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Conservatives Want Republican Purge Trials

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Thomas Frank Author, 'Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?'

Across the land, grindstones sing as axes are sharpened for the RINOs. For years, conservatives have railed against these moderate "Republicans in Name Only," launching primary campaigns against them, pouring money into their opponents' campaign funds, and excluding them from committee chairmanships. But since 2006 the party's pulse has weakened, and the GOP's leaders have decided that nothing is more healthful in such a situation than hacking off a limb or two.

That, evidently, is the thinking behind the 10-point test for GOP candidates that was proposed last week by a group of Republican national committee members. If a candidate "disagrees" with three or more of the points--said disagreement to be determined by one's "voting record, public statements and/or signed questionnaire"--then they can forget about financial support from Republican central.

Leading conservatives are hopeful about the prospects of the coming period of inquisition and excommunication. As former House Majority Leader Dick Armey explained to the New York Times, "The Republican Party knows it has to repair its standing with the American people."

Others think the measure doesn't go far enough. An unsigned blog post on ConservativeHQ.com, which is maintained by legendary fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, cautions, "A checklist may help to avoid problem candidates, but it's not foolproof. The only way to fully appease conservative grassroots is to back candidates who are reliable, principled conservatives."

As for me, I wonder why the American right is so partial to behavior that, in other lands and other times, we associate with Robespierre types on a mad quest for political purity.

Certain prominent conservatives have lately developed a distinct paranoid streak, accusing liberals of secret socialism and secret czarism as well as mind-bending plans to indoctrinate school children, build a private army, and so on.

For these Montagnards of the right, the enemy is always within, and none dare call it treason--except the brave entertainers of cable and AM radio.

But liberals are not the only impostors abroad in the land. Just as the free-market superstition holds every unpleasant outcome to be traceable to some bit of government economic meddling, so every Republican defeat must automatically be defined as a failure to be conservative enough. Every discredited Republican politician becomes either a traitor or a faker, a secret liberal who somehow pulled the wool over the eyes of the gullible conservative millions.

Defeat and economic disaster have only strengthened this impulse for blame evasion. Conservative economic doctrine, put into effect by conservatives in Congress and the White House, is largely and obviously responsible for last year's financial crisis. Indeed, in my lifetime there has never been a more direct causal connection between ideology and catastrophe.

Ergo, the blame must be located elsewhere, with a hysteria whose claims equal or exceed the urgency of the financial disaster. That's why an America where conservatives are not in charge is an America where virtually every important piece of legislation proposed by the majority is a mortal threat to freedom itself.

And that's why the 10-point purity test will soon be rooting out the final remaining Republican moderates. If only these impostors can be exposed, the next period of GOP rule will bring with it no problems with deficits, earmarks, bailouts, or any of the rest of it.

Or maybe the party will simply head down the path to ever-more thorough bouts of inquisition and purging, resolutely depopulating its conservative pantheon. Consider the central article of the first point on the list--a commitment to "lower deficits." That would not only banish former President George W. Bush and many members of the late Republican Congress, since they infamously squandered the surplus and ballooned the deficit, but also former President Ronald Reagan, whom the authors of the 10-point program, in a long preamble to their test questions, hymn as the ne plus ultra of conservatism.

Indeed, the Reagan administration would flunk the test with flying colors. After item one comes item five, which insists that anyone who would call themselves Republican oppose "amnesty for illegal immigrants"; well, it was Reagan who signed into law the 1986 amnesty bill that is so hated by opponents of illegal immigration.

Item No. 7 demands "containment of Iran," a nation to which the Reagan administration sold weapons. Strike three. Take his name off that airport!

Maybe this current crop of Republican incorruptibles will find, as Mr. Viguerie wrote in 1988, that "responsibility for the ultimate failure of the Reagan Revolution lies with Ronald Reagan himself." They will start to suspect that even those who approve of this test don't meet its standards; that pure conservatism means very few conservatives.

Or maybe they will discover something even more frightening: That once they have unmasked the last impostor and expelled the last RINO, they will have no scapegoats left to take the blame for their next round of disasters.

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