A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

Diarist ptmflbcs at Dailykos alerted me once again to important chapter in the story of the modern Republican Party: the current right-wing primary challenge to Senator Chuck Hagel by Attorney General Jon Bruning.  This is something of a Lieberman-Lamont story on the GOP, only in reverse.  But the parallels aren't perfect, and illustrate well the differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, as well as how the media treats the two.

Order Taking Republicans

First of all, Chuck Hagel isn't particularly moderate.  His voting record was in virtual 'lockstep' with President Bush in 2004.  On domestic policy grounds, he is exceptionally loyal.  So what is the story here?  Obviously, partly it's Iraq.  Hagel has been a critic of Bush on Iraq, and even voted against Bush on the supplemental, providing an important margin of victory for the supplemental that Bush then had to veto.  While Democratic officials can vote against the party line and even lash out against the base without consequence (Mark Udall did it again today), Republican officials are not given the same latitude.  This quote, from Roll Call, on the difference between lobbying the two parties, is illustrative:

"Republican lobbyists are used to walking into an office and just saying, `I'd like you to do this,'" said one Republican operative who regularly lobbies across the aisle. "With Democrats, you really have to hone your arguments, and you really have to sell them on policy."

In other words, Republican officials are order-takers.  Hagel is not.  He isn't on Iraq, even going so far as to suggest that an impeachment of Bush might be on the table.

GOP Party Elites

The Republican Party establishment is much more receptive to primary challenges from the right than the Democratic Party is from the left.  Remember the immense carping about Ned Lamont?  The wailings of purges from insiders, the fear of the crazy liberal left?  None of that is happening on the right.  In fact, despite constant suggestions from the media that the GOP is about to abandon Bush on Iraq, there are four possible challenges against moderate Republicans on the issue of Iraq.  Iraq or no Iraq, the authoritarian conservative movement continues apace.

On a local level, you can see this in action.  Ned Lamont was a total outsider, a businessman with virtually no history in politics.  In 2006, John DeStefano and Dan Malloy, two popular mayors from the two large cities in Connecticut, both declined to run against Lieberman, choosing instead a ridiculous and futile race against the immensely popular Governor, Jodi Rell.   They didn't just choose to run against Rell, they entered a primary in order to figure out who would lose to Rell.  Only a non-political type would dare challenge Lieberman, even though he is more right-wing on Iraq than all but the most extreme neoconservative Republican.  In Nebraska, the situation is reversed.  Hagel may in fact have two challengers, a sitting Attorney General named Jon Bruning and former Rep. Hal Daub.  Both Nebraska insiders and DC insiders like Dick Cheney don't like Hagel, and are no doubt smiling at the primary challenge.

GOP Base

Here are polling numbers from Jon Bruning, one of Hagel's possible challengers.  Bruning is leading Hagel by 47-38, though to be fair these are Bruning's numbers (The Nebraska Dem party has numbers on the race as well).  Compare them to Lamont's challenge to Lieberman at a later date in the cycle, where Lamont trailed by 65-19.   Certainly much of this is name recognition, but it's very difficult to see all of it as such.  Lieberman was simply very popular among Democrats, and Lamont had to make his case forcefully and repeatedly to win.  And he was certainly helped by a lot of missteps by Lieberman during the primary campaign.

These are also base voters, which suggests that it's not just the party elites who are receptive to primary challenges.  Note also that Lieberman has to be challenged, there had to be a debate before his numbers moved.  With Hagel, the base voter in the Republican Party has already decided that he is not loyal to Bush and thus must be removed from office.  The reason we can't crack Republican unity is because the elites and the base voter in that party are both convinced that loyalty to Bush are absolutely bedrock values, maybe even part of their identity.  Without even having a real argument, GOP voters are willing to ditch a Senator that is with them on 98% of the issues.

Where Is the Media?

With thousands of stories on the Lamont-Lieberman circus in 2006, it's worth noting that there has been basically no reporting on Hagel's precarious position.  I did a Google search for 'Chuck Hagel poll' to see if there's any more data on the Bruning challenge, and there are more results on Hagel's possible Presidential run.  In fact, Hagel's extreme jeopardy in his home state is more likely to lead to his retirement or Presidential run than a reelection bid in 2008.  It's something of a travesty that the GOP rejection of Hagel in Nebraska, both from base voters and party leaders, isn't widely reported.  This is a really big deal.  The Republican Party isn't going to move away from Bush in 2008 during the primaries at all, because base voters have invested their identity in the President to the exclusion of anything else.  How else can you explain an exceptionally loyal voting Senator in Nebraska immediately losing out of the gate to a primary challenger with relatively low name recognition?  

