Over the past two presidential election cycles the Republican Party has undergone a lot of intra-party strife. A landslide loss to an out-of-nowhere candidate named Barack Obama in 2008 and another crushing defeat in 2012 led to a lot of soul-searching turned navel-gazing.
The defeats sparked a debate amongst Republicans who couldn’t figure out whether they were losing because their candidates were too conservative or weren’t conservative enough. Inevitably, proponents of the latter argument, names like Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson, proved to be the louder constituency.
“The people that sat home,” Limbaugh told Fox News, “were mostly white Republican voters” who were “dissatisfied with the Republican Party’s rejection of conservatism.”
“Our conservatism is not negotiable with the ebbs and flows of electoral politics,” wrote Red State’s Erickson. “We will continue to fight the left, but we will also continue to clean up the right. . .. I have no intention of giving up the fight.”
I don’t bring those arguments up to suggest that they’re wrong. Principled conservatism is absolutely a winning message if the message is offered in a way that is inclusive and is delivered by the right messenger. Nevertheless, liberal pundits foamed at the mouth at this hand-delivered opportunity to portray an intra-party war between the “establishment” and the “extreme” wing of the party.
“If you look at the collection of candidates for president, if you look at what just happened with the debt limit insanity on the Hill, if you examine the inner workings of the Republican caucus in the House, you begin to wonder whether Washington is governable and whether the radicalization of the Republican Party is responsible for this meltdown,” wrote Peter Fenn after the 2010 midterms. “Has the Republican Party become an extreme Nihilist party?”
Most pundits were all too willing to answer that question with a resounding “yes!”
“It’s been a perfect storm for radicalized conservative activists,” Ed Kilgore told POLITICO. “And now, there is no stopping it within the party they have totally conquered.”
The result, writes Michael Cohen, is that “[r]egardless of whether today’s GOP hopefuls believe their increasingly extreme rhetoric, their continued courting of the most radical, and increasingly unpopular, wing of their party increases the likelihood that Republicans will be viewed as too extreme for the presidency.”
Of course, buzzwords like “extreme” and “radical” were usually just attempts at denigrating Republicans that had nothing to do with the candidates themselves. Nevertheless, there seemed to be an honest belief among some honest pundits (if there is such a thing) that the Republican brand was being driven by its outermost elements. The question now becomes, what will those same people think about the transformation happening within the Democratic Party? Molly Ball writes for The Atlantic:
There’s a predictable debate after every election, as the losing partisans cycle through rationalizations for why they lost. This time, it’s the Democrats, who were slaughtered at an unexpected scale on November 4 and now must reckon with what went wrong and how to move forward.
When Republicans went through this two years ago, they were heckled constantly—by both the media and many of their own—about the need to moderate their positions if they ever wanted to win another election. But Democrats today are convinced there’s nothing wrong with what they stand for—if anything, they just need to stand for it louder and more aggressively.
Ball goes on to cite Nick Hanauer, an enormous donor to Democratic causes, who called the party “[f]eckless corporate stooges.” And Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California, who said, “We need to stick to our values. Some would argue that when we don’t do that, we lose.” Or billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who argues, “Not standing up for the things you really believe to protect yourself is not a winning strategy.” And Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who said, “We know we’re right on the issues.”
If those excuses sound familiar it’s because you would have heard much the same lines coming from Republicans following the 2008 and 2012 elections. For their trouble, we Republicans were labeled as “nihilists.” We were told that it wasn’t an issue of Republicans not standing up for their principles or voters being disappointed by the watering down of conservatism. Will the media have the guts to tell Democrats the same thing?