Gasps and lunges coming out of Washington, D.C., these days aren't just about the prospect of a federal government shutdown or Republican attempts to kill Obamacare. For the first time in 15 years, the frame for a national election cycle is coming to focus on the dangers of the extreme right wing holding the country hostage to its ideology.
President Obama and other Democrats are showing some proficiency in calling attention to and capitalizing on the off-balance stumbles of conservatives fixated on abortion, gay rights, and immigration and health policies perceived as helping the poor.
Just listen to White House spokesman David Simas break down the battle lines this week. "[T]his is a minority within the Republican Party who are not listening to the more reasonable elements in the party, and they are willing to ... plunge the country into default because of their obsession with denying health insurance to 11 million Americans."
If this estimate of people set to benefit from the Affordable Care Act sounds like a familiar number, that's because it roughly equals the population of residents who might gain a path to legalization of their immigration status under comprehensive reform legislation supported by the President and passed by the Democratic-led Senate. Top House Republicans, however, have labeled that painstakingly crafted measure as "trash/basura."
Pressure from religious extremists is also strong-arming abortion language onto the funding bill for the entire federal government. According to Lori Montgomery and Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post, Republicans staff on Capitol Hill are scrambling to add language banning termination of some late-term pregnancies as a condition for authorizing extension of federal borrowing ability.
Meanwhile, in a rear-guard action doomed to defeat, Republican governors of four southern states are trying to defy federal orders to provide benefits on equal terms to married same-sex spouses serving in the National Guard. Those up in arms over their obligation to act inclusively include Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas, contenders for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Perry will be now watching as state senator Wendy Davis, a rising Democratic star, makes a serious play for the executive mansion he's vacating in Austin. He helped vault Davis to prominence by backing a jihad this summer to deny Texas women a right to control their reproductive lives, in the state where the landmark Roe v. Wade case originated.
On the rights of LGBT people and families, rank and file Republicans are walking away from the wrestling mat. This month former President George H. W. Bush and wife Barbara, who more than twenty years ago lost a reelection campaign sullied by appeals to anti-gay intolerance, served as witnesses at the Maine wedding of a local lesbian businesswoman and her wife.
The Clintons, mere and pere, won that landmark 1992 election with fluency in the mixed martial arts of culture war coalition politics. Six years later, the research and public relations teams leading Bill Clinton's defense against removal from office over a cover-up of a sexual affair cast his impeachment as a hijacking of government authority. The 1998 elections became a referendum on right-wing extremism. Republicans, north and south, limped away from balloting that year weakened and worse off for the exposure of sexual peccadilloes and moral hypocrisy. Speaker Gingrich resigned from Congress. That far-right assault on Clinton fell on its face in the Senate with a push from moderate Republicans.
A man who called in chits for the Clintons and became chair of the DNC before leading Hillary's campaign, Terry McAuliffe, is now practicing a politics reminiscent of 1998, tying a GOP candidate to religious extremists as a takedown move. McAuliffe is running for governor in Virginia, the nation's only highly competitive off-year statewide race. He has linked his fellow Catholic, Republican Ken Cuccinelli, to policies such as transvaginal ultrasound requirements for women seeking an abortion and the state's constitutional ban on recognizing same-sex marriage.
"There are consequences to this mean-spirited attack on women's health and on gay Viriginians," McAuliffe reminded viewers at the first debate this week. A bill Cuccinelli backed would have banned some forms of birth control. In a swing state with conservative tendencies where McAuliffe just a generation ago might have been drummed out as an interloping liberal, he has built a lead in the contest.
Some Republicans show a faint, grudging recognition that election outcomes have not gone their way. "Well, the people spoke," said Senator John McCain, alluding to the 2012 election in which his Republican caucus lost seats and his 2008 adversary for the White House triumphed once again. The fastest growing segments of the U.S. electorate -- Latinos, Americans of Asian Pacific Island heritage, and supporters of marriage equality -- voted for Obama at levels higher than 70 percent. Unmarried women voted for Obama 2-to-1 and voters under 30 went for him by at least 60 percent.
The president and standard-bearers in his party stand to win the current exercise of championing the better side of government and helping gravity do its work on GOP attempts to justify extreme, intrusive, and intolerant policy stands. If they could master this move on the issue of gun violence, where "pro-life" politicians routinely thwart measures aimed at reducing sudden and multiple firearm deaths, Democrats could help break the logjam over federal background checks and limits on assault rifles and ammunition.
Fielding a team of Democratic candidates in 2014 who are skilled in this novel form of jiujitsu could break the grip of one wing over one party that lately has made governing the world's foremost constitutional democracy one ungodly mess.