The Last Days of the GOP

On Saturday, Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava suspended her bid in the special election, citing a lack of funds. John Batchelor on the ugly food fight for a New York House seat and why the cynical celebrity endorsements of Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, and the Club for Growth will hurt the GOP.

The news arrived this morning like the report of a mugging that the Republican Party choice for the 23rd, the sturdy, dull, dutiful Dede Scozzafava, was quitting the campaign for Congress and releasing her supporters without a recommendation. Scozzafava’s late decision, with less than 66 hours until the polls open, hints at backstairs deals, whispered pay-offs, promises from Albany, all of which is likely untrue and romantic rubbish.

Scozzafava leaves the race and returns to her New York Assembly seat as a Republican. Not a Club for Growth libertarian "Too Big to Fail!" Republican; not a Tea Party “Mad as Hell!” Republican; not a Fox News or talk radio "We report!" Republican. Just a Republican like me and a few others who pay mind to the fact that the party comes from a philosophy that is tolerant, obedient, respectful, curious, generous, kind, liberty-loving, and not much in fashion just now.

“No one pretends that the celebrity endorsements of novice Doug Hoffman have much to do with the people of the hardscrabble North Country of the (NY) 23rd. The district could be South Waziristan, and the game would be played just as cynically.”

What happens to the 23rd? The Democratic Party announced last eve it is sending in Vice President Joe Biden to campaign for Democratic candidate Bill Owen. The Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele overnight endorsed the “business person” Doug Hoffman. The two big dogs, the Republican right-wing and the Obama administration’s executive, look to be throwing in cash, muscle, sparkle, and ground troops. There is still no good evidence that the cunning Club for Growth cares a tent peg for the North Country, and this seems appropriate. Whatever the 23rd was, it’s a surrogate battlefield now, fought over by the lords and ladies of cynicism from long before there was a burden of party faithfulness and grace. Ronald Reagan called it the 11th Amendment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," but that was then, when the party could win 49 states, and this is now, when the party can't win a rotten borough without dry-gulching, and maybe not even then.

The most melodramatic turn in the fairy tale of “conservative financial expert” Doug Hoffman rising up on the shoulders of Republican celebrities such as Fred Thompson, Steve Forbes, and Dick Armey to contest the special election in the 23rd New York Congressional district against the regular Republican incumbent is that this is not a simple story about winning on Tuesday. No, this is a story about the sneaky takeover of the shabby GOP remnant by the most arrogant creatures in American politics, the Club for Growth and their fair-weather companions, the hungry Republican zombies.

All together, these potentates constitute a right-wing nihilism made up of charming or churlish older males who come down from their gated neighborhoods in Olympus now and again to preach their giddy “I’ve got mine!” libertarian cant to the meek of the Earth and threaten mayhem against the Republican Party if it does not obey a Busby Berkeley kick-line of billionaire cranks. Before the concoction of the Club for Growth, a right-wing political group that advocates limited government and lower taxes and invented the "RINO Watch" list, in the last moments of the Clinton presidency, it was possible to ignore the carping of the rich and insufferable. Yet since the toxins of the Bush presidency rendered the party a taxidermist’s exhibit in the North and West–anywhere outside of the Confederacy or the Mormon Tabernacle—the Club for Growth crowd has learned to enjoy a sadistic sport—harassing anyone in the GOP who does not kiss the hem of His Rt. Hon. Tax Cut or who has fresh thoughts outside of a looped reel of Life with Father.

No one pretends that the celebrity endorsements of novice Doug Hoffman have much to do with the people of the hardscrabble North Country of the 23rd. The district could be South Waziristan, and the game would be played just as cynically. Gamely aging hambone Fred Thompson’s stirring ad for Hoffman uses a script so shopworn it could have been lifted from 1994 or even 1934, disdaining “big government, high taxes, broken promises,” and boosting the saucer-eyed, slow-tongued Hoffman as “not a career politician” but a “principled conservative” who will “go home when the job is done.” Perhaps no one told Thompson that the mention of “go home” introduces the uncomfortable fact that Hoffman does not live in the district he aims to represent. Nor does Thompson, a defeated presidential candidate, seem aware of the irony that he has yet to “go home.”

