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James Zogby Headshot

Lesson to GOP: Don't Play With Fire

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Watching Tea Party radicals triumph over reasoned compromise in the Congress and Republican party candidates drive themselves rightward off the road in an effort to appeal to their increasingly hardline base reminds me of the adage we learned as children: It is dangerous to play with fire, not only because you run the risk of the blaze burning out of control, but also because you, yourself, can become the flame's first victim.

From the beginning, I worried about the consequences of the Republican Party leadership's cavalier exploitation of the animus that spawned the Tea Party. It appears that they thought the racist signs carried at "birther" rallies were cute or believed that they could harness the raw anger and fear of anxious middle class whites and direct it against the president and his programs. They saw the sometimes intense and even violent force of this movement as a sign of an "energized base" that would turn the tide from their humiliating defeats in 2006 and 2008. And so they opted to ride the crest of this wave of discontent and help it grow.

For a time it worked. Tea Party disruptions of Democratic congressional town meetings and incitement about "death panels" and "socialism" inflamed passions against the president's health care reform proposals. Nativist and xenophobic fears were exploited to stymie immigration reform and block efforts to reign-in Bush-era law enforcement excesses. Islamophobia was callously used to frustrate the president's efforts to improve the U.S. standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds, while the uncompromising and outright obstructionist mindset exhibited by the GOP repeatedly brought the government to the brink of bankruptcy in the past three years.

Stoking these embers combined created enough heat to help Republicans block change, frustrate hope, shift the blame for the U.S.'s domestic ills and foreign policy woes to the new President, thus helping the GOP capture Congress in 2010. But in the process of adding fuel to the fires of discontent, in several instances we have also seen instances where the Republican party's leadership have lost control and fallen victim to these same destructive forces that they had cultivated and unleashed. Incumbent Republicans deemed "too moderate" by the mob-like base, were driven out by candidates who would have been laughable, had they not been so frightening. In safe, GOP-leaning states or congressional districts, some of these characters like Renee Ellmers (North Carolina) or Alan Watt (Florida) won, helping to create a Republican majority in an increasingly polarized House of Representatives. But in more competitive states and districts, the likes of Sharron Angle (Nevada), and Christine O'Donnell (Delaware) frightened enough voters providing Democrats with the opportunity to retain seats they might otherwise have lost to more mainstream opponents.

In this year's Republican presidential primary, we can once again see how destructive this unchecked base can be for the GOP. In part because of this problem, thoughtful conservatives like Governors Mitch Daniels (Indiana) and Haley Barbour (Mississippi) declined to run, leaving the contest with what can only be described as a perfectly bizarre field of candidates in the mix.

Thus far polls have shown Republican voters running through or flirting with a string of "frontrunners" who never should have gotten off the ground, and wouldn't have had the chance to, were it not for this crazy GOP base. Think about it: Donald Trump? Michele Bachmann? Rick Perry? Herman Cain? Newt Gingrich? -- Really? Look at their records (either personal and ethical or political) and the positions they have taken (or, in some instances, felt forced to take to remain viable), and look at the volatility of the race as, one by one, the base latches onto a candidate and then in rapid succession, either burns them or casts them off. And after looking at all this, the GOP's problem with this calamitous situation becomes crystal clear.

In an effort to avoid disaster, the Republican Party's leadership is making an effort to mobilize support for former Governor Mitt Romney. But the establishment alone can't close the deal for Romney, whose conversion to conservatism is not convincing to the Tea Party and whose Mormon faith is a deal-breaker for many born-again Christians. And so Romney, who cannot get above 25 percent support from Republican voters, is not assured victory. And should he win the nomination, cannot be assured the support of the party's base.

Add to this, the chaos in Congress where the House Republican leadership is unable to control the rebellious Tea Party-backed caucus and you have a recipe for disaster for the party and the country.

The lesson in all this is clear: The GOP played with fire, and they are getting their hands burned. They unleashed a monster they hoped to turn against Democrats, but it has turned on them first.

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