Barack Obama‘s most devilish political move since the 2008 campaign was to appoint a Republican congressman from upstate New York as secretary of the Army. This week’s election to fill that vacant seat has set off nothing less than a riotous and bloody national G.O.P. civil war. No matter what the results in that race on Tuesday, the Republicans are the sure losers. This could be a gift that keeps on giving to the Democrats through 2010, and perhaps beyond.
The governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia were once billed as the marquee events of Election Day 2009 — a referendum on the Obama presidency and a possible Republican “comeback.” But preposterous as it sounds, the real action migrated to New York’s 23rd, a rural Congressional district abutting Canada. That this pastoral setting could become a G.O.P. killing field, attracting an all-star cast of combatants led by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, William Kristol and Newt Gingrich, is a premise out of a Depression-era screwball comedy. But such farces have become the norm for the conservative movement — whether the participants are dressing up in full “tea party” drag or not.
The battle for upstate New York confirms just how swiftly the right has devolved into a wacky, paranoid cult that is as eager to eat its own as it is to destroy Obama. The movement’s undisputed leaders, Palin and Beck, neither of whom has what Palin once called the “actual responsibilities” of public office, would gladly see the Republican Party die on the cross of right-wing ideological purity. Over the short term, at least, their wish could come true.
The New York fracas was ignited by the routine decision of 11 local Republican county chairmen to anoint an assemblywoman, Dede Scozzafava, as their party’s nominee for the vacant seat. The 23rd is in safe Republican territory that hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress in decades. And Scozzafava is a mainstream conservative by New York standards; one statistical measure found her voting record slightly to the right of her fellow Republicans in the Assembly. But she has occasionally strayed from orthodoxy on social issues (abortion, same-sex marriage) and endorsed the Obama stimulus package. To the right’s Jacobins, that’s cause to send her to the guillotine.
Sure enough, bloggers trashed her as a radical leftist and ditched her for a third-party candidate they deem a “true” conservative, an accountant and businessman named Doug Hoffman. When Gingrich dared endorse Scozzafava anyway — as did other party potentates like John Boehner and Michael Steele — he too was slimed. Mocking Newt’s presumed 2012 presidential ambitions, Michelle Malkin imagined him appointing Al Sharpton as secretary of education and Al Gore as “global warming czar.” She’s quite the wit.
The wrecking crew of Kristol, Fred Thompson, Dick Armey, Michele Bachmann, The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the government-bashing Club for Growth all joined the Hoffman putsch. Then came the big enchilada: a Hoffman endorsement from Palin on her Facebook page. Such is Palin’s clout that Steve Forbes, Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor (and presidential aspirant), promptly fell over one another in their Pavlovian rush to second her motion. They were joined by far-flung Republican congressmen from Kansas, Georgia, Oklahoma and California, not to mention a gaggle of state legislators from Colorado. On Fox News, Beck took up the charge, insinuating that Hoffman’s Republican opponent might be a fan of Karl Marx. Some $3 million has now been dumped into this race by outside groups.
Who exactly is the third-party maverick arousing such ardor? Hoffman doesn’t even live in the district. When he appeared before the editorial board of The Watertown Daily Times 10 days ago, he “showed no grasp” of local issues, as the subsequent editorial put it. Hoffman complained that he should have received the questions in advance — blissfully unaware that they had been asked by the paper in an editorial on the morning of his visit.
Last week it turned out that Hoffman’s prime attribute to the radical right — as a take-no-prisoners fiscal conservative — was bogus. In fact he’s on the finance committee of a hospital that happily helped itself to a $479,000 federal earmark. Then again, without the federal government largess that the tea party crowd so deplores, New York’s 23rd would be a Siberia of joblessness. The biggest local employer is the pork-dependent military base, Fort Drum.
The right’s embrace of Hoffman is a double-barreled suicide for the G.O.P. On Saturday, the battered Scozzafava suspended her campaign, further scrambling the race. It’s still conceivable that the Democratic candidate could capture a seat the Republicans should own. But it’s even better for Democrats if Hoffman wins. Punch-drunk with this triumph, the right will redouble its support of primary challengers to 2010 G.O.P. candidates they regard as impure. That’s bad news for even a Republican as conservative as Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose primary opponent in the Texas governor’s race, the incumbent Rick Perry, floated the possibility of secession at a teabagger rally in April and hastily endorsed Hoffman on Thursday.
