Political reporter Matt Bai’s 7,000-word cover story for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, “‘ESTABLISHMENT REPUBLICANS LOOK AT THESE GUYS AND SAY, "YOU’RE NUTS!"' – The G.O.P. elite tries to take its party back,” was not as slanted as that headline (mining a convenient quote that just happens to link the GOP with the insult "nuts"), but it was dotted with condescension and "far-right" labels, as well as a comparison of the GOP rhetoric to something out of a "survivalist's convention."
Bai also forwarded a large amount of doomsaying for a party that’s doing pretty well of late, if the 2010 election and current polls are to be believed. The cover headline underlined that unearned idea of a party in desperate straits: “Does Anyone Have A Grip On The G.O.P.?”
It wasn’t that long ago that Republican moneymen and operatives in Washington were moping around K Street like Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Wood, lamenting their party’s extremist image and casting about for a candidate with a chance of beating Barack Obama in 2012. Citing what he called the “near self-immolation” of House Republicans during the debt-ceiling fiasco, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, worried in early August that a “large number of Republican primary voters, and even more independent general-election voters, will be wary of supporting a Republican candidate in 2012 if the party looks as if it’s in the grip of an infantile form of conservatism.”
Given such fast-deteriorating conditions, many Republican veterans have come around to the view that they aren’t really going to need the perfect presidential candidate, and perhaps not even a notably good one. With Chris Christie having taken himself out of the running -- again -- earlier this month, the field of candidates now appears to be pretty much set, and none of them are likely to inspire any reimaginings of Mount Rushmore. But maybe all the moment requires is someone who can pass as a broadly acceptable alternative -- a candidate who doesn’t project the Tea Party extremism of Michele Bachmann or the radical isolationism of Ron Paul. “If we have a Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney battle for the nomination, it’s a little hard to say, ‘Ooh, the party has really gone off the rails,’ ” Kristol told me just after Perry entered the race, a development that essentially ended Bachmann’s brief ascent. Establishment Republicans may prefer Romney to Perry, but their assumption is that either man can be counted on to steer the party back toward the broad center next fall, effectively disarming the Tea Party mutiny.
After all, in September, not long after I saw Reed, far-right Republicans staged another successful mutiny in the House, temporarily blocking a spending bill that Boehner had championed. Meanwhile, the “supercommittee” of lawmakers created by the debt-ceiling legislation is supposed to find more budget cuts by the end of the year, which means Washington faces another very public showdown. The deficit debate in Congress could easily dominate the campaign season, complicating the party’s election-year message and making it hard for any nominee to unify pragmatic insiders and Tea Party outsiders.
(The last Times reference to a “far-left Democrat” came in June 2000, according to the Nexis database.)
It’s worth pointing out that when Republicans express concern about the anti-government militancy in their midst, it has a ring of serious denial. After all, generations of Republican candidates have now echoed the theme of Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” And a progression of ideological uprisings inside the party -- the Reagan revolutionaries, Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork brigades, Newt Gingrich’s band of guerrilla lawmakers and now the Tea Partiers -- have only pushed the anti-Washington argument closer to its illogical extreme. Thus could a smiling Michele Bachmann stand on a debate stage last month and declare that no one should pay the federal government a penny of taxes, for anything -- a statement that didn’t even draw a follow-up question from the panel of Fox News journalists arrayed before her.
Bai employed an unsavory comparison to survivalists.
To hear Daniels talk about the party’s challenge was to get some clarity on why establishment Republicans have been so dissatisfied with the candidates they actually have. What they want is what you might call a “channeler” -- someone, like a Reagan or a Clinton, who won’t simply give voice to populist fury but who might channel it in a way that makes it palatable to a wider swath of voters, someone who can take the call for austerity in Washington and make it sound more like a high-minded reform movement (in the tradition of a Robert La Follette or even a Ross Perot) than like something you would expect to hear at a survivalists’ convention. They’re looking for a candidate who has the requisite charisma and the towering conservative credentials to persuade these new activists that the party has to be -- and sound -- pragmatic.