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The new immovable GOP

Extremism has long held pride of place in Republicans’ ideological pantheon. Whether it is eliminating the Department of Education, ending Medicare or outlawing all abortion, the GOP has long advocated positions that lie far from the American mainstream.

Today’s Republicans are bowing down before a new idol as well, worshiping at the altar of the uncompromising. Indeed, uncompromising extremism has become the driving dogma of Republicans since their 2010 victories. It’s an animating principle most Americans reject, and one that will likely cost Republicans dearly in 2012. Just how the GOP leadership manages this new commitment will reveal a great deal about its skills. 

{mosads}Extremism became part of Republican theology in fits and starts over the last 50 years. In 1964, Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination arguing that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” 

(Later, Goldwater, who supported abortion rights and gays in the military and endorsed a moderate Democratic congressional candidate in Arizona, would himself denounce New Right Republicans urging “good Christians” to “kick [the Rev. Jerry] Falwell right in the ass” and lament that he would be classed a “liberal” in the GOP of 1996.)

In the wake of Goldwater’s crushing defeat, mainstream Republicans urged retreat from extremist positions. In 1965, then-Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and House Minority Leader (later President) Gerald Ford joined a group of Republican governors in adopting a formal resolution urging Republicans to reject extremism. 

By the late ’90s, moderate Republicans were already an endangered species, and today it is difficult to find a single GOP officeholder who would willingly accept the appellation “moderate” — seeing it as an intra-party political death sentence.

Thus we witness the bizarre spectacle of actual and putative Republican presidential candidates campaigning against their own proposals. To keep extremists happy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) renounced his own immigration bill, attacked his own vote on the Bush tax cuts and pretends he never wrote a global warming bill. Mitt Romney is now required to flagellate himself daily for authoring healthcare reform that served as the model for President Obama’s. 

Until recently, though, extreme Republicans were willing to compromise in the interests of the country. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times. Rather than abolishing the departments of Energy and Education, Reagan kept them, adding a new Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs. Reagan even compromised on Social Security, agreeing to a $165 billion bailout while increasing payroll taxes, bringing public employees into the system and taxing the Social Security benefits of upper-income recipients for the first time.

Where do we find that spirit of compromise today on the Republican side? Almost nowhere. Certainly not in Madison or Washington. Uncompromising extremism is the new credo. Gov. Scott Walker seeks to overturn a half-century of Wisconsin law by forbidding state employees from discussing pensions or healthcare with their employers; by preventing teachers from advocating for smaller class sizes; by preventing government employees from “conferring” with their employer about working conditions.

Now congressional Republicans are on the verge of shutting down our government  again. Their mantra — “no compromise.” 

Our Founding Fathers, whom the GOP claims to idolize, sweltered for four months in Philadelphia while they made compromises — compromises on far weightier principles than Republicans are defending now. 

If compromise was good enough for the Founders, it ought to be good enough for today’s GOP.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.

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