For Grassroots Conservatives in Debt Fight, the GOP Is Now the Enemy

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gestures while speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., July 19, 2011.

Followers of NewsMax, the enterprising conservative website, woke up Wednesday morning to an e-mail with the subject heading: “Urgent: GOP Senators Want $1 Trillion in Taxes, Help Us Stop Them.”

It was an e-mail designed to make money for NewsMax, which had rented out its e-mail list to distribute the message, and for the shadowy group called League of American Voters, which laced its missive with requests for cash donations, ostensibly to fund ads that would put pressure on Republican Senators looking to compromise with President Obama over the debt limit. Appeals like this go out every day, by e-mail, by snail mail, over the phone, channeling conservative outrage into big paydays for what Hillary Clinton once called the “vast right wing conspiracy.” But the days of Clinton are long gone.

In the 1990s, direct mail pieces like this would have asked conservatives to give money to stop liberals from ruining the country. After Bush was elected President, the message remained much the same, focusing on liberal plots to raise taxes and cuddle up with al-Qaeda. Now the target has flipped: Conservatives are just as often as not being asked to give money to stop Republicans from ruining the country.

It’s not a minor shift, and it goes a long way to explaining why so many House Republicans have been so resistant to compromise with President Obama. Quite simply, the grassroots calculus has changed. “When Bush was President, you couldn’t have gotten away with that,” says one Republican consultant who works in the business. “People used to not do it because it didn’t work. You couldn’t make enough money [targeting Republicans.]”

But something important changed at the end of the George W. Bush era. Richard Viguerie, the direct mail whiz who has long tried to wrangle the conservative movement, points to Bush’s failed nomination of his friend Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court in 2005 as the turning point. “The movement went ballistic within 30, 40 minutes,” Viguerie recalls.

“From that moment on, conservatives felt comfortable opposing Republican leaders in a way that did not happen before.” These days, says Viguerie, who keeps up a regular speaking schedule, one of the best ways to get a rise out of conservative crowds is to aim the fire close to home. “When you go after Republican leaders, you are mobbed at the end of your speech,” he says. “The problem has been not with the Democrats. It’s been with the Republicans.”

In practice, this has played out on the ground with the rise of the conservative Tea Party, which has great sway in Republican primaries, but refuses to identify with GOP institutions. In Congress over the last few weeks, the grassroots’ willingness to pressure Republicans has played out in another way: It has demonstrably weakened the power of GOP leaders, from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to Speaker John Boehner, to negotiate a face-saving solution in the debt showdown with the President. National polls show that the Republican brand has been hurt with independents and moderates as GOP members refuse to compromise on taxes. But for individual members of the House dealing with conservative attacks back home, what is bad for the party nationally is good for them.

Viguerie, for one, is thrilled by how the debate is playing out. “As a general rule, conservatives seldom have been out in front forcing Republican leaders to take principled positions,” Viguerie says. “In the history of the conservative movement, this is our finest hour.”

Meanwhile, at the White House, President Obama has positioned himself to benefit from this dynamic. A refusal to compromise, and a focus on ideological purity, is not the stuff that wins presidential elections, which tend to turn on independent and moderate voters in purple states, not base turnout. So as Republican leaders deal with incoming fire from their own ideological fringes, the President has moved to grab the political middle.

Republican leaders are in disarray, simultaneously negotiating compromise agreements and declaring that no compromise is possible. In a matter of days, we will likely find out just how much power the GOP leadership has to direct its own party. Whatever the outcome, look to fundraising solicitations from NewsMax and others for an idea of what the electoral consequences might be. Conservative entrepreneurs know better than most what the Republican base wants to hear, even if it doesn’t always serve the party’s best interests.