Paul Begala on the GOP’s Suicidal Tendency

Even Ronald Reagan would have trouble winning in today’s extremist GOP. Mark Peterson / Redux

Despite president Obama’s rising poll numbers, the tough economy suggests that the 2012 Republican nominee should be an even-money bet to be the next president. Why, then, the paucity of talent seeking the nomination? Why is the roster of Republicans who took a pass so much more impressive than the list of those who took the plunge? This is not just the usual grass-is-greener humbug. Yes, each candidate is outstanding in his or her own way. But that’s like saying each Supreme Court justice is sexy in his or her own way.

My suspicion is, the reason the cream of the GOP crop is sitting out 2012 is not because they’re worried they can’t beat Obama straight up. It’s because they’re worried that their base is so crazy they’ll be dragged so far to the right in the primaries that Obama will capture the center in the general election and make it impossible for them to win.

The story of the Republican Party in the last half century is a nearly unbroken march to the right. Nixon was more conservative than Eisenhower. Goldwater was more conservative than Nixon. Reagan was more conservative than Goldwater. Gingrich was more conservative than Reagan. And George W. Bush was more conservative than Newt.

Today’s GOP? Heck, there is nothing—nothing—that’s too conservative for them. Don’t just analyze whether government regulations confer benefits that outweigh their costs; stop all federal regulations. That’s what Texas Gov. Rick Perry has proposed. All of them—like those that protect the air we breathe or the water we drink or the toys our children play with or the nursing homes our grandmothers live in. Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.

Don’t just reassess whether the new rules of the road for Wall Street are working; repeal them, all of them, right now. That’s what Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich propose. Don’t just pledge to outlaw a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion; push to ban all funding for contraception because, as Sen. Rick Santorum says, “It’s not OK. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Don’t applaud Obama for putting more boots on the Mexican border than any president since Woodrow Wilson; decry any effort to recognize the families who have come here, to educate the children who have been raised here, and embrace the Arizona immigration law—among the most extreme in the nation. That’s what Mitt Romney has done.

It doesn’t take any imagination to see what would happen to Eisenhower in today’s GOP. Ike would be booed off the stage. And Nixon? Well, Tricky Dick created the Environmental Protection Agency, which today’s Republicans want to abolish. Barry Goldwater wouldn’t have a chance; he strongly supported gay rights. Honestly, the Gipper couldn’t survive nowadays. After all, he signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act in California in 1967, and put his signature on what at the time were the largest tax increases in California history as governor and the biggest peacetime tax increase in American history as president. The rightward lurch has only accelerated during the Obama presidency.

So if you were a successful Republican with eyes on the White House—one who actually believes the scientific consensus that carbon pollution harms the planet, or that contraception prevents abortion, or that gay Americans don’t have cooties—you would figure out pretty quickly that you could not survive in today’s GOP. My old boss Bill Clinton challenged his party. He supported welfare reform and free trade and tough crime legislation. But his party nominated him anyway. Democrats wanted to win more than they wanted one more purist to carve onto Mount Losemore.

I don’t see that kind of reformation in the Republican Party of 2012. Before you start feeling sorry for the country-club moderates being overwhelmed by the pitchfork populists, keep this in mind: the GOP elite created this monster. They were more than happy to have extremists willing to impeach Bill Clinton or loonies carrying signs comparing Obama to Hitler—so long as it helped them turn out the vote and win elections. But now the lunatics have taken over the asylum. And the price of winning the votes of the new, ultra-right GOP may make the party’s presidential nomination a prize not worth winning.