Here’s a stunning development: the New York Times’s theater-critic-turned-political-columnist Frank Rich is foot-stompin’ mad. The cause for Mr. Rich’s latest outburst is the race in New York’s 23rd District, in which the liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava was challenged by the Conservative party’s Doug Hoffman, forcing Scozzafava to withdraw. (She subsequently endorsed the Democrat Bill Owens.) For most people, this is an interesting intra-party skirmish with some potentially important political ramifications. But for Mr. Rich, it’s so much more than that. It’s going to set off a “riotous and bloody national G.O.P. civil war.” The northern district in New York “could become a G.O.P. killing field.” What’s going on there is evidence that “the right has devolved into a wacky, paranoid cult that is as eager to eat its own as it is to destroy Obama.” And conservatives are “Jacobins” who are “re-enacting Stalinism in full purge mode.” And in case that was too subtle, they are “the Stalinists of the right.”
This is what passes for stylish and temperate discourse on the Left — references to the Civil War and to Cambodian genocide, to the French Revolution and to one of the greatest mass murders in history – all in the context of a congressional race in New York’s 23rd District, mind you.
This also comes from a man who in August wrote a column — without irony — warning about the rise of what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and who earlier this summer castigated conservatives for their “toxic” rhetoric that is “getting louder each day of the Obama presidency.” It could lead, Rich has warned several times, to political violence. Conservatives, you see, are so terribly uncivil and so terribly indecent in their rhetoric. Coming from Rich, it is all rather comical.
But Mr. Rich’s latest tantrum is an indication that conservatism, rather than being “dead,” is actually doing quite well. After all, if conservatism were as moribund as we’re told by Sam Tanenhaus and others – and if the Left was in the ascendancy – then the latter would presumably be in a relatively cheerful and celebratory mood, ignoring conservatives because they were irrelevant. Instead Rich and others on the Left are going around the twist because they sense that the political ground is shifting beneath their feet. Their political Messiah is turning out not only to be mortal but also deeply flawed. His policies are generating widespread and intense opposition. The public seems to be rejecting what Mr. Obama is offering; and what he is offering may well cost Democrats politically.
For liberals, Barack Obama was supposed to be (take your pick) our new FDR, our new Lincoln, or “sort of God.” It wasn’t supposed to be this hard — and now that it is, people like Frank Rich are lashing out in desperation. It will only get worse. When thinking about what this all might do to poor Mr. Rich, it’s worth recalling the children’s folk rhyme and the fate of one of the three geese in a flock. One flew East, one flew West, and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.