The Republic of T.

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Gov. McDonnell’s Do-Overs

We entered a truly surreal political realm during the presidential election, when it fell to Peggy Noonan to serve as a voice of reason among conservatives. That job has since transferred to Dan Quayle, with Tom Coburn stepping into the role of “Reasonable Republican.”

And in the latest development, Virginia — after electing Rob McDonnel governor and Ken Cucinelli state attorney general — has been serving up doses of reality to conservatives. The evidence is McDonnell’s high profile “mulligans” or “do-overs,” before he’s even had the time to wear a decent grove in the governors’ seat.

There were, in rather quick succession, three:

The widely noted pattern is one you’d have to work hard not to see: (a) McDonnell proposes policy driven by right-wing politics, (b) the policy gets reported and raises protests, and (c) McDonnell backs down as the controversy goes national. But there’s another pattern, below the surface, that’s worth examining in the context of McDonnell’s conservative beliefs and what his election victory was said to represent — at least by conservatives.

The the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election victory, there were reports of a “civil war” (ironically enough) in the GOP, between one faction that thought the party went too far to the right during the presidential election and another believing that the party didn’t go far enough to the right. Each claimed that tacking to far to the right, or not far enough, cost them the presidential election.

One election later, with the elections of Scott Brown as Massachusetts’ new senator, and McDonnel as Virginia’s new governor, it was clear which side was declaring victory. And if any doubts remained, the GOPs health care defeat and David Frum’s excommunication for calling the party out for its losing strategy should leave little doubt. That is, if the long hot summer of town hall meetings and the rise of the tea party didn’t convince you.

And yet, the rise and hyping of the tea party explains the pattern of McDonnell’s “mulligans.” If you consider the media and the amount of attention it pays to the tea baggers (case in point, the same-day tea party protest and immigration reform demonstration during the health care reform vote, and the difference between them in terms of size, tenor, and media coverage) you’d think the tea party represented a massive American political movement, cutting across all kinds of demographics. Yet, the numbers say otherwise.

There are other indications, too, that the conservative Tea Party movement is louder than it is big. Remember the Tea Party rally on the Capitol grounds the day of the House health-care vote? There was a pro-immigration rally on the Mall that day that attracted far more people. But the Tea Party got much greater attention, in part because Republican lawmakers joined the protest from the House balcony. In addition, most Tea Party-backed candidates have had little electoral success. As the Wall Street Journal reported, 18 Republican House members faced primary challenges last month in Texas, but all incumbents won easily.

Post polling director Jon Cohen notes that 28 percent of Americans viewed the Tea Party movement favorably in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this year (nearly half of the 28 percent said they got their TV news from Fox). But that doesn’t mean they’re all out waving yellow flags. A CNN poll found that 2 percent of Americans said they gave money to Tea Party causes and 5 percent said they attended an event.

This isn’t to say Tea Party conservatives won’t be an important force this year, or that Democrats will have anything but a grim midterm election. But this reality may have less to do with a new conservative revolution than with old-fashioned economic concerns.

A recent poll paints a much smaller picture of the tea party that its media profile suggests.

Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.

They hold more conservative views on a range of issues than Republicans generally. They are also more likely to describe themselves as “very conservative” and President Obama as “very liberal.”

And while most Republicans say they are “dissatisfied” with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as “angry.”

…The overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites — compared with 11 percent of the general public.

They are more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.

This is the base the GOP played to so heavily during the election, and that was credited with helping Brown and McDonnell win elections (often with the declaration that “Americans have spoken”). And McDonnell’s rightward policy reaches — from making Virginia safe for anti-gay discrimination, to nearly revising slavery out of the state’s history, and erecting a barrier to voting rights — were supposed to help him with his base.

Yet, in the cases above, McDonnell’s decisions may well have been popular with his base, but his base was not big enough to support his policies or to defeat the backlashes caused by them. As a candidate, McDonnell sought to appeal to this base, while at the same time not appearing to do so. The revelation of his 1989 Masters thesis, written while he attended Regent University, gave him a unique opportunity to signal his allegiance to that base (with a wink and a nod) and at the same time appeal to a broader spectrum of voters by distancing himself from it — which set him up for the Sybil-like behavior he’s exhibited as governor, acting to please his base only to end up apologizing to the rest of his base.

What’s ignored, and must be ingored, by McDonnell and conservatives like him is the simple truth that the response to his rightward policy moves reveal. That his base is not a majority. Not even close. And that the rest of Virginia is not like his base.

It’s a lesson that, as Digby pointed out, conservatives have long been protected from learning.

What’s fascinates me most about the resurgent rightwing fringe is the fact that it’s so confused. And I think that actually works for it. Their only true organizing rationale is a common sense of outrage that anyone would think their philosophy/ideology is not a majority position. And when you think about it, that’s not entirely irrational.

After all, this doesn’t just come from the FOX ghetto — the mainstream media have also been saying for years that this is a conservative country and that these salt-o-the-earth Red State Republicans are the Real Americans etc. If that’s what you’ve been told all your life, the idea that a liberal (ish) black president and a party of women and non-whites could legitimately win an election wouldn’t seem possible.

Blame the fatuous gasbags. They’re the ones who have sold these people that bill of goods all these years. They believe that their cramped, conservative intolerance was shared by the majority because that’s what the villagers believed — and told them so for the past several decades.

It’s a lesson even Peggy Noonan tried to pass on in 2008, after the announcement of Sarah Palin’s nomination.

In our off-air conversation, I got on the subject of the leaders of the Republican party assuming, now, that whatever the base of the Republican party thinks is what America thinks. I made the case that this is no longer true, that party leaders seem to me stuck in the assumptions of 1988 and 1994, the assumptions that reigned when they were young and coming up. “The first lesson they learned is the one they remember,” I said to Todd — and I’m pretty certain that is a direct quote. But, I argued, that’s over, those assumptions are yesterday, the party can no longer assume that its base is utterly in line with the thinking of the American people. And when I said, “It’s over!” — and I said it more than once — that is what I was referring to.

That’s a lesson McDonnell and conservatives in general should learn, and soon, if they want to regain some degree of relevance.

Because sooner or later they’ll run out of “do-overs.”

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