Diarist ptmflbcs at Dailykos alerted me once again to important chapter in the story of the modern Republican Party: the current right-wing primary challenge to Senator Chuck Hagel by Attorney General Jon Bruning. This is something of a Lieberman-Lamont story on the GOP, only in reverse. But the parallels aren't perfect, and illustrate well the differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, as well as how the media treats the two.
Order Taking Republicans
First of all, Chuck Hagel isn't particularly moderate. His voting record was in virtual 'lockstep' with President Bush in 2004. On domestic policy grounds, he is exceptionally loyal. So what is the story here? Obviously, partly it's Iraq. Hagel has been a critic of Bush on Iraq, and even voted against Bush on the supplemental, providing an important margin of victory for the supplemental that Bush then had to veto. While Democratic officials can vote against the party line and even lash out against the base without consequence (Mark Udall did it again today), Republican officials are not given the same latitude. This quote, from Roll Call, on the difference between lobbying the two parties, is illustrative:
"Republican lobbyists are used to walking into an office and just saying, `I'd like you to do this,'" said one Republican operative who regularly lobbies across the aisle. "With Democrats, you really have to hone your arguments, and you really have to sell them on policy."
In other words, Republican officials are order-takers. Hagel is not. He isn't on Iraq, even going so far as to suggest that an impeachment of Bush might be on the table.
GOP Party Elites
The Republican Party establishment is much more receptive to primary challenges from the right than the Democratic Party is from the left. Remember the immense carping about Ned Lamont? The wailings of purges from insiders, the fear of the crazy liberal left? None of that is happening on the right. In fact, despite constant suggestions from the media that the GOP is about to abandon Bush on Iraq, there are four possible challenges against moderate Republicans on the issue of Iraq. Iraq or no Iraq, the authoritarian conservative movement continues apace.
On a local level, you can see this in action. Ned Lamont was a total outsider, a businessman with virtually no history in politics. In 2006, John DeStefano and Dan Malloy, two popular mayors from the two large cities in Connecticut, both declined to run against Lieberman, choosing instead a ridiculous and futile race against the immensely popular Governor, Jodi Rell. They didn't just choose to run against Rell, they entered a primary in order to figure out who would lose to Rell. Only a non-political type would dare challenge Lieberman, even though he is more right-wing on Iraq than all but the most extreme neoconservative Republican. In Nebraska, the situation is reversed. Hagel may in fact have two challengers, a sitting Attorney General named Jon Bruning and former Rep. Hal Daub. Both Nebraska insiders and DC insiders like Dick Cheney don't like Hagel, and are no doubt smiling at the primary challenge.
Here are polling numbers from Jon Bruning, one of Hagel's possible challengers. Bruning is leading Hagel by 47-38, though to be fair these are Bruning's numbers (The Nebraska Dem party has numbers on the race as well). Compare them to Lamont's challenge to Lieberman at a later date in the cycle, where Lamont trailed by 65-19. Certainly much of this is name recognition, but it's very difficult to see all of it as such. Lieberman was simply very popular among Democrats, and Lamont had to make his case forcefully and repeatedly to win. And he was certainly helped by a lot of missteps by Lieberman during the primary campaign.
These are also base voters, which suggests that it's not just the party elites who are receptive to primary challenges. Note also that Lieberman has to be challenged, there had to be a debate before his numbers moved. With Hagel, the base voter in the Republican Party has already decided that he is not loyal to Bush and thus must be removed from office. The reason we can't crack Republican unity is because the elites and the base voter in that party are both convinced that loyalty to Bush are absolutely bedrock values, maybe even part of their identity. Without even having a real argument, GOP voters are willing to ditch a Senator that is with them on 98% of the issues.
Where Is the Media?
With thousands of stories on the Lamont-Lieberman circus in 2006, it's worth noting that there has been basically no reporting on Hagel's precarious position. I did a Google search for 'Chuck Hagel poll' to see if there's any more data on the Bruning challenge, and there are more results on Hagel's possible Presidential run. In fact, Hagel's extreme jeopardy in his home state is more likely to lead to his retirement or Presidential run than a reelection bid in 2008. It's something of a travesty that the GOP rejection of Hagel in Nebraska, both from base voters and party leaders, isn't widely reported. This is a really big deal. The Republican Party isn't going to move away from Bush in 2008 during the primaries at all, because base voters have invested their identity in the President to the exclusion of anything else. How else can you explain an exceptionally loyal voting Senator in Nebraska immediately losing out of the gate to a primary challenger with relatively low name recognition?
There is a narrative that the country is increasingly unhappy with the Iraq War and George W. Bush, and that the GOP is going to move away from both. This narrative started meekly in 2003, but has stepped up in frequency over the years until it's become routine for press reports to say that GOP candidates are 'bashing Bush' on a regular basis, even as anyone watching the GOP debate would note that the level of extremism is the same as it has been for twenty five years.
The rubber hits the road in primary contests and elections. Chuck Hagel is in trouble because he doesn't take orders like a good GOP shill.
Beyond Red and Blue States
These kinds of primary challenges have been around since 1978, when a whole bunch of liberal Republicans were knocked out of power by the New Right direct mail groups. And the power these groups generated, the total takeover of the Republican Party by an extremist and authoritarian movement, is extraordinary. In 2008, we will have seen 30 years of conservative primary challenges. Thirty years. This kind of authoritarian politics is so accepted that the media doesn't even remark on it anymore. Think about it. Chuck Hagel and Dick Cheney are in a bloody brawl, there's a right-wing primary on Iraq where the person in step with the country but out of step with Bush is getting thrashed, and the GOP establishment takes the other side. And there's not really any media discussion about what this means for the country.
But in the most important respect, there is a real debate in Nebraska itself. While it's painful to deal with the immense party discipline this kind of lockstep authoritarian base and establishment engenders, we can assure ourselves that the conservative movement is no longer going to work for the GOP. Though Nebraska is a red state, 57 percent of Nebraskans want a timetable for withdrawal, and only 37% want to give Bush's surge a chance to work. That means that Democrats can make inroads in unusual places like Nebraska, much as they did in Kansas in 2006. This is a map that is being rewritten, because independents are moving into the Democratic column on the war, even in red states.
The country is getting tired of order taking psychotic Republicans that work only for the interests of big business. And while in a normal environment, we'd see the Republican Party respond and shift towards a more moderate stance, the opposite is actually occurring. The party is running primary challenges against those who are in step with the mainstream precisely because they are in step with mainstream dislike of Bush's policies. That's not a winning formula, but it's also an important piece of the public debate that we need to hash out. Just what does it mean that the Republican Party is as extreme as it was in 2006? It's time that an iota of media coverage be devoted to the right-wing primary purges.