In the run-up to the fateful election of 2008, conservatives face a clear-cut choice: we can rebuild our movement as a broad-ranging, mainstream coalition and restore our governing majority, or else settle for a semi-permanent role as angry, doom-speaking complainers on the fringes of American politics and culture.
We can either invite doubters and moderates to join with us in new efforts to affirm American values, or we can push them away because they fail to measure up to our own standards of indignation and ideological purity.
In short, we must choose between addition and subtraction: either building our cause by adding to our numbers or destroying it by discouraging all but the fiercest ideologues.
No political party or faction has ever thrived based on purges and insults and internal warfare, but too many activists on the right seem determined to reduce the conservative cause to self-righteous irrelevance.
The most recent outrage involving Ann Coulter provides a revealing example of the self-destructive tendencies of some dedicated partisans on the right. Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., the best-selling author and glamorous Time magazine cover girl declared: “I was going to have a few comments about the other Democratic candidate for President, John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot’ so I’m kind of at an impasse. I can’t really talk about Edwards.”
Some members of the audience gasped as she deployed the forbidden slur, but many others laughed and applauded. Naturally, Democratic Chair Howard Dean and many others pounced on the incident as another example of conservative viciousness and bigotry, demanding that all Republican Presidential candidates dissociate themselves from Coulter’s comments.
This challenge creates a miserable dilemma for every GOP contender. If the candidate ignores the controversy, he looks gutless and paralyzed in the face of obviously inappropriate and over-the-top insults. If he condemns Coulter, he looks like he’s wimping out to the liberal establishment and offends right-wing true believers who feel instinctively protective of Ann the Outrageous. Any comment by a presidential candidate also refocuses the national conversation on the absurd and unacceptable suggestion that John Edwards is secretly gay.