There is a narrative that the country is increasingly unhappy with the Iraq War and George W. Bush, and that the GOP is going to move away from both.  This narrative started meekly in 2003, but has stepped up in frequency over the years until it's become routine for press reports to say that GOP candidates are 'bashing Bush' on a regular basis, even as anyone watching the GOP debate would note that the level of extremism is the same as it has been for twenty five years.

The rubber hits the road in primary contests and elections.  Chuck Hagel is in trouble because he doesn't take orders like a good GOP shill.

Beyond Red and Blue States

These kinds of primary challenges have been around since 1978, when a whole bunch of liberal Republicans were knocked out of power by the New Right direct mail groups.  And the power these groups generated, the total takeover of the Republican Party by an extremist and authoritarian movement, is extraordinary.  In 2008, we will have seen 30 years of conservative primary challenges.  Thirty years. This kind of authoritarian politics is so accepted that the media doesn't even remark on it anymore.  Think about it.  Chuck Hagel and Dick Cheney are in a bloody brawl, there's a right-wing primary on Iraq where the person in step with the country but out of step with Bush is getting thrashed, and the GOP establishment takes the other side.  And there's not really any media discussion about what this means for the country.

But in the most important respect, there is a real debate in Nebraska itself.  While it's painful to deal with the immense party discipline this kind of lockstep authoritarian base and establishment engenders, we can assure ourselves that the conservative movement is no longer going to work for the GOP.   Though Nebraska is a red state, 57 percent of Nebraskans want a timetable for withdrawal, and only 37% want to give Bush's surge a chance to work. That means that Democrats can make inroads in unusual places like Nebraska, much as they did in Kansas in 2006.  This is a map that is being rewritten, because independents are moving into the Democratic column on the war, even in red states.

The country is getting tired of order taking psychotic Republicans that work only for the interests of big business.  And while in a normal environment, we'd see the Republican Party respond and shift towards a more moderate stance, the opposite is actually occurring.  The party is running primary challenges against those who are in step with the mainstream precisely because they are in step with mainstream dislike of Bush's policies.  That's not a winning formula, but it's also an important piece of the public debate that we need to hash out.  Just what does it mean that the Republican Party is as extreme as it was in 2006?  It's time that an iota of media coverage be devoted to the right-wing primary purges.

Tags: Chuck Hagel, GOP, Machine (all tags)

Comments

16 Comments

Re: The Authoritarian GOP Machine Purges Hagel

We don't have a strong challenger in Nebraska, why not draft Hagel to run as the Democratic nominee?  He'll probably lose the primary, but as a Democrat could hold Democratic votes and siphon enough Republican votes to win, giving Dems another seat.

by Vox Populi 2007-06-07 01:33PM | 0 recs
Re: The Authoritarian GOP Machine Purges Hagel

Hagel is a Republican.  He votes with the GOP 98% of the time.

by Matt Stoller 2007-06-07 01:37PM | 0 recs
Either way

Somebody needs to be ready to run against Jon Bruning.

The Republicans didn't have the time or the will to run someone stronger than Schlesinger in Connecticut last year. The Democrats in Nebraska next year have a lot more options. If as you say Hagel is a pretty standard Republican except on Iraq, that means Hagel is going to lose the primary solely over his stance on an issue where Hagel is more in-step with the public in Nebraska than his replacement is. Couldn't this be a pretty serious opening for the Democrats? What could be done here?

by Silent sound 2007-06-07 01:50PM | 0 recs
Re: The Authoritarian GOP Machine Purges Hagel

uhh, no, we got candidates standing on the by-line right now.

Omaha mayor Mike Fehey is debating it based on whether or not Hagel retires. If Hagel is not an option for re-election, expect Fehey to get in.

Fmr. Sen. Bob Kerrey has been throwing a lot of noise around. While he is not the ideal liberal (this is Nebraska) he could be considered the favorite agaisnt almost anyone. He would be to the left of Ben Nelson. Based on davidsund's reports at Swingstateproject.com I'd say Kerrey is closer to entering this race than not.

Scott Kleeb has been mum since 2006. WHo knows what he is up to, but I'd bet he is closer to a house rematch then a senate race.

We got candidates.

by Trowaman 2007-06-07 02:15PM | 0 recs
Re: A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

Has anyone heard whether Scott Kleeb is considering a Senate run?

by KernBlue 2007-06-07 01:48PM | 0 recs
Re: A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

I think he's probably more likely to run for the House again than Senate. If we can get Kleeb to run in NE-03 with Esch in NE-02 and Kerrey at the top of the ticket, all we need to do is find a solid young candidate in NE-01 to put together a solid Democratic ticket in Nebraska.

by Dave Sund 2007-06-07 03:23PM | 0 recs
Where's the Media?

Unfortunately, it's become less of a Republican Party and more of a Royalist Party. A lot of it is owed to the influence in the last 25 years of a particular theocratic authoritarian strain that has infected the party. The Robertson/Falwell virus crosses submission to God to submission to Crown as God's representative. I think until Bush, Hirohito was God's last emperor (at least until MacArthur made hims renounce his divinity in '45)

by Skipster 2007-06-07 02:02PM | 0 recs
Re: A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

Great post, Matt. It introduces a lot of important topics, not only the situation in Nebraska, but "order-taking Republicans," the GOP establishment, the parallels with Lamont, and above all the amazing media silence. This is a story that deserves closer attention.

Though it doesn't look like the Nebraska Democratic Party has done much to capitalize on the opportunity. All the NDP website says is

After assessing these numbers, Nebraska Democrats are confident that they will be afforded an opportunity to bring a strong candidate to the 2008 Senate race.

http://www.nebraskademocrats.org/communi cations/1103/hagel-extremely-vulnerable- iraq-war-not-the-issue-bruning-thinks-it -is

by billybob 2007-06-07 02:29PM | 0 recs
Re: A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

Several other points, here.  Even moderate Republicans have been fearful of offending Bush. Take Pennsylvania where Arlen Spector successfully (and barely) beat off a right wing challenge.  Spector, perhaps as payback for Bush's support in the primary, as gone along on some questionable legal/judicial maneuverings he would probably have challenged in the past.  He may be the most Progressive Republican in either chamber (rating from Progressive Punch) but he is no Lincoln Chafee by a long shot.

Second, the number of Republican moderates who have retired after successfully beating back Club for Growth challenges is meaningful.  Some, like Marge Roukema in New Jersey, have been succeeded by their righty challengers.  Others. like Sherwood Boehlert in New York, have been succeeded by Democrats.

Third, in cases where unpopular righties risk otherwise safe seats they have won some primaries (see Jean Schmidt).  Only extremists like Schmidt, Garrett, Cubin, or Musgrave could lose their districts.

We shall see but I think it bodes well for Democrats in the short to mid range.

by David Kowalski 2007-06-07 02:36PM | 0 recs
It's not just Hagel

All four Republicans who voted for the first Iraq supplemental (with timelines) are now facing potential primaries - Gilchrest and Jones in the House, Hagel and Smith in the Senate.

I wrote a diary about this a couple of weeks ago, including these quotes from last August concerning the Great Connecticut Purge of 2006:

It's no wonder that so much time is being given to the Democratic primary in Connecticut, and that so many voices are being heard. The ideological triumphalists proclaim it a great renewal in the Democratic Party, beginning with the glorious purge of Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

- William F. Buckley, August 12, 2006

It should be noted that both Cheney and Mehlman pointedly referred to the Lamont win as a "purge," echoing the seminal anti-Lamont editorial by the Democratic Leadership Council from two months ago which used the term eight times. They were joined in that effort last week by virtually the entire conservative punditry establishment, with everyone from Cal Thomas ("Purge by Taliban Democrats" was his clever innovation) to American Conservative Union chief Patrick Keene ("The purge that began with the McGovernite seizure of the party . . . ") to Foundation for Defense of Democracies president Clifford May ("The August Purge of Lieberman," a funny historical malapropism; May was trying to echo Soviet Russia, which had an August putsch, not a purge) to Fox's John McIntyre to a whole host of others decrying Lamont's supporters as rich, elitist, neo-commie liberals bent on softening us all up for a terrorist attack, apparently just for the pure, America-hating thrill of it.

- Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, August 15, 2006

Meanwhile, the New York Times's David Brooks lashed out at the "liberal inquisition" unfolding in Connecticut, the type of phenomenon that could be understood "only [by] experts in moral manias and mob psychology." ABC's Cokie Roberts sang from the choir sheet this Sunday morning, announcing a Lamont win would mean "a disaster for the Democratic Party."

Roberts's ABC colleague Jake Tapper labeled Lieberman's challenge as a "a party purge of a moderate Democrat"; a cliché repeated constantly among the talking heads. Los Angeles Times columnist Jonathan Chait ridiculed grassroots Lamont activists by suggesting "their technique of victory-via-purge is on display in Connecticut." Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, who in a recent radio interview refused to say whether he actually wanted Democrats to gain control of Congress in November, denounced the "thought-enforcers of the left" supporting Lamont, whom Peretz mocked as "Karl Rove's dream come true."

Earlier in the campaign, Washington Post columnist David Broder dismissed Connecticut's progressives as "elitist insurgents." Over at the Rothenberg Political Report, Beltway mainstay Stuart Rothenberg was in a tizzy that Lamont's win would "only embolden the crazies in the [Democratic] party," the "bomb-throwers." (Like Broder, Rothenberg opted for terror terminology to describe the democratic process unfolding in Connecticut.)

- Eric Boehlert, The Nation, August 11, 2006

"And as I look at what happened yesterday, it strikes me that it's a perhaps unfortunate and significant development from the standpoint of the Democratic Party, that what it says about the direction the party appears to be heading in when they, in effect, purge a man like Joe Lieberman, who was just six years ago their nominee for Vice President, is of concern, especially over the issue of Joe's support with respect to national efforts in the global war on terror."

- Vice President Cheney, August 9, 2006

by tparty 2007-06-07 02:37PM | 0 recs
A Nebraska Democrat's View

Thanks, Matt, for bringing this to a wider audience. I think this has the potential to be one of the most interesting contests in 2008.

I made some reference to it in the diary you linked to, but I'll try and expand on it a bit. I don't have anything concrete, so these are rumors, but I feel pretty confident about them.

In February, Mike Fahey, mayor of Omaha, met with Schumer and Reid in Washington. They wanted him to run, badly. By March, though, Fahey was starting to fundraise again for a reelection campaign. In April, Bob Kerrey started doing polling around the state. That polling reportedly looks very good for Kerrey.

In the last week, based on a few conversations with folks who I trust, his keynote address at the upcoming state party dinner, and a lot of second-hand rumors, I've become fairly confident that Bob Kerrey's running for Senate in Nebraska.  

I know that for a lot of you here, that's not going to be great news. Understandably, because he isn't exactly a progressive on Iraq. But he's a great Democrat - and I'd be a proud supporter despite my disagreement with his position on Iraq. Compared to Ben Nelson, Kerrey would be a welcome addition in the Senate.

by Dave Sund 2007-06-07 03:20PM | 0 recs
Kerrey is even worse than Nelson
on Iraq.
by tparty 2007-06-07 03:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Kerrey is even worse than Nelson

Believe me, I know his position on Iraq. But there's a couple of things that have brought me back from the cliff:

- He's miles ahead of Bruning. Listen to what Bruning's saying.

  • On every other issue, he's far more progressive than Hagel.
  • In the end, winning more seats in the Senate isn't going to end this war. Winning the presidency will. After that, winning seats in the Senate helps us accomplish other domestic goals.

by Dave Sund 2007-06-07 05:19PM | 0 recs
Re: A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

Agree that Hagel is a Republican and will not run as a Democrat.  However, the "Republican" party that Hagel believes in does not exist anymore.  As Matt's article points out, they have just been continuously pushed out of the party by people who will take orders.  That's simply sad.  Hagel understands that it's about serving the people and not a party, and it's too bad far too few believe the same.

by jpm 2007-06-07 05:38PM | 0 recs
Re: A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

Thanks.  Good insight.

by Agent Orange 2007-06-08 01:25PM | 0 recs
Re: A Reverse Lamont: Where's the Media?

Thanks.  Good insight.

by Agent Orange 2007-06-08 01:35PM | 0 recs

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