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Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Movement Are at War With the GOP

Just as the GOP candidate has for more than 100 years, Dede Scozzafava was supposed to win the congressional seat in New York's 23rd district. Then Palin stepped in.
 
 
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Tomorrow, a special election in an otherwise obscure congressional district has become very special indeed.

This weekend, the Republican candidate in the race for New York's 23rd congressional district was forced out -- by Republicans. The contest to fill a seat vacated by President Barack Obama's appointment of Republican Rep. John McHugh to the post of secretary of the Army has become a proxy war for a power struggle for the leadership of the Republican Party.

On one side is the party establishment: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Georgia), Majority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who endorsed Dede Scozzafava, the candidate selected by the local Republican Party.

On the other, we find Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and former vice presidential candidate, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and former Majority Leader from Texas Dick Armey, who are backing third-party challenger Doug Hoffman.

Once the muscle of Palin and Armey forced Scozzafava from the race on Saturday, she refused to play nice. Instead of backing Palin's pick, Scozzafava threw her support yesterday to Democrat Bill Owens.

Inside the Congress, Republicans are all about party loyalty and message discipline. But outside the Congress, on the home turf where congressional representatives win or lose, not so much -- at least not in the 23rd district of the state of New York.

While it's hard not to crack a smile at the Republicans' travails, a word of caution may be in order.

So Much for Local Control

The gurus of the Republican Party's right flank like to talk about local control and small government. They claim to represent the grassroots, the regular folks. They like to paint the Democratic president of the United States as a machine politician.

But when push came to shove and the regular people of 23rd, backed up by the GOP establishment, appeared poised to elect the pro-choice, pro-union Scozzafava, the Tea Party astroturf machine moved in, backing Hoffman, who promised pro-business, anti-woman and anti-labor votes in Congress.

Tomorrow, after the people of the upstate district conclude their balloting, either Owens, the Democrat, or Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, will be the first non-Republican to represent the 23rd since the Civil War.

Although Hoffman's candidacy seemed to come out of nowhere, it was the endorsement of Armey, chairman of the astroturfing group FreedomWorks, who put him on the map. Then Palin signed on via this note on her Facebook page, putting Hoffman over the top:

Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of "blurring the lines" between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party's ticket.

Soon Hoffman was Glenn Beck's favorite interview subject. (The local chapter of Beck's 9-12 Project is a big Hoffman booster.) Tea Party sites around the nation started talking up the Hoffman candidacy and condemning Scozzafava. The Club for Growth had found its candidate. Michelle Malkin, the Fox News commentator whom AlterNet last met at an astroturf event, threw in.

And don't forget the pundits of another media property owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.: those of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

If this cast of characters sounds familiar, it should. These are the same forces who organized the disinformation and thuggery campaign against health care reform, and are many of the same personalities who created the right-wing Tea Party march on Washington on Sept. 12 -- the one with all those "Don't Tread on Me" flags and the signs comparing Obama to Hitler and Stalin.

It's the American right, in its broadened, big-tent form, and its leaders have learned from past mistakes -- and successes.

In It For the Long Haul

Progressives can be forgiven for licking their lips at the delicious state of disarray displayed by the Grand Old Party in this particular brouhaha, for thinking that it signals doom for the GOP.

Fine, if you're thinking short-term. But this is the way radical conservatives won the larger game in the past -- by forcing the party elders to the right, even when to do so meant near-certain defeat.

In 1964, the right forced the disastrous presidential nomination of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. While that defeat was resounding, it set the stage for Richard Nixon's triumph four years later by stoking the fear of communism in the American people.

Although Nixon wasn't the conservative that Goldwater was, his administration harbored some of the right's keenest minds, notably speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan (now an MSNBC political analyst), and bureaucrat Howard Phillips, who went on co-found the religious right.

Phillips and Buchanan teamed up again in 1996 to hone the inside-outside strategy that finds echoes in tomorrow's special election in New York. Buchanan ran for the Republican presidential nomination that year, pitting himself against Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the former majority leader.

Buchanan beat Dole in New Hampshire, but failed to win the nomination. Still, along the way, he collected enough delegates to buy himself some bargaining power.

