x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Rightward drift of Republicans bodes ill for everyone

During last week's Republican presidential debate, it was clear how far to the right the GOP has drifted, a fact that will not change even in the unlikely case that someone emerges to rescue the party. What's more disturbing is the silence of other GOP leaders who didn't condemn displays of bigotry and intolerance towards American Muslims.

The contest has begun to determine who will be the Republican candidate to square off against President Barack Obama in the 2012 national elections. For months now, individuals have been announcing either their intention to run or setting up exploratory committees to determine whether they should.

At present, the field includes: three former governors (Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman) and a former senator (Rick Santorum); the former Speaker of the House of Representatives (Newt Gingrich); two current members of Congress (Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul); and a businessman (Herman Cain).

At this point, Mr Romney, who ran for president in 2008, holds a lead over the rest of the field. But some conservatives and right-wing evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with his candidacy because he was a moderate Republican governor who during his term in office passed a health-care reform bill sharing some features with Mr Obama's legislation. And he is a Mormon.

The rest of the group, although diverse in their backgrounds, is generally flawed, with most polls showing that the Republican faithful appear dissatisfied with the choices before them, and are still hoping for a "star" to come forward to claim the party's leadership. With most of the more moderate and experienced Republicans having opted out of this election, the man of the moment is Rick Perry, the governor of Texas.

Even with this incomplete field, it was interesting to tune into CNN's Republican presidential debate last week. What came through quite clearly was how far to the right the GOP has drifted, a fact that will not change even in the unlikely case that someone emerges to rescue the party. Mr Perry, for example, is merely a taller Texan and more charismatic version of the rest the candidates.

At one point in the debate an audience member, a long-time Republican leader from New Hampshire - a moderate, non-ideological, mainstream Republican - asked the candidates for an assurance that they would "have a balanced approach to governing to solve our serious problems".

Either ignoring the question or deliberately slighting the questioner, the candidates who responded focused on burnishing their ideological credentials and paying homage to the Tea Party.

This, of course, can become a problem for today's Republican Party. There is no question that the Tea Party and its fervent opposition to the president and his agenda have energised Republicans, helping them to regain control of Congress last year. Emboldened by their success, the Tea Party has continued to flex its muscles, threatening to become the kingmaker in the Republican primaries. Hence, the candidates are loathe to distance themselves from the movement.

But while the presidential primaries, like midterm Congressional contests, are notoriously low turnout elections drawing support from the party faithful, presidential elections are a different story. In these contests, more moderate and independent voters often determine the outcome. If the New Hampshire Republican leader is any indication of the mood of this group, they are frightened by the Tea Party and looking for non-ideological, problem-solving approaches to governance. It may very well be that in the process of ingratiating themselves with the groups they need to win the primaries, Republicans will damage their ability to compete in the general election.

Another disturbing example of this Republican drift toward extremism came in response to a question about whether or not the candidates would be comfortable having a Muslim American serve in their administration. The question first went to Mr Cain who had indicated before that he would not be comfortable with a Muslim. He elaborated on this view, saying his concern was that Muslims "are the ones trying to kill us", weirdly inserting that he did "not believe in Sharia law". He went on to say that he would single out Muslims for a pledge of loyalty to the United States before considering them for government service.

Mr Gingrich chimed in, adding that he believed that a loyalty oath for Muslims seeking to work in government was a good idea because "we did this in dealing with Nazis and ... and the communists ... we have got to have the guts to stand up and say no".

While Ms Bachmann, Mr Pawlenty and Mr Santorum were not asked the same question, they have all made equally shameful comments about Muslims and raised fears about Sharia law.

Only Mr Romney, already on the defensive over his Mormon faith, offered a constructive comment. After paying lip service to the anti-Sharia law mindset, saying that "we're not going to have Sharia law applied in US courts", he added that "we recognise that people of all faiths are welcome in this country. Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance".

What was especially disturbing about this exchange was the silence of other GOP leaders in the days following the debate. Their refusal to condemn these displays of bigotry and intolerance only added to the concern that the party is courting extremist currents and as a result has continued on a dangerous rightward drift.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute