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The Grand Old Tea Party | The Nation

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The Grand Old Tea Party

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Grand Old Tea Party

Read the paper trail. Barry Goldwater in Conscience of a Conservative (1960): “I have little interest in streamlining government…for I mean to reduce its size…. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” The “Leninist strategy” for undoing Social Security, published in The Cato Journal in 1983. Grover Norquist in 2001: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years,” to “get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Why wouldn’t conservatives shut down the government? They hate it. They’ve just been biding their time, waiting for the opportunity.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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One mistake of the establishments past and present has been to fail to take seriously the apocalypticism of conservative insurgencies: They couldn’t possibly mean it, could they? So the policy wizards in the Obama White House build a Rube Goldberg healthcare law that relies on states to expand Medicaid and create healthcare exchanges, and then are utterly blindsided when red-state legislatures and governors decline. Haven’t they heard the news that conservatives don’t like it when people benefit from government? Likewise, the White House offered up cuts to government programs popular with both the left (social programs) and right (the military) in the last round of budget negotiations, confident that Republicans would never let the sequester actually come to pass—blindsided again.

Another mistake has been to ignore the organizational capacity of reactionaries. In 1976, an anonymous staffer of Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign, startled at having lost the Texas primary to Ronald Reagan in a landslide and dumbfounded that Republican turnout in some cities in various states had doubled since the last election, circulated a fascinating memo. “Turnout is very high,” the staffer wrote. “The people coming to vote or to the caucuses are unknown and have not been involved in the Republican political system before; they vote overwhelmingly for Reagan.”

The memo continued, “A clear pattern is emerging; these turnouts now do not seem accidental but appear to be the result of skillful organization by extreme right-wing political groups in the Reagan camp.” They were “operating almost invisibly through direct mail and voter turnout efforts conducted by…a loose coalition of right-wing political committees. Many of these committees are set up by or in conjunction with Richard Vigurie’s [sic] political direct mail firm. Others have been funded either by a wealthy sponsor (Joe Coors) or by a special interest group like the NRA…. They have been raising money for many years, and have extensive mailing lists made up of people interested in these issues.” The groups included the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the Committee for the Survival for a Free Congress, the Heritage Foundation, the American Conservative Union, the NRA’s “Campaign 1976” and anti-abortion groups. “Many of the members of these groups are not loyal Republicans or Democrats. They are alienated from both parties because neither takes a sympathetic view toward their issues. Particularly those groups controlled by Vigurie [sic] hold a ‘rule or ruin’ attitude toward the GOP.” 

The memo also noted the Reagan supporters’ novel methodology: “They can target an effective direct mail campaign based on response to fund raising mail using outrageous literature designed to motivate people interested in a right wing cause…. The mailing lists can be turned into telephone lists and door-to-door canvassing lists and used to turn the vote out…. In caucus states where few people attend the county caucuses such an effort can control the state conventions.”

It was an accurate assessment—but a conspicuously belated one. These forces had been organizing assiduously from the time Goldwater was defeated in 1964. Viguerie had been raising millions for conservative candidates and causes ever since going into business for himself in 1965. The memo was written in May 1976. A couple of months earlier, the Reagan campaign had been so weak it couldn’t even afford fuel for the candidate’s charter plane; the Republican establishment was begging him to quit. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Reagan came back from the dead with a resounding victory in North Carolina. 

That triumph amounted to a veritable hinge in US political history: under the noses of the press, Senator Jesse Helms had all but kicked the official Reagan campaign committee out of the state, instead running the election via his own National Congressional Club, a Viguerie-style organizing machine that soon dwarfed the budgets of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties. Patiently  combing the attics and back rooms of county courthouses for months, volunteers headed by a young Helms staffer pulled together a roll of 80,000 names of Republican voters—the first such list in the state. Those 80,000 voters were bombarded with direct mail depicting the far-left horrors afoot in the Ford White House (“Do you plan to continue to lead our country to full socialism?” a questioner asked the president at one of his rallies). 

Outsiders at the time failed to understand how Reagan won North Carolina and revived his campaign. Somehow, the details of these far-right organizing coups only seem to emerge later—no one on the other side ever sees them coming in the moment. Case in point: in early October, The New York Times ran a story titled “A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning,” which described a secret meeting in which the plotters, including Ed Meese, conspired to exploit the House’s power of the purse to threaten a government shutdown unless Obamacare was defunded. “To many Americans,” the Times continued, “the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010—waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.”

That last clause is so telling. Why wasn’t it “commonly known”? It’s not 1976 anymore. We can’t be flies on the wall in the rooms in which right-wing cabals plot—but we surely should know by now that any advance for liberalism will be subject to a vigorous effort to undo it. In the bowels of the White House, within the corridors of the Democratic National Committee, the AFL-CIO, what strategic counter-plotting was in effect? It’s OK if “to many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere.” Democratic professionals in Washington, on the other hand, should have seen it coming. Perhaps, though, their vision is too occluded by the example set by President Obama, who continues to see Republicans as responsible negotiating partners despite all evidence to the contrary.

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