy-headed government bureaucrats, complete with comparisons to Nazis? Check (the former exterminator compared the EPA to the Gestapo). Apocalyptic Christian faith? Check. Attacks on the independence of the judiciary? Check. Shameless whore for corporate interests? Double-check. A few in the movement might have held their nose a bit, knowing as they did his excesses, but DeLay was like the Jack Nicholson character in "A Few Good Men"—they wanted him on that wall shaking down those contributors, they needed him on that wall gerrymandering those districts. But now he’s gone, and few on the right could believe that John Boehner will bring home the bacon in quite the same way.
It will take more than a few indictments and resignations to cleanse the right wing—it’s not like corruption crawled out of the primordial muck of the Republican establishment some time in the last year or two. Members in good standing with the movement have been on the take for some time. But there’s a difference between being dirty and getting caught, and once people start to sing, lots of others get nervous.
Take a look at the New Hampshire phone-jamming case, in which Republican operatives arranged to sabotage their opponents’ get-out-the-vote efforts by overloading, and thus shutting down, the lines of Democratic phone banks on Election Day 2002. We’ve recently learned that in the three-day period during which this felony was in process, the main criminal, the Republican Party’s man in New England, James Tobin, made no fewer than two dozen phone calls to the White House political shop run by Ken Mehlman, the current chairman of the party. The party said it is “preposterous” to think that anyone in the White House had anything to do with the scheme, but in a selfless act of charity, they did pay for Tobin’s unsuccessful defense, to the tune of around $3 million (two of Tobin’s co-conspirators pled guilty). And just to tie everything up in a neat bow, the New Hampshire GOP received contributions that year from two Indian tribes taking a sudden interest in New Hampshire politics. They were represented by—you guessed it—Jack Abramoff.
And now, conservatives are being divided on the hot-button issue of the moment, immigration. While President Bush offers a corporate-friendly guest-worker plan, the nativist right grabs their pitchforks to demonize immigrants. A few will no doubt ride resentment against what Bill O’Reilly called “the browning of America” to re-election. But just as California Republicans found out in 1994 with Proposition 187, anti-immigrant sentiment may buy you a bit of short-term political gain, but only at a crippling long-term cost. Karl Rove’s dream of cementing a permanent Republican majority by bringing Hispanics to the GOP may be already dead.
Bush himself was caught between the right’s factions in deciding which way to go on immigration, and as he always does, he came down on the side of the corporate interests. In earlier times (and with the help of enforcers like DeLay), he would have been able to convince everyone in his party to line up behind him and keep their grumbling to themselves. But those days are over. Just when they need unity the most, conservatives are jockeying for advantage and stabbing each other in the back. It’s a sight to behold.