In the meantime, Phillips had put together a far-right third party, the U.S. Taxpayers Party, that was courting Buchanan as its candidate. By threatening to march his delegates out of the GOP and into Phillips' arms, Buchanan successfully commandeered the Republican Party platform away from Dole's people and into the hands of his own. The result was disaster for Dole, but it served to push the GOP even further to the right, paving the way for the nomination of George W. Bush.

When Arizona Sen. John McCain chose Palin as his running mate, his pick was the Hail Mary pass of a flagging campaign. Republicans applauded her arrival, on a wing and a prayer, from Anchorage. Breath of fresh air. 

They chose to look past her flirtation with the far-right, secessionist Alaska Independence Party -- just one  of those adorably quirky Alaska things, it was, like the Iditarod or moose hunting.

And when a handful of corporate-funded groups began organizing the disgruntled and paranoid to disrupt the town-hall meetings convened by members of Congress this summer on health care reform, Republicans encouraged the paranoia and defended the offenders' right to disrupt.

Soon they had an uncontrollable movement on their hands, one that no more promised loyalty to them than to anybody else.

When you encourage a movement that exists solely to oppose things, you'd best get out of its way, lest you become the opposed. And that's exactly what happened this month to Gingrich, Boehner and all of the establishment Republican Party, when the Tea Party movement, joined by Palin and a host of right-wing luminaries, declared war on GOP candidate Scozzafava and backed the Conservative Party Candidate.

Not only did Palin fail to save McCain, she may just destroy the Republican Party. And maybe that's the way she wants it. Call it going rogue.

If she can bust up the GOP, then Palin can control what's left of it when she's done. Who knows, she might even play a little inside-outside game herself. The third party of Phillips is today known as the Constitution Party, and its Alaska chapter is the very same secessionist outfit with which Palin is so friendly.

Richard Viguerie, who co-founded the religious right with Phillips, issued a press release promising third-party woe unto GOP leaders.

"Conservatives' anger at Washington-establishment Republicans will cost the national committees tens of millions of dollars," Viguerie writes, "as conservative money will start flowing directly to the Tea Parties and their candidates."

For Armey and the FreedomWorks crew, the Fox pundits and the Club for Growth, the fight for the 23rd district is more about reminding the GOP establishment who's in charge: The business interests who fund those organizations, whose CEOs were likely not amused by the specter of a moderate Republican congresswoman who embraces the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposal for legislation that would make it easier for workers to join labor unions.

All their organizing on Hoffman's behalf bought him a shiny war chest, into which he reached for a barrage of television ads -- one featuring Thompson of TV's Law and Order fame -- arrayed against Scozzafava.

Jackson Stephens, a board member of the Club for Growth, created a group meant to look like a pro-Scozzafava organization that launched an ad calling the Republican candidate "the choice for progressives," highlighting her support for same-sex marriage, abortion rights and EFCA.

Republican leaders got the message. When their candidate dropped out of the race on Saturday, they lined up behind Hoffman, the right's man. When Scozzafava, battered by the right, endorsed Owens, the Democrat, she was condemned by her former backer, Newt Gingrich, who told the Associated Press that he was "deeply upset" by Scozzafava's support of Owens. "I'm very, very let down," Gingrich said, "because she told everybody she was a Republican, and she said she was a loyal Republican."

Yet Gingrich, once the upstart who pushed his party's leaders further to the right, also decried the tactics of Armey and Palin, telling Fox's Greta Van Susteren, "... this idea that we're suddenly going to establish litmus tests, and all across the country we're going to purge the party of anybody who doesn't agree with us 100 percent -- that guarantees Obama's re-election. That guarantees Pelosi is speaker for life. I mean, I think that is a very destructive model for the Republican Party."

Newt's probably right. In the short run, this could be good for the Democrats.

But American politics is cyclical in nature. No victory is permanent. Sooner or later, voters tire of one side and elect the other.

As the Republican Party condenses to its most bitter strain, the poison is distilled. Chances are, that poison will be dispersed into the populace when voters at last tire of the Democrats. And that would be very bad for all of us.

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.