Not a week after Scott Brown’s stunning Senate victory, the overheated praise is dissolving into accusations that he’s a Republican in Name Only. John Avlon on the out-of-control RINO-hunting impulse. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
From savior to heretic in one week—well, that was fast.
Some conservative activists are already taking aim at Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown by calling him a RINO, or Republican in Name Only.
With Martha Coakley out of the way, they’ve belatedly discovered that Brown is (gasp) pro-choice. It’s an accusation that was always hiding in plain sight. A glance at his campaign Web site revealed that Brown believed “this decision should ultimately be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor.” It’s not that he was ever going to be on NARAL’s Christmas card list; he opposes partial-birth abortion and supports parental notification. But like a libertarian, or a centrist Republican, he believes that government shouldn’t ultimately make this most difficult personal decision for a woman outside reasonable restrictions.
Brown is “absolutely a RINO,” Wiley Drake said. “He’s learned how to talk Republican-ese, but he’s just not a staunch conservative.”
A closer look at Brown’s record reveals other positions that could be considered conservative apostasy. While he personally supports only civil unions, as President Obama does, he considers Massachusetts’ court decision on gay marriage a settled matter for the state. In an editorial board meeting with the Boston Herald, Brown said he would have voted to confirm Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He voted for then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s health-care plan, with its individual mandate. He’s described his political philosophy in classic centrist terms: “fiscally conservative and socially conscious.” That’s perfectly in tune with the Massachusetts independents, who put him in office, voting for him by a 61 percent margin.
But Brown’s political philosophy is precisely the problem for the self-appointed sentinels of conservatism. Alan Keyes was predictably quick to condemn the senator-elect from his wingnut pulpit on WorldNetDaily, writing: “He is a typical RINO (Republican-in-name-only) who…embraces the substance of Obama’s socialist agenda, but ‘opposes’ Obama by criticizing his implementation of socialism… [he] agrees in principle with the Democrats on the fundamental issues of justice and morality but employs the deceptive rhetoric of personal opinion to evade the questions of public law and policy they involve. Such issues include child-murder and other abrogations of the unalienable right to life, as well as the rejection of the God-endowed rights of the natural family.”
Keyes is joined by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who called Brown’s position on abortion “confused,” while Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry was typically less subtle, saying: “We need to replace Scott Brown as soon as we can with a true defender of babies’ lives, not a phony who supports their murder.”
• Scott Brown on Juggling the Senate and His Daughter’s Career • John Avlon: Red Vs. Blue Is Over But secondhand statements sometimes lose their punch in a laundry-list sort of way—they can be vulnerable to accusations of taking words out of context. So I decided to call Pastor Wiley Drake, Alan Keyes’ VP nominee in 2008 on the America’s Independent Party ticket, which garnered 41,000 votes nationwide. Many first heard of Drake last summer, when the former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention announced that he was praying for the death of “the usurper that is in the White House…B. Hussein Obama.”
I’d ventured out to Drake’s parish in Orange County, California, to profile him for my new book, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, but hadn’t spoken with him since we spent two hours talking in the pews of his church a few months back. The grandfather of five was happy, as always, to share his views on Scott Brown and the rest of those he deems Republicans in Name Only.
“He’s absolutely a RINO,” Drake said. “He’s learned how to talk Republican-ese, but he’s just not a staunch conservative… Had he been more conservative, he would have beaten [Coakley] even worse. People in Massachusetts are sick of liberals, Chappaquiddick and Ted Kennedy, and that kind of garbage… If he’d been more principled and more behind the litmus test—the Constitution and abortion—he would have won by a landslide.”
Who else would Drake put in the RINO-hunting pen? “Well, McCain—you look up the word RINO, his picture is there… Mitt Romney is a RINO. He’s gonna do what it takes to get votes. He’s not a principled politician—he’s wishy-washy around whatever subject. He just wets his finger and put it in the air.”
Mike Huckabee is a better sort, but in the world according to Drake, “he gets a little mushy around the edges.” Sarah Palin is the only one of the 2012 GOP circle, in Drake’s view, who avoids the label: “No, I don’t think Palin is a RINO—but I do think she’s naïve.” (At our original meeting, he said, “I think she would make a good president. I just don’t know whether America’s ready for a woman president or not. “)
But Drake’s harshest judgments were reserved for Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
“Michael Steele is a RINO—he’s running on the race card and the big-tent card,” he said. “He wants to be the ethnic group in the GOP that says that Republicans aren’t all white radical right wing.”
I stopped Drake there to make sure I’d heard him right. Indeed I had. “He wants to be supportive of the president because he’s proud that we’ve elected a black to be president of the United States,” he said. “And first of all, he’s not black, according to the black culture—B. Hussein Obama had a white mother. The leader of the GOP wants us to do whatever is necessary to win and reach across the aisle, to prostitute themselves, and that’s the problem with the Republican Party today.”
Wiley represents the outer reaches of wingnut-dom, but his views are echoed in debates across the netroots echo chamber.
Even before the special election last week, the 9/12 Project meet-up group posted a “Warning: Scott Brown Is a Socialist RINO” on its site. On FreeRepublic, one poster dismissed Brown by describing him as “Another Rino that supports abortion…stupid.” Even Scott Brown’s netroots defenders couldn’t help but get caught up in the crazy. Witness this poster on the SayAnything blog: “We can’t stop Obama’s fascist takeover of our country by being idiotic ideologues.”
At a time when the RNC is debating purity pledges and when grassroots conservative groups like RightPrinciples.com denounce Republican Party founding fathers like Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as RINOs and “progressive plutocrats,” the RINO-hunting impulse is getting out of control. It has been indulged by the party leadership it now seeks to consume.
Scott Brown’s victory offers Republicans a window in how to win again outside the party’s base. But when overheated praise like the Drudge Report’s breathless Election Night headline “Will He Run for President?” quickly dissolves into bitter intra-party inquisitions, it’s a sign of a deeper instability—a discomfort with representative democracy when it conflicts with ideology.
John Avlon’s new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America will be published soon by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. Advance orders can be placed here. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.