The Extreme Becomes Mainstream

03/02/2015 02:15 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Remember the "vast right-wing conspiracy" Hillary Clinton talked about in 1998 when her husband was embroiled in scandal? It sounded paranoid at the time. Well, it met last week near Washington. I'm talking about the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a network of right-wing think tanks, websites, interest groups and tea party factions.

These groups, once seen as extreme, are now the mainstream of the Republican Party. And they've got the Republican establishment on the defensive.

In a national poll of Republican primary voters, two thirds said they don't believe in global warming, and half said they don't believe in evolution. Fifty-seven percent said they support "establishing Christianity as the national religion." Another poll asked people what they think President Obama "believes deep down" in terms of his religious faith. A majority of Republicans chose "Muslim." Only 9 percent described the President's faith as Christian.

The flight to the extreme is also happening in the Democratic Party. The left is rallying against the Democratic establishment -- President Obama and Hillary Clinton -- on trade, on military intervention and on their ties to Wall Street. The left's heroes are Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. A challenge from the left has just forced Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has close ties to both Obama and Clinton, into a run-off in his bid for reelection.

But the far left is still not as dominant in the Democratic Party as the far right is in the GOP. In a February Pew poll, 50 percent of the public called the Republican Party "too extreme," while 36 percent felt the same way about the Democratic Party.

Centrist influences in both parties have diminished. There used to be a large constituency of conservative Democrats, many of them Southern whites. They are now Republicans. There used to be large constituency of liberal Republicans, many of them from the Northeast. They are now Democrats.

The result is identity politics. "We don't simply have gridlock," a former U.S. ambassador said. "We have two separate American identities." When both parties were broad coalitions, dissatisfied voters could switch, temporarily, to the other party. No more. Now the other party is an alien identity. So what do dissatisfied partisans do? They stay home, as large numbers of unhappy Democrats did last November when turnout among young voters and Latinos dropped sharply. Or they endorse more extreme options on the right and left.

A split is opening up among Republicans over the issue of inequality. Americans are increasingly troubled by wage stagnation and the growing income gap between the rich and everybody else. The orthodox Republican view since Ronald Reagan is that economic growth is sufficient. Government should cut taxes to keep the economy growing and then step aside and let people can get ahead on their own. The problem is that the George W. Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 did not deliver wage growth.

Pragmatic Republicans want to see more targeted help, like an expanded earned-income tax credit for lower-income workers. Former Florida Gov. Jeb. Bush fancies himself a reform conservative. "We can't just be against things all the time," Bush told a conservative advocacy group. "We have to be for positive, conservative reforms. We should be the reform party."

That happens to be exactly what Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said when he first ran for president in 2000. McCain got slapped down by right-wing Republicans who accused him of abandoning the Reagan cause. A similar backlash is emerging on the right against Jeb Bush.

Right-wingers are even attacking Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen because she has dared to call for monetary policies to deal with inequality, which she called "a significant problem." When Yellen testified last week before the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Mike Mulvaney (R-South Carolina) warned her, "You're sticking your nose in places that you have no business to be." Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is threatening to audit the Fed.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has emerged as the leading conservative figure in the 2016 race. Walker has endorsed what the Washington Post called "a strictly Reaganesque economic approach, including lowering income tax rates and reducing the number of tax brackets." No targeted policies.

What's behind Walker's sensational rise? He fashions himself a fighter. Republicans are thrilled when Walker talks about how he took on labor unions in Wisconsin, defeated a bitter recall campaign and then won reelection. He used that experience to make the case that he can defeat ISIS in the Middle East. He told the CPAC audience, "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world."

Walker was likening Wisconsin protesters to ISIS terrorists. But the CPAC audience didn't seem to care. They whooped in support of Walker. To the far right, labor union activists and Islamic terrorists are more or less the same.

In the straw poll of CPAC delegates, Walker came in a close second to Paul, who had won the two previous straw polls. And Jeb Bush? He came in fifth.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misattributed a quotation of the Washington Post to The New York Times. This post has been updated accordingly.