12.05.12 6:00 PM ET
Buckley, Birchers, Tea and the Fringe
To toil at National Review is to know what it’s like to read “Buckley must be spinning in his grave!” at the beginning of umpteen letters, e-mails, blog posts, and tweets from less-than-gruntled critics supremely assured of their originality. The beauty of this evergreen — and its cheap presumptions about a great man — is that it can be wielded with equal convenience by trolls of every political persuasion and in response to any number of detected heresies.
But, with the whiff of bigotry and malice that so many smell in popular politics since the tranquil days when the last Bush effigies were burned, it has increasingly taken a single form, repeated over and over: viz., that WFB would be aghast that the conservative movement, along with the Republican party, has allied itself with the kooks and cranks of the Tea Party, especially since it was Buckley who so decisively expelled the Birchers from the movement, thereby saving it, in the early 1960s.
The latest entry in this genre comes from inside the family, as it were, in the person of former RNC research director David Welch. Welch writes on the New York Times op-ed page (because, where else?) that the GOP needs a similar house-cleaning now:
Say what you will about the tenuous comparison between Tea and Birch, but here's a moment from January of this year that deserves entry in the historical canon of political cowardice:
Watch Santorum's face in this video. He knows the woman is an idiot and a fool, but instead of politely saying, "you're wrong," he merely moves to talking points. And his excuse?
"It's not my responsibility as a candidate to correct everybody who makes a statement that I disagree with," Santorum said. "There are lots of people who get up and say stuff in a town hall meeting and say things that I don't agree with, but I don't think it's my obligation, nor should it be your feeling that it's my obligation to correct somebody who says something that I don't agree with."
In fact, it was the Senator's responsibility to correct that woman -- and everyone who would have the temerity to stand up in a town hall and call the president an "avowed Muslim" who is not the legitimate president of the United States.
Foster may think the Birch-Tea comparison is crap, and that's a fine thing to believe, but he hasn't answered the core critique: very influential figures in both movements peddle in conspiracy theories that deny the legitimacy of the President of the United States. Whether Birch and communism, Taitz and the President's citizenship status, the fringe holds shockingly stupid and dangerous beliefs.
Instead of being actively marginalized, the fringe was not only tolerated, but at times openly embraced by figures who should have known better. That's an inexcusable lack of leadership from our political elites.
Yet it's a pipe dream to hope for a trancendent figure to help the GOP cleanse itself of the fringe. Welch is searching for something that doesn't exist in his op-ed. Whatever "Establishment" there was in the GOP died with the decline of the establishment press. Today's conservative movement is splintered, fragmented, and without any real sense of institutional forces to serve as moderating influences in our political sphere.
And that's certainly not for the better, but (to paraphrase Grover) searching for establishment figures to replace Bill Buckley is like finding the magical fusionist unicorn who can perfectly unite the libertarian, theocon, and hawk wings of the GOP. Not going to happen, pal.
Democratic politics are the accumulation of a great many small decisions and actions that will accrue to what seems a big picture. There will be no grand figure to lead our party from the wilderness, but a lot of small actions (say, Santorum telling off that crazy lady) can help us make the movement and our country better off. We don't need a Buckley. We need the Rick Santorums of the world to grow a pair.
* I've Buckley trolled many a time.