05/23/2010 03:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Self-Destruction of the Republican Party

The old joke about the Democratic party was that their political strategy was to circle the wagons and fire inward. Now the joke is on the Republicans, who seem determined to self-destruct, despite the most promising political climate for them since 1994. The comments last week by Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul illustrate the depth of this self-destruction. In one breathtaking ideological swoop, Mr. Paul questioned the soundness of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Obama administration's criticism of British Petroleum in the midst of the largest oil spill in history.

Thirty years after the election of Ronald Reagan, how did the Republican party end up in this conservative cul-de-sac, conducting an ideological purge worthy of Robespierre? After all, this is a party with a long history of political moderates who have had an important impact on our nation, both as the loyal opposition and as leaders of the struggle for progress. Consider Republican Senator Edwin Brooke, the first African-American senator from Massachusetts, Republican Mark Hatfield, who co-sponsored a bill with George McGovern calling for the complete withdrawal of troops from Vietnam or Republican Howard Baker, who was a tough critic and investigator of President Nixon during Watergate?

Even Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr. famously compromised on a host of issues, from criticizing the "military-industrial complex" and visiting Communist China to supporting national health care plans and raising taxes. Who dreamed that as Democrats we would someday pine for moderate Republicans in the mold of Nelson Rockefeller?

From a purely political standpoint, the Tea Party extremists are a godsend for Democratic politicians, since they offer up candidates like Rand Paul, who are the poster children for regressive, even racist, political ideologies. The specter of dismantling government programs at the level that Paul and his cohorts apparently contemplate is beyond frightening to most voters, who have come to regard programs like Social Security and Medicare as socially beneficial rather than as the evil fruits of socialist conspiracies.

The conventional wisdom has been that the Republican party will sweep back into power as the political pendulum shifts back to the party out of office. But the political world may be changing substantially. While Democrats in Congress are unpopular, President Obama has maintained much of the good will of the American people, especially in light of Republican stonewalling and the Tea Party lurch to the right. As the recent special congressional election in Pennsylvania demonstrates, even voters in a district that John McCain carried in 2008 are not persuaded to vote Republican simply on the basis of attacks on the Obama White House and the Reid-Pelosi Congress.

What the cowardly Republican leadership forgets is the political maxim that elections are generally decided between the lesser of two evils. By simply attacking President Obama and the Democrats while they ignore the outrageous and irresponsible elements within their own ranks, they are presenting themselves to voters as the more dangerous and destructive option in November. By condoning the most loud and extreme voices in their party, the Republican party is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.