Tuesday, October 28, 2008

McCain Must do More to Distance Himself from Extremists

October 14th 2008

During the raucous 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, Barry Goldwater's conservative defenders rained boos on moderate New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and cheered wildly when Goldwater declared that, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Back then, the far-right John Birch Society plagued the conservative movement, and reporters and ordinary Americans alike questioned whether conservative leaders were pragmatic, racially tolerant and forward-looking.

Leaders from William F. Buckley to Ronald Reagan struggled to bring the movement into the American mainstream. The task wasn't easy.

First in the pages of National Review, and later on the stump while campaigning for governor of California, Buckley and Reagan led others in denouncing and distancing themselves from Birch Society President Robert Welch, who argued that Dwight Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy" and believed that Communists were on the verge of toppling the United States government. They also drummed out of their ranks the likes of racist leader Gerald L. K. Smith and race-baiters in the Ku Klux Klan.

Conspiracy theorists and hate-mongers found themselves with few if any allies in the mainstream of conservatism - an essential first step to leading the right-wing out of the political wilderness and into the most dominant political force of the past four decades.

As we speak, this is all at risk. Nearly a half-century after Goldwater's 1964 implosion, the McCain campaign has launched an increasingly shrill attack on Barack Obama. Sarah Palin has been especially adept at whipping crowds into fits of anger at Obama.

As numerous media reports have revealed, the mood at the rallies has descended into a kind of chaos and ugliness otherwise uncommon at events for major political figures. While some of these stories might have taken on a life of their own, it seems fair to say that the conservative movement has increasingly flirted with political extremism in the past two weeks.

According to the reports, McCain-Palin supporters hurled racist epithets at an African-American soundman, jeered and sneered at reporters, and screamed "treason" and "kill him" (perhaps about Obama, perhaps about Ayers) in response to Palin's assertions that Obama has been "palling around with terrorists" like former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers.

Just last week, two different speakers (one was in his police uniform) warmed up crowds for Palin by asking, how would you feel if "Barack Hussein Obama" was actually elected president? A video taken by an Obama supporter outside another rally in Ohio shows somebody flashing an "Obama-Osama" sign and several rally-goers denouncing Obama as a "terrorist."

If we could have expected any Republican to look unkindly on these kinds of smears, it's John McCain.

Earlier this year, McCain actually denounced the use of Obama's middle name. And lest we forget, in 2000 he gave a major speech denouncing then-rival George W. Bush's alliances with people he deemed "agents of intolerance."

Yes, it's true - McCain made a first stab at tamping down the 2008 rage at a Minnesota rally on Friday. But it's a far cry from a concerted effort.

The anger and misinformation are still swirling, and the destructive rumors, innuendo and smears continue to flourish on the Internet and in some corners of the conservative media. Time magazine reports that the Virginia GOP chair Jeffrey Frederick told Virginia McCain volunteers that Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden "both have friends that bombed the Pentagon."

Why won't McCain and Palin go further to distance themselves from such smears?

To be sure, conservatism has long struggled with the issue of how to handle extremists in its ranks, and the McCain-Palin ticket isn't the only one to slime opponents as somehow alien, foreign-sounding and unpatriotic.

Reagan defended the concept of "states' rights" at a 1980 rally in Mississippi in a town where three civil rights workers had been murdered. President George H. W. Bush's campaign attacked Michael Dukakis by, among other things, touring an American flag factory. Bill Clinton got tagged as a '60s radical and worse. Some of President George W. Bush's supporters complained that Sen. John Kerry lied about his war record and sounded French.

But the anti-Obama rhetoric has a different cast. Infused with the incendiary issues of race, religion, terrorism and conspiratorial thinking, it is reminiscent of the kind of far-right hyperventilating that movement leaders such as Buckley once sought to quell in order to make conservatives more viable politically.

If conservatism's elder statesmen - or perhaps its rising stars - don't see the danger and turn the ship back toward the mainstream, the damage to the movement could be profound.

To their credit, several smart conservative commentators are beginning to recognize that they have a problem within their own ranks. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum argued in The National Review online: "Those who press this Ayers line of attack are whipping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that is going to be very hard to calm after November. Is it really wise to send conservatives into opposition in a mood of disdain and fury for a man who may well be the next president of the United States, incidentally the first African-American President?"

The struggle for the future of conservatism and the Republican Party has begun. It pits the ghosts of Reagan and Buckley against the more extremist language and political attacks of conservatism's newest standard-bearer, Sarah Palin.

If Palin triumphs, the conservative movement could again find itself heading back into the wilderness of American politics.

Dallek, a former speechwriter for Richard Gephardt, teaches at the University of California Washington Program and writes a monthly column on history and politics for Politico.