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Watch The Republican Grassroots

Throughout the week, Clay Risen, the managing editor of Democracy, will be covering economic developments for us on The Plank.

It's tempting for liberals, myself included, to look at the bad-news business-page headlines as good news for the Democrats' White House chances. McCain has already admitted that he doesn't know much about the economy, and his approach so far seems to be to take an even more hands-off approach to the market than Bush. But it goes beyond McCain: The combination of an economic meltdown after seven years of Republican leadership, combined with a failure by the administration to prevent it or even seem to take it very seriously, could lead to a waterloo for the contemporary conservative coalition.

Democrats, though, should be careful what they wish for. Unattached, who knows where the conservative base could end up. I was reminded of this by two events, of admittedly anecdotal quality, last week. On Monday I was on a radio talk show in south Alabama, debating whether or not there was a secret government plan to build a superhighway across the country as a precursor to a unification with Mexico and Canada--and, perforce, open borders. As much as I'd like to dismiss such talk out of hand, the show rammed home for me how pervasive this kind of talk is, and how it is a direct function of the GOP's failure to convince its base that free trade is a good idea.

A few days later I was at a dinner for the John Birch Society at the National Press Club. (What can I say--I was free that night.) Now, the Birchers are hardly about to take over the right. But they're gaining ground again, mostly because they've dropped all the old talk about communists and fluoridation in favor of a rabidly anti-trade, anti-immigrant, anti-Bush message. As soon as head Bircher John McManus, who led the talk, got to the Illuminati, I knew they were done for as anything more than a fringe of the fringe movement. What I took away from the meeting, though, was a sense that the underlying spirit behind the Birchers--and the anti-immigrant types, and the Ron Paul campaign, and the NAFTA superhighway myth, and the anti-trade right--is a pervasive and increasingly powerful grassroots force, so far unrealized in Washington.

It's perfectly possible that the GOP mainstream will figure out a way to diffuse that sentiment. But it's equally possible that a new generation of Karl Rove's will decide to harness it instead, much as their mentor did the religious right, and ride it into power, particularly if the economy takes a nose dive in the coming months.

--Clay Risen