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GOP Purity Test: Republican Party's Version of the Longest Suicide Note in History

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You can tell the sun is setting on a once-great political party when it starts issuing angry, demonizing mission statements that seem deliberately devised to alienate as many moderate voters as possible. When the most extreme and reactionary wing of a party asserts total control over its institutions and expenditures - which usually only happens when the party is in the opposition (internecine blood-feuds being unseemly and counterproductive to a governing administration) - it can usually be counted on to cakewalk itself to the very brink of electoral extinction before it can even begin its long slow dejected trudge back to political reality, and the viable center. At that point their enemies - that's to say, you and I - can sit back with our popcorn and enjoy, probably for several years to come, some gripping and extremely bloody political theater. It's happening to the Republican Party right this minute - and I just couldn't be happier.

It happened to the British Labour Party once, too, in the 1983 General Election (a time when the Democratic Party was suffering similar, albeit milder, pangs of self-doubt and mutual recrimination). Like the Republicans' recent ten-point "Resolution on Reagan's Unity Principle for Support of Candidates" or purity test, the '83 Labour Manifesto threw sops and props to the most demented fever-dreams of the party's clapped-out left-wing ancien regime: withdrawal from the EEC, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the re-nationalization of pretty much everything privatized by Margaret Thatcher since 1979. Labour eminence and wit Gerald Kaufman dubbed the manifesto "the longest suicide note in history." Labour lost its shirt, its drawers, its shit and, for a period, its mind.

A couple of years earlier, several senior Labour centrists formed a breakaway, middle-of-the-road party, The Social Democratic Party, whose modest successes ensured the left-wing majority vote was split for the next three elections. A mirror-image pattern is detectable among centrist Republicans (I know, I know, that phrase sounds so quaintly anachronistic...) now fleeing from the Right to the deserted middle-ground. Charles Johnson and Andrew Sullivan, Davids Frum and Brooks - all of whom possess the kind of elitist, Ivy League, East Coast Establishment smarts that so enrage the contentedly ignorant Palin-ites and the Beck-Limbaugh ditto-cracy - have been distancing themselves like crazy of late from the barking, biting beast that has metastasized on the right since Obama was elected. You can bet that plenty of nameless Republicans of a Reaganite bent are fleeing alongside them. Who can blame them? The GOP is now owned and operated by descendants of the kind of people who once joined the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, or The Committee of Ten Million, and considered Eisenhower a commie stooge - folks whom cosmopolitan conservatives like William F. Buckley deemed too nutty to be admitted into polite company.

The GOP, on the other hand, is making deals with the renascent far right at every opportunity, in the vain hope of co-opting it into its steadily deflating "big tent" even as it slowly realizes that the beast's irrational, often medieval appetites can never be slaked. The first time you shake hands with these people you lose your wristwatch, the second time, a couple of fingers, third time, the whole arm...

The "Resolution on Reagan's Unity Principle for Support of Candidates" is a document exactly characteristic of a party in decline, a desperate reiteration of the same old right-wing grudges and grievances - couched in sunlit terms of uplift but at its core bleakly negative - that drove the GOP into the ditch last November. Irrational adherence to policies demonstrably proven to be electorally catastrophic is a sure sign that the idiots are now firmly in charge. You know who would probably have failed this test? The pragmatic and shrewd Ronald Reagan to whom they offer never-ending hosannahs.

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And the wags are right - there is a horrible, queasy similarity between the Resolution and those nauseating Daddy-Daughter virginity balls (the GOP being, of course, "the Daddy party") popular in your more credulous and deranged fundamentalist suburbs, those god-fearing burgs where abstinence-only sex-ed has caused teen-pregnancy and STD rates to skyrocket off the charts. I am completely in favor of equal opportunity teen abstinence, but when you're browbeating your own daughters into Saving Their Maidenhead For Daddy, you're already pretty far along the road to burkhas, bound feet, arranged marriages and virginity-testing by prospective fathers-in-law. Why not just go the whole hog and repeal women's suffrage altogether? Sooner or later the GOP's emergent resemblance to the Taliban - which also keeps lists of do's and don'ts and loyalty tests ever close at hand, and loathes women with every sinew of its being - will become plain to all.

I also can't help noticing that the resolution includes nothing - not a syllable - that would prevent sexual hypocrites like David Vitter, John Ensign, Mark Foley or Larry Craig from netting party funds come ballot-time. Surely somewhere in the middle there should be something saying, "I shall not troll for prostitutes like a common curb-crawler," "I shall hereinafter foreswear Congressional pages' bottoms," or "I shall not abase myself before the glory-holes of airport bathrooms." Nothing like that to be found, but naturally, there's the staunchest support for the Defense of Marriage Act. And all the handguns you can eat. You know, in case the British come a-knocking.

It's the GOP's own version of the longest suicide note in history. The party has locked itself in the garage, closed the automatic door and set the engine running. Say goodnight, Ronnie.