The more rightists who win G.O.P. primaries, the greater the Democrats’ prospects next year. But the electoral math is less interesting than the pathology of this movement. Its antecedent can be found in the early 1960s, when radical-right hysteria carried some of the same traits we’re seeing now: seething rage, fear of minorities, maniacal contempt for government, and a Freudian tendency to mimic the excesses of political foes. Writing in 1964 of that era’s equivalent to today’s tea party cells, the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that the John Birch Society’s “ruthless prosecution” of its own ideological war often mimicked the tactics of its Communist enemies.
The same could be said of Beck, Palin and their acolytes. Though they constantly liken the president to various totalitarian dictators, it is they who are re-enacting Stalinism in full purge mode. They drove out Arlen Specter, and now want to “melt Snowe” (as the blog Red State put it). The same Republicans who once deplored Democrats for refusing to let an anti-abortion dissident, Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, speak at the 1992 Clinton convention now routinely banish any dissenters in their own camp.
These conservatives’ whiny cries of victimization also parrot a tic they once condemned in liberals. After Rush Limbaugh was booted from an ownership group bidding on the St. Louis Rams, he moaned about being done in by the “race card.” What actually did him in, of course, was the free-market American capitalism he claims to champion. Limbaugh didn’t understand that in an increasingly diverse nation, profit-seeking N.F.L. franchises actually want to court black ticket buyers, not drive them away.
This same note of self-martyrdom was sounded in a much-noticed recent column by the former Nixon hand Pat Buchanan. Ol’ Pat sounded like the dispossessed antebellum grandees in “Gone With the Wind” when lamenting the plight of white working-class voters. “America was once their country,” he wrote. “They sense they are losing it. And they are right.”
They are right. That America was lost years ago, and no national political party can thrive if it lives in denial of that truth. The right still may want to believe, as Palin said during the campaign, that Alaska, with its small black and Hispanic populations, is a “microcosm of America.” (New York’s 23rd also has few blacks or Hispanics.) But most Americans like their country’s 21st-century profile.
That changing complexion is part of why the McCain-Palin ticket lost every demographic group by large margins in 2008 except white senior citizens and the dwindling fifth of America that’s still rural. It’s also why the G.O.P. has been in a nosedive since the inauguration, whatever Obama’s ups and downs. In the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, only 17 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans (as opposed to 30 percent for the Democrats, and 44 for independents).
No wonder even the very conservative Republican contenders in the two big gubernatorial contests this week have frantically tried to disguise their own convictions. The candidate in Virginia, Bob McDonnell, is a graduate of Pat Robertson’s university whose career has been devoted to curbing abortion rights, gay civil rights and even birth control. But in this campaign he ditched those issues, disinvited Palin for a campaign appearance, praised Obama’s Nobel Prize, and ran a closing campaign ad trumpeting “Hope.” Chris Christie, McDonnell’s counterpart in New Jersey, posted a campaign video celebrating “Change” in which Obama’s face and most stirring campaign sound bites so dominate you’d think the president had endorsed the Republican over his Democratic opponent, Jon Corzine.
Only in the alternative universe of the far right is Obama a pariah and Palin the great white hope. It’s become a Beltway truism that the White House’s (mild) spat with Fox News is counterproductive because it drives up the network’s numbers. But if curious moderate and independent voters are now tempted to surf there and encounter Beck’s histrionics for the first time, the president’s numbers will benefit as well. To the uninitiated, the tea party crowd comes across like the barflies in “Star Wars.”
There is only one political opponent whom Obama really has to worry about at this moment: Hamid Karzai. It’s Afghanistan and joblessness, not the Stalinists of the right, that have the power to bring this president down.
This column has been updated from the version that appears in print to reflect the fact that Ms. Scozzafava suspended her campaign on Saturday morning.
The New York Times