Fred Thompson is a virtuous pitchman compared to the hard evidence of the Republican fringe’s bloody-minded whimsy in the 23rd in the form of a dirty TV trick paid for by a Club for Growth billionaire out of Arkansas, the octogenarian bond house scion Jackson Stephens. A Stephens-financed creation called “Common Sense for America” has poured a six-figure buy into the district’s penurious media market to run a 30-second TV ad that appears to be an endorsement of the Republican Party’s nominee, the hapless New York State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava. Branding Scozzafava as the “progressive choice,” the announcer lists the candidate’s three socially liberal positions of pro-choice, pro-union, pro-gay rights. The ad does not mention Doug Hoffman or the Democratic candidate Bill Owen, so it achieves a new type of mischief, a plush push ad. More interesting is the fact that Jackson Stephens, a major benefactor of the Club for Growth, is a veteran political sniper who can still be heard giggling over his contributions to the Swift Boat riddling of John Kerry’s war record in 2004.

The Club for Growth’s own ad for Hoffman is dreary and vague, spanking Bill Owen as a liberal lawyer, ignoring Dede Scozzafava like a wallflower, and boosting the Ichabod Crane figure of Doug Hoffman as a “fiscally conservative business person.” For weeks, the lone significant fact has been that the Club for Growth is writing big checks for advertising and campaigning in order to marshal the kind of volunteers that only greenbacks and influence peddling can rent, such as pro-life ground troops and plenty of pranksters to wave Hoffman signs behind Dede Scozzafava during her pouty YouTube events.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is pre-selling her book, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is selling his obscure presidential candidacy, leaped late into the parade for Hoffman with no interest whatsoever in the candidate or the cause. Palin and Pawlenty look to be needy creatures controlled by their appetites for headlines and hooey and seem out of their depth here, like puppies on the Adirondack Northway. Former New York Governor George Pataki’s late-in-the-day endorsement of Hoffman against his own predilection for Scozzafava (reportedly she was Pataki’s posse’s pick to start with, a hard-slogging minority assemblywoman) is not explicable except that, in the end, most successful politicians learn to walk upright without a spine.

The New York 23rd remains a cautionary tale about the Club for Growth and its snooty deviousness during the last days of the GOP. The national polls show a Republican Party withered to just 20 percent of respondents, and now there is a possibility of single digits before someone turns off the creepy movie, I, Zombie. The talk radio choir and their Fox News pantomimes have seized on the Hoffman boom as a demonstration of the potential strength of the Tea Party conservatives. Rush Limbaugh has called Dede Scozzafava a “pretender” and an “extreme liberal Republican” who “might as well be a Democrat.” Limbaugh has twisted himself and logic into explaining how Hoffman is not a third-party candidate in order to fend off the chilling possibility that the Republican Taliban is slouching to a new low and into a third-party cave.

Limbaugh is also hectored by his celebrity rival Newt Gingrich, who alone among the zombie Republicans has presented himself on TV as supporting Scozzafava as “adequately conservative.” Gingrich appears tormented on Fox when he argues that dumping the party nominee for a hireling of the Club for Growth is “not a good precedent”–an observation that might have come to Gingrich long ago when he first set himself up as leader of the right-wing purge of the GOP.

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What’s the worst that can happen? From the national vantage point, a Hoffman win would demonstrate no more than the sabotage potential of outsider money in a special election. Owen still may win in the fractured low turnout that’s expected, and certainly the Democrats look well-positioned to grab yet another blue seat in the Empire State next year. For the remains of the Republican Party, Hoffman’s instant success would feed the fantasy that the party only performs credibly when it is guided by intolerance, inheritance, cynicism, and nihilism.

The enthusiasms of the New York 23rd will swiftly fade as the Republican right-wing rallies for next year’s Apocalypse-lite mid-term elections, though the footnote may read that this special election was a marker when the party of Ike, Nixon, Ford, and the Bushes began its autumnal stroll into the oblivion of a bootless cult.

John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.