When it comes to Republicans' intra-party fissures, some conflicts are easier to understand than others. I can appreciate, for example, why the right is sometimes frustrated with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). I understood why folks like Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter drove the GOP's base batty before they gave up and became Democrats.
But if Virginia Gov. Bob "Ultrasound" McDonnell (R) is the new poster child for Republicans In Name Only, the party is even further gone than I'd realized.
Four years ago, when he was elected governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell was a golden boy of the Republican Party, and to liberals he was a villain who hated gays and unwed mothers and thwarted equal-pay measures. A year later, he was his party's choice to rebut Obama's 2010 State of the Union address. And in 2012 he became a card-carrying member of the GOP's unofficial anti-woman caucus by supporting a bill to mandate "transvaginal ultrasounds" before abortions, backing off only after he and the state were ridiculed nationally.
Now, suddenly, McDonnell is a centrist, having made "frenemies" with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, over a mammoth transportation deal that was settled late last week. The deal provoked outrage from the Wall Street Journal editorial page ("There's one thing uglier than a Democratic tax-and-spend spree. A Republican one.") and from Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's Republican attorney general and the party's presumptive nominee for governor this year, who opposed the plan and tried to derail it by questioning its legality.
Not only has the Wall Street Journal editorial page now ruled out the possibility of McDonnell seeking national office, Erick Erickson, a Fox News contributor and prominent far-right blogger, dismissed the governor as an "unprincipled fake conservative" and "a perfect example of the worst kind of Republican."
Molly Redden's piece added, "If McDonnell -- who cut billions from the budget, tried to exempt his state from Obamacare, and expanded concealed-carry gun laws -- has been cut from the ranks of bona fide conservatives, then who can possibly please the right?"
That's an excellent question.
Keep in mind, McDonnell, according to the right, effectively committed one sin: he struck a deal with the legislature on a transportation bill that includes a wholesale tax on motor fuels and a slight increase in the sales tax on nonfood merchandise. That's it. That's the deal-breaker.
McDonnell said he wouldn't raise taxes, he accepted a tax concession to get a larger win, and he immediately became "a perfect example of the worst kind of Republican." Do the merits of the legislation matter? No. Do the concessions he forced from Democrats matter? No. Does the rest of the governor's far-right record matter? No.
It's a binary, pass-fail test -- Republicans are increasingly a mindless, anti-tax party, and even modest dissents will not be tolerated.
Indeed, the furious reaction to McDonnell from the right is probably only partially about McDonnell himself. The rest of the pushback is about sending a signal to other Republican policymakers -- in governors' offices, in Congress, et al -- that compromising to solve problems and address policy needs is simply unacceptable in 2013.
Even if serious attempts at governing are effectively impossible, it's a small price to pay, the right insists, for slightly lower tax revenues. Disagree? Then you're a centrist of no use to the party. (And if the governor of Virginia is now a "moderate," I'm in the running to be the next pope.)
Rachel talked a bit on the show last night about the GOP and its ideological "purges." That Bob McDonnell is on conservatives' chopping block reinforces the larger thesis that the party wants to be smaller, more rigid, and more ideologically pure, electoral consequences be damned.