In the classic Simpsons episode "Sideshow Bob Roberts," the Springfield Republican Party meets to choose a candidate to run against Diamond Joe Quimby, a Democrat, for the mayoralty. The group, which convenes in a scary-looking castle, includes Mr. Burns, Rainier Wolfcastle, Birchibald T. Barlow (a right-wing radio host modeled on Rush Limbaugh), the Blue-Haired Lawyer, and the Rich Texan, as well as Dracula.
Aside from the fact that the Springfield Republican cabal didn't, to my knowledge, include any rabidly intolerant religious fundamentalists, the gathering is reminiscent of the Council for National Policy, described in this article from today's New York Times as "a secretive club whose few hundred members include Dr. James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Liberty University and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Although little known outside the conservative movement, the council has become a pivotal stop for Republican presidential primary hopefuls, including George W. Bush on the eve of his 1999 primary campaign."
The main thrust of the story is that the Council, and its members who constitute much of the leadership among "movement Republicans," are struggling to find a candidate to rally behind for next year's presidential election:
Many of the conservatives who attended the event, held at the beginning of the month at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla., said they were dismayed at the absence of a champion to carry their banner in the next election.
Many conservatives have already declared their hostility to Senator John McCain of Arizona, despite his efforts to make amends for having once denounced Christian conservative leaders as “agents of intolerance,” and to former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, because of his liberal views on abortion and gay rights and his three marriages.
Many were also suspicious of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; the council has been distributing to its members a dossier prepared by a Massachusetts conservative group about liberal elements of his record on abortion, stem cell research and gay rights. (Mr. Romney has worked to convince conservatives that his views have changed.)
And some members of the council have raised doubts about lesser known candidates — Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Representative Duncan Hunter of California, who were invited to Amelia Island to address an elite audience of about 60 of its members, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who spoke to the full council at its previous meeting, in October in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Although each of the three had supporters, many conservatives expressed concerns about whether any of the candidates could unify their movement or raise enough money to overtake the front-runners, several participants in the meetings said.
Yes, 2008 is shaping up to be a tough one for the collection of ideologues and psychopaths that's done so much to give us all the black spot on our history that's been these last six years. McCain and Giuliani are desperate to kiss their asses, but Dobson and Norquist simply won't drop their pants. They have long memories, for one thing: if Dobson had been as prominent in 2000 as he later became, McCain likely would have labeled him (correctly) as an "agent of intolerance," and Norquist has detested McCain at least since the Arizona senator started holding the hearings on Indian Affairs that eventually helped destroy Grover's pals Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed. As for Rudy, I guess they just can't stomach his deviations from orthodoxy on abortion (which I'm sure he'd renounce if he credibly could) and, perhaps even worse, his sympathy for gay rights (about which I have the feeling he's sincere, and stubborn enough to stay with--the one thing I admire about the man). They'd probably like to support Romney, but his own sins against the dogma are too recent for them to shrug off with a straight face.
How about the next tier? Every time I've seen or read something about Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who shares Bill Clinton's home town and working class roots, I've been impressed with his potential as a candidate who could talk the talk of the Dobsonite hate crowd, but do so in a way that isn't as viscerally ugly as when, say, Rick Santorum did it. And Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who was Santorum's political soulmate, seems reliably right-wing enough. But both evidently have their drawbacks for the Council crew, as do the rest of the Republican hopefuls.
A spokesman for Mr. Brownback said he would not comment on the senator’s presentation to the council, citing its rules about strict confidentiality. Several others who attended his speech said he received heavy applause for his emphasis on restricting abortion and amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. But foes of illegal immigration objected to his support for a temporary guest worker program, and some faulted him for touching only briefly on the threat of Islamic terrorists, an increasingly central focus of the council and many social conservative groups since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In an interview, Mr. [Duncan] Hunter, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and a supporter of Mr. Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq, said the need for a strong national defense was the centerpiece of his speech. That defense, he argued, should include cracking down on illegal immigration, building a wall along the Mexican border and renegotiating foreign trade deals to protect American manufacturing. “We are losing the arsenal of the democracy,” he said.
But several people at the council meeting said his stance on trade alienated the business wing of the Republican Party, compounding his substantial fund-raising challenges.
Mr. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister who was the head of the Arkansas Baptist convention before becoming governor, has the advantage of strong personal ties to many council members. Many prominent evangelical Christians consider him a friend, and he has appeared several times as a guest on Dr. Dobson’s popular Christian radio program.
But many conservatives, including several participants in the Amelia Island meeting, said Mr. Huckabee faced resistance from the limited-government, antitax wing of their movement. Some antitax activists fault Mr. Huckabee for presiding over tax and spending increases. (He says the only tax increase resulted from a public referendum.)
In what could prompt the greatest moment of schadenfreude I'll ever know, there seems to be a decent chance that the once-vaunted Republican machine is about to take a wrong turn into 1980s Democratland. An insistence upon ideological purity, as defined by a checklist of issue positions, is a great way to lose elections. The guy hasn't always hated gays? He once allowed a tax hike? He isn't fanatically pro-free trade? WE WILL NOT SUPPORT HIM!
There's an issue of potentially even greater significance here, though. Over the last forty years, the emerging and then dominant Republican coalition of free-market fundamentalists (the small group that provides the money) and social reactionaries (the large group that provides the votes and organizational structure) has persisted because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the core contradiction between those two groups that is in some sense positively admirable. The contradiction is that the same cultural forces the social reactionaries deplore--the trash TV and debased media--make enormous sums of money for the free-market fanatics, and that the negative externalities of their ever-growing profits--the need in almost all families for both parents to work, the erosion of once-assumed benefits like health care and retirement savings, the stagnant or relatively declining wages for most segments of the workforce--place unbearable additional strains on families. To my knowledge, the next time "Focus on the Family" addresses the tilted economic landscape in this country will be the first... but its members are living this problem, and they can't hide from it forever.
To this point, they've been able to obscure this question--to ignore the contradiction--by finding one scapegoat after another, whether it's Muslims or gays or Hollywood celebrities or feminist bloggers. Combined with more money and better political organization, the scapegoating was enough for them to win more elections than not from 1994 through 2004. Last year, though, it started to unravel (with, admittedly, a big assist from the tragic mismanagement of the war and the excessive corruption antics of Tom DeLay's Congress). And as time goes on, this probably will get tougher: successive generations just don't hate and fear gays the way older social reactionaries evidently do, and all sides in the endless war over abortion are feeling fatigue, as the South Dakota votes have shown.
In the end, I can't quite bring myself to believe that the Republicans will dash themselves to bits on the rocks of an ideological purity that the contradiction renders impossible. They just like winning too much. Norquist, a government-hating fanatic who might be the most purely evil political figure of the last forty years, ultimately will leverage whatever he can out of Giuliani or his old enemy McCain in exchange for support, and then the question will be whether the Democrats can push hard enough on the cracks to cause a full-on rupture that will split the money chunk of the party from the reactionaries.