The most important fact about contemporary American politics is that the Republican party has become an extremist organization, in which what used to be the fringe is now the base.
The most important problem facing political journalists and pundits is whether to report that fact as fact, or to remain even-handed as between (in Churchill’s phrase) the fire-fighters and the fire.
The biggest disappointment of the three and a half years since the 2008 election is the extent to which journalists (both reporters and pundits) have chosen a false ideal of even-handedness over the obligation to Say The Thing That Is rather than treating it as on an equal footing with The Thing That Is Not. Barack Obama’s “sweet reason” strategy had two chances to work: some Republicans could have chosen to be reasonable, or – given that the GOP went as far off the rails as it has – the reporters could have called them on it. Neither happened, and the result was the 2010 election outcome.
So I’m somewhat cheered by the evidence that journalists are waking up and smelling the crazy. But I have to admit that I didn’t expect David Brooks to help lead the charge. Why, the man who seemed to embody the reborn spirit of David Broder sounds positively reality-based as he rages at the spinelessness of his fellow conservatives:
The wingers call their Republican opponents RINOs, or Republican In Name Only. But thatâ€™s an insult to the rhino, which is a tough, noble beast. If RINOs were like rhinos, theyâ€™d stand up to those who seek to destroy them. Actually, what the country needs is some real Rhino Republicans. But the professional Republicans never do that. Theyâ€™re not rhinos. Theyâ€™re Opossum Republicans. They tremble for a few seconds then slip into an involuntary coma every time theyâ€™re challenged aggressively from the right.
Without real opposition, the wingers go from strength to strength. Under their influence, weâ€™ve had a primary campaign that isnâ€™t really an argument about issues. Itâ€™s a series of heresy trials in which each of the candidates accuse the others of tribal impurity. Two kinds of candidates emerge from this process: first, those who are forceful but outside the mainstream; second, those who started out mainstream but look weak and unprincipled because they have spent so much time genuflecting before those who despise them.
Just as the Terri Schiavo affair helped push some people across the aisle in the mid-2000s, the anti-contraception jihad, along with Santorum’s virtual call to religious warfare, is doing so today.