It's a sad day for extremism when the head of the National Rifle Association gets yelled at on Fox News Channel.
Last weekend, Fox News' Chris Wallace challenged Wayne LaPierre on that infamous NRA ad in which a dark voice asks: "Are the president's kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools?"
When LaPierre defended the ad, Wallace said: "Do you really think that the president's children are the same kind of target as every schoolchild in America? That's ridiculous, and you know it, sir."
LaPierre probably did not expect that. Fox News has tended to be a safe haven for extremists. But something is happening there — and elsewhere.
Fox News Channel hit a 12-year low in prime-time ratings last month in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic. The network has cut loose Dick Morris and Sarah Palin — two of the channel's most extreme voices. And that should make one thing clear: Extremism isn't selling as well these days.
On election night, Republicans and Fox News viewers had a rendezvous with reality. Since then, on taxes, immigration and guns, Republicans have made votes or statements that directly oppose past party orthodoxy.
But the Republican Party establishment is beginning to repudiate extremism. The reason isn't that extremist policies won't work; they never were going to work, and that was never the issue. It's because extremist politics won't win.
If this Republican Party makeover takes the form of abandoning extremist positions in controversial policy debates, this is a very good thing, both for the Republican Party and for the country. But if the effort broadens into a campaign to target and defeat extremist Republican candidates — as Karl Rove's new Conservative Victory Fund proposes — it could cause an eruption of the long-simmering Republican civil war.
First, a bit of analysis.
What is an extremist? Don't ask for a show of hands. Extremists won't admit they're extreme. But they often give themselves away by their adverbs, such as "never, ever" — e.g., when Grover Norquist said to never, ever raise taxes on anyone for anything and when LaPierre said to never, ever impose any laws or restrictions on guns for any reason. George Wallace gave himself away when he said, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever."
Whether their extremism is authentic or just a shtick, extremists have to say that something is "never" acceptable. If extremists ever blunder into the terrain of "well, sometimes, maybe," then they're finished. Because if it's ever OK to raise taxes, for example, then you have to think about what conditions would make it OK — and thinking is the end of extremism.
So extremists never are going to go along with more moderate positions on taxes, guns and immigration. They can't. And they will feel betrayed and isolated as they see their former allies take more nuanced positions. That alone will put a great strain on the Republican Party. But if Republicans such as Rove expressly target extremists for defeat — spending millions of dollars on negative advertising in a Republican primary in a vital race for an open seat in the U.S. Senate, which is what Rove is signaling he will do in Iowa — it could have an explosive result. And it doesn't help when a Republican speaking on background tells Politico that the Republican Party leaders want to "marginalize the cranks, haters and bigots; there's a lot of underbrush that has to be cleaned out."
Extremists always feel under siege, even in the best of times. It's hard to maintain rigid views in a fluid world, so facts and change are constantly keeping extremists on the defensive. But taking direct character attacks from their own party's leadership — being told they are not fit to lead — that is beyond what they will bear.
After he was elected president in 1968 with 43 percent of the vote, Richard Nixon began working hard to convince "the great silent majority" of Americans that he was on their side against civil rights, busing, anti-war protests and spoiled, rebellious college students. Nixon's aim was to bring together in 1972 the 57 percent of the voters who supported either him or Wallace in 1968.
Nixon got what he wanted; the Wallace voters are now part of the Republican Party. If Republicans want to change their party, they should try to do it slowly and skillfully and respectfully. If they make frontal assaults on the extremists — trying to suppress them and shame them — they will make revolutionaries of the people they're trying to defeat.
Pressure doesn't always work so well with extremists. They're extremists.
Good luck, Karl.
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.