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Conservatives Target Their Own Fringe
Taking aim at the movement's extremist elements
After months of struggling to harness the energy of newly engaged tea party activists, the conservative establishment - with critical midterm congressional elections on the horizon - is taking aim for the first time at the movement's extremist elements.
The move has been cast by some conservatives as a modern version of the marginalization of the far-right anti-communist John Birch Society during the reorganization of the conservative movement spearheaded in the 1960s and 1970s by William F. Buckley Jr.
"A similar effort will be required today of conservative political and intellectual leaders," former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in his column in the Washington Post . "It will not be easy. Sometimes it takes courage to stand before a large crowd and proclaim that two plus two equals four."
But for Gerson and other conservatives, this is not just an intellectual exercise. They have a very specific political goal - to deprive Democrats and their allies a potentially potent weapon to use against the GOP in November.
"I don't believe we should be giving (extremists) a platform or empowering them to do anything based off their conspiracy theories," said Ned Ryun, president of American Majority, "because they give the left ammunition to try to define the tea party movement as crazy and fringy."
The attempt "to clean up our own house," as Erick Erickson, founder of the influential conservative blog RedState, puts it, is necessary " because traditional press outlets have decided to spotlight these fringe elements that get attracted to the movement, and focus on them as if they're a large part of this tea party movement. And I don't think they are."
Until recently, organizers and activists mostly seemed content to ignore, or in some cases tolerate, extremists in their ranks, confident they'd be drowned out by the hundreds of thousands of activists who took to congressional town halls and marches around the country to protest big-spending initiatives pushed by President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress.
But inflammatory rhetoric such as former congressman Tom Tancredo's racially tinged speech at this month's tea party convention, reports of the involvement of right wing militia groups, and the continued propagation of conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama have sometimes cast the movement in an unfavorable light.
Erickson has advised new tea party organizers on how to avoid affiliations with extremists, and this month banned birthers - conservatives who believe that Obama was not born in the United States and is, therefore, ineligible to be President - from his blog (he has long blacklisted truthers, those who believe that the U.S. government was complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks - a conspiracy theory with devotees across the political spectrum).
"At some point, you have to use the word ‘crazy,'" said Erickson.
Ryun's American Majority, a group that trains tea party activists and others around the country, has done much the same thing. Its website has moved to close its sessions to activists who identify themselves with the birther, truther or militia movements, or the John Birch Society.
Ryun conceded that extremists are involved in the tea party movement, but he said "it's just such a small percentage and it should not be portrayed as representative of the broader movement ."
The fringe-fighters' methods range from censuring signs at rallies or banishing unruly participants completely to challenging the media's focus on the fringe and highlighting the movement's diversity and tolerance.
They have gone out of their way, for example, to promote activists and movement-backed candidates of color, including tea party stars Marco Rubio and Allen West, running for U.S. Senate and House, respectively, in Florida, and Texas Senate candidate Michael Williams - all Republicans.
Ryan has another strategy. He has commissioned a poll that he thinks will show that tea partiers share a commitment to reducing taxation and government spending with independent voters and prove that the tea party movement is " very much mainstream."
But the tea party movement's decentralized structure, vaguely defined goals and anti-establishment tone makes it an attractive place to channel angry feelings. Mainstream media organizations such as the New York Times, which recently ran a 4.500 word story focusing on the infiltration of the movement by a militia-linked group called Oath Keepers, have recently focused on that aspect of the movement.
And, as tea party supporters such as Schultz have expected, liberals have been acutely attuned to any evidence of extremism.
Independent of their actual numbers, it's in both political parties' interests to inflate the influence of the other side's fringe, said Tom De Luca, a Fordham University political science professor who studies political movements and wrote the 2005 book "Liars! Cheaters! Evildoers! Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics."
"That creates this dynamic that seems to exaggerate the influence of the extremes," DeLuca said.
Much as conservatives have sought to link Democrats to environmental extremism or socialism, he said, it's an obvious countermove for the left to try to link Republicans with the more extreme elements that have gained traction around - and sometimes within - the tea parties.
So it was that liberals have demanded to know where Republicans stood on Obama's citizenship, or that last week found left and right debating which side had more in common with Andrew Joseph Stack III, the software developer who crashed his plane into the Austin, Tex., IRS offices.
The left seized on a comment by hard-line-conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) reportedly expressing empathy for the pilot's anti-tax views. Rush Limbaugh retorted that Stack "sounds like he's blaming Bush and Reagan, asserting that he sounded "almost word-for-word for Nancy Pelosi. Almost word-for-word for Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama."
DeLuca predicted that another "Bill Buckley moment" will only occur when the political damage done by extremists outweighs the boost the tea party movement has provided to conservatives generally and the Republican Party specifically.
"My guess is their basic stance will be to try to juggle as long as they can," he said.
That approach - and its drawbacks - was on display at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of Washington's conservative establishment. It featured the John Birch Society as a co-sponsor. And, while conference organizers nixed a panel on Obama's citizenship, a birther contingent still made its presence felt, as did the Oath Keepers, who co-sponsored the conference.
After filming a brief segment at the conference, liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, a leading tea party antagonist, concluded on her show that "the conservative movement right now is really not afraid to let its freak flag fly ... They‘re happy to show off the ‘we want another revolutionary war,' ‘we think the black president is arrogant,' ‘we think the apocalypse is nice' side of themselves."
Liberal commentators similarly highlighted the extremism on display at this month's National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, which included a speech by WorldNetDaily Editor Joseph Farah questioning Obama's citizenship and one by Tancredo asserting Obama was elected because "we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country."
A blogger on the liberal site Daily Kos asserted Tancredo's speech revealed the "REAL reason" tea partiers are upset: "A black man is President and their White Privelege (sic) is fading."
Tancredo's speech was not widely condemned by conservative intellectuals or media, but immediately after Farah delivered his, he was confronted in a hallway outside the convention hall by conservative media entrepreneur and fellow convention speaker Andrew Breitbart, who said it was disservice to the tea party movement to infer its activists are "all obsessed with the birth certificate, when it's not a winning issue."
Others cited the jeering of an anti-gay activist at CPAC who condemned organizers for inviting gay Republican group GOProud to participate. Conservative author and TownHall columnist Ashley Herzog said it was proof that "CPAC, and the conservative movement in general, isn't a haven for haters after all," and urged the left to view a video of the incident, which she said evidences "a lack of bigotry (that) must be painfully puzzling to liberals."
They noted that the speaker - like the comedian Rock - is from Brooklyn and speaks with a regional accent, demanding an apology.
And in a clever web video that went viral this week, the Dallas Tea Party called out MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who had mocked the mostly white make-up of the Nashville convention of what he called the "Tea Klux Klan, comparing its racially diverse leadership to MSNBC's mostly white host lineup.
Judson Phillips, the Nashville tea party activist who organized this month's convention, said it's incumbent on local tea party leaders across the country "to control the message and to prevent the tea party movement from being hijacked."
In the run-up to a July tea party convention he's planning in Las Vegas, Phillips said, he's planning on asking speakers "to stick to our message, which is unity headed into the fall."