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Tactical Radicalism: The Empire Strikes Back

A couple months ago, I mused about the outbreak of tactical radicalism -- the belief that ideological extremism carries no political cost whatsoever -- among Republicans. Why, I asked, were Republicans standing aside and letting primary voters select nominees who had a much lower chance of winning? Where was the Republican establishment?

Now the establishment is taking a stand in Delaware. The establishment choice is Mike Castle, a moderate-ish member of the House who is running for Senate, where he would be a prohibitive favorite in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Running against him is Tea Party favorite Christine O-Donnell. If she defeats Castle in the GOP primary, O'Donnell would turn a strong likelihood of a Senate pickup into a near-certain loss. And you're starting to see the Republican establishment take her on. The Washington Examiner, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have lambasted O'Donnell, whose ideology closely mirrors their own. The Delaware GOP is going after O'Donnell hard.

But O'Donnell seems to be surging anyway. A new PPP poll has her ahead of Castle. Castle's image has turned sharply negative within the Republican base, and understandably so. In a party in which even the tiniest whisper of a hint of deviation is no longer acceptable -- Robert Bennett was swept out for having briefly considered a bipartisan health care reform that went nowhere -- Castle's votes for cap and trade, pro-choice stance and other acts of moderation are totally intolerable.

Now, the fact is that Castle is the only Republican who can win in a state like Delaware. But that argument is very hard to make to Republican voters in the current climate. They are intoxicated with their belief that they represent The People, that there is no political price for being too conservative. The party establishment has been stoking that intoxication for a long time. Now it's coming back to bite them.