When traditional Republicans tell their tea party wing that they have to negotiate with Democrats, the radicals’ frequent response is: No, they don’t. One side has to win. But before that fistfight at the edge of the falls can take place, one side has to win within the Republican Party. Civil wars are not pretty.
The tea party movement has become the dead bad-luck bird hanging around the GOP establishment’s neck. Its anger-fueled energy has forced moderate Republicans off ballots in places where moderates tend to win. It has burdened otherwise centrist Republicans with radical positions that don’t go well with a general electorate. The Grand Old Party is being taken over by an ideological fringe with unclear motives, a loose grasp on reality and little interest in actually governing.
The most recent victim is Ohio Republican Steven LaTourette, who says that he’s had it after 18 years in the House. The uncompromising partisanship drove him out. “Anybody that doesn’t understand that in a split government, you’ve got to find a common-ground way out of it, it’s not going to be your way or the highway, is nuts,” he said.
But suppose the right wing is nuts. Or suppose it isn’t nuts but doesn’t quite understand that pushing the United States to the brink of default, as it did last summer, is bad for the world, the United States and even itself. Or perhaps the radicals think that grown-ups somewhere will attend to the details while they play.
The right wing so badgered Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe that the Republican moderate — and shoo-in for re-election — has decided to leave the Senate. Now the party may lose her Senate seat to a Democrat. In Indiana, longtime Republican statesman Sen. Richard Lugar lost the primary to Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite. That seat is now up in the air as Mourdock and Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly battle it out. Donnelly has turned his opponent’s tea party ties into a campaign issue.
Poor Mitt Romney is unable to pick sides — among fellow Republicans, that is. He says one thing in swing state Colorado, another in usually Republican Indiana. His socially moderate record as governor of Massachusetts would play well with most independents, who will ultimately decide the election. But he can’t go there for fear of losing a right wing that does not like him.
Speaking of Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown is now running neck and neck with Democrat Elizabeth Warren. He’s done this in a generally liberal state by talking up his independent stands and how he wants to work with Democrats. But suppose he’s re-elected and his fellow Republicans won’t work with him, a likelihood, given the increasing demonization of moderates within the party.
And suppose — a real consideration for Massachusetts voters — Brown becomes a neutered outcast, while his re-election sends control of the closely divided Senate to the right-wingers. Do centrists in Massachusetts or anywhere else want tea party activist Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, controlling the powerful Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee?
And with the pragmatic Republican establishment under ideological attack, its moderates may no longer feel free to be themselves. Snowe voted to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the right opposed. But with the Maine tea party later breathing down her neck, she only voted “present” during a filibuster of the appointee to run the bureau, the unobjectionable Richard Cordray, former attorney general of Ohio.
One’s rooting for traditional Republicans to retake control of the asylum and restore a normal brand of politics. That would be very good for the country, a not-small consideration. The only side winning so far is the Democrats’.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org