Riding the Tiger

Seems to be catching on: after Todd Akin’s defiance of official GOP disapproval of his “politically incorrect” utterances about rape and abortion, a candidate for a highly visible position in another battleground state has wandered off the reservation, too:

In the face of criticism from both New Hampshire Democrats and high-ranking members of his own party, Republican candidate for Hillsborough County Sheriff Frank Szabo is not backing off his comments that deadly force is an appropriate means to prevent abortion.

“Just because a law is on the books does not mean that it’s lawful,” said Szabo. “I talk about the difference of ‘legal’ and ‘lawful.’ It used to be legal to own slaves, but that didn’t make it lawful. It used to be legal to restrict someone of color to the back of bus … Just because a piece of legislation says it’s legal to murder the unborn doesn’t make it lawful.”

Szabo contends it’s the responsibility of the sheriff to protect the lives, property and citizens of the country and the state.

“The big issue here is the sheriff is supposed to protect all of its citizens,” he said. “Just because a person is not born yet doesn’t mean he or she shouldn’t have same level of protection. Someone needs to stand up and tell federal and state officials they’re wrong if it’s in the best interest of citizens … but my main point is deadly force is always a last resort.”

Szabo’s entirely logical position is that if you believe, as is national GOP doctrine, that a zygote is metaphysically equivalent to a full-grown human being, then they ought to be protected by law, just as Todd Akin is entirely logical in saying “rape” exceptions make no sense if you believe what most Republicans (including the national party platform and the two people on the national ticket) say they believe. To conclude otherwise is to embrace the “moral relativism” that has all but destroyed the world by most conservative reckonings.

This pattern of horrifically impolitic but logical conclusions from widely shared conservative premises extends beyond the abortion issue. Along with Szabo in the news yesterday was Lubbock, Texas state judge (actually more of an executive than a judicial position; he’s equivalent to a county commission chairman) Tom Head, who is calling for a property tax increase to provide for the defense of his county given the strong possibility of a post-election invasion of Texas by United Nation troops mustered by a vengeful Barack Obama aiming to snuff out the Lone Star State’s “sovereignty.”

You can laugh, or object that I’m picking out random crazy people and blaming the GOP for them. But in Head’s case as with the abortion “extremists,” he’s following to a logical conclusion a premise widely considered respectable in mainstream GOP circles. The “Agenda 21″ conspiracy theory that “liberals” are preparing a U.N. takeover of the United States in order to crush property rights may have begun with the John Birch Society, but it’s spread like wildfire through state and local GOP platforms. Conservative movement hero and GOP Senate nominee Ted Cruz of Head’s own state is one of many prominent enthusiasts for the idea that Agenda 21 is a threat to our liberties.

My aim here isn’t to identify the national Republican Party or the conservative movement with the exact utterances of its zaniest members, but simply to say that they can’t encourage or embrace extremist premises and then reject as alien entirely plausible applications of these premises just because they sound crazy to swing voters. If you want to marginalize pols like Todd Akin, don’t keep saying you are absolutely certain that as a matter of divine, natural and constitutional law, human life begins at conception. If you don’t want to get blamed for Tom Head, stop acting as though private property rights came down from Mount Sinai, and cool your jets a bit about American Exceptionalism.

The GOP and the conservative movement have gotten a lot of benefits from encouraging extremism in their ranks in recent years. People are more willing to make donations, prepare campaign literature, and harangue their neighbors if they think liberals are deliberate baby-killers and traitors. Leaders of the “respectable” Right have fed and turned loose a tiger, and they’re going to have to ride it for a while unless they are willing to cage it once and for all. Washington Examiner columnist Phillip Klein may think the effort to suppress Todd Akin is a “watershed” moment in which conservatives have finally learned not to reflexively defend everyone criticized by their partisan enemies. But it would be a vastly more important moment if conservatives began to accept responsibility for the extremism they have worked so hard to encourage.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.