A weekend of binge-watching fictional Vice President Frank Underwood scheme for power on the Netflix political drama "House of Cards" has put me in a frame of mind to think Mitch McConnell is probably right about something. The leader of the Senate Republicans has accused a political action committee that claims to speak for the tea party of being in the game only for the money.
The PAC in question is the Senate Conservatives Fund, a right-wing campaign group founded by Jim DeMint, the ex-senator from South Carolina who now runs the hyper-conservative Heritage Foundation. The SCF is backing a tea party challenger against McConnell in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary.
McConnell's campaign is hitting back with an ad that claims the SCF "solicits money under the guise of advocating for conservative principles but then spends it on a $1.4-million luxury townhouse with a wine cellar and hot tub in Washington, D.C."
McConnell could probably say the same about the vast fleet of political groups that sails on the ocean of corporate money that inundates American politics. It is impossible to believe all those political operatives are motivated by pure patriotism. Those people get wealthier with every campaign and thrive on ideological discord, whether that discord is real or manufactured. It's a pretty sweet racket.
All the elderly tea party folks in their tricorn hats with their paranoid view of government do not get their ideas only from talk radio, they also get them from fear-mongering mailings from conservative PACs -- mailings that generally end with a solicitation for money. That's nickel-and-dime stuff, though. The bulk of the money raked in by groups such as the SCF, the Club for Growth, Freedom Works and the Madison Project comes from much bigger donors -- self-interested rich guys, such as the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers.
In 2012, a chunk of that money went toward successfully unseating several GOP incumbents deemed lacking in conservative fervor. McConnell believes that Republicans could have won the Senate two years ago if the tea party PACs had not saddled them with a batch of insurgent candidates who turned out to be yahoos who scared off independent voters. This time around, with an even better chance of taking over and becoming majority leader, McConnell is outraged that he and two other Senate Republicans, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas, are being targeted in the primaries by the conservative groups.
After several years of placating the tea party and getting nothing for it, McConnell and establishment Republicans are pushing back. In an interview with the New York Times, McConnell let it be known that he believes he has his adversaries on the run. "I think we are going to crush them everywhere," the senator said. "I don't think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country."
Those comments caused many right-wingers to freak out. "Making such inflammatory comments about fellow conservatives, especially in the Times of all places, only serves to fan the flames of intra-party distrust and resentment," Town Hall's Guy Benson wrote in a blog on Monday. "The timing and intensity of McConnell's smack down is redolent of House Speaker John Boehner's rant against certain conservative organizations during the Ryan/Murray budget debate."
McConnell could fairly respond that those "flames of intra-party distrust and resentment" were first lit by the PACs who have been targeting GOP incumbents." On Monday afternoon, however, he issued a statement that tried to make clear he was not attacking the tea party, per se. Insisting he is a supporter of the tea party and "the conservative change it's bringing to Washington," he went on to call the Senate Conservative Fund "a rogue political operation that has co-opted the Liberty movement for its own enrichment to the detriment of the conservative cause."
As always, it is worth noting that, in the words of George Wallace, there is really "not a dime's worth of difference" between McConnell's conservatism and the conservatism of those trying to unseat him. Sure, there is genuine disagreement over tactics and perceptions of ideological purity, but, like most political fights, it's mostly about those who have power wanting to keep it, those who don't have power wanting to take it and those who benefit from fanning the flames of discord wanting to make a bundle of cash for their efforts.