Don't let the crazy eyes, gonzo antics or red meat rhetoric fool you: Andrew Breitbart is so GOP establishment. In his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he vowed that he'd fall in line behind the Republican nominee in 2012 regardless of his record, rhetoric or policies. "I don't care who our candidate is. I haven't cared since the beginning of this," he said, urging the crowd, "Ask not what the candidate can do for you. Ask what you can do for the candidate." It's the sort of thing Karl Rove would program conservative activists to say if they were robots.
Wasn't it supposed to be different this time?
When the Tea Party began, its adherents insisted that they'd no longer blindly support the GOP. The Bush years taught them that Republicans would betray conservatism as readily as anyone. Dozens of Tea Partiers assured me that they'd never again let their movement be co-opted. "Ask what you can do for the candidate," Breitbart now says. "And that's what the Tea Party is. We are here to confront them on behalf of our candidate." His personal pledge: "I will march behind whoever our candidate is because if we don't, we lose... Anyone that's willing to stand next to me to fight the progressive left, I will be in that bunker. And if you're not in that bunker because you're not satisfied with this candidate, more than shame on you. You're on the other side."
Hear that, disaffected conservative? Hold your nose and vote Romney or you're an Alinskyite progressive!
Given how Breitbart's speech ended, the beginning betrays a noteworthy lack of self-awareness. "Everything has changed. Everything has changed in the last few years," he said. "Conservatives used to take it. And we're not taking it anymore." If only that were so. The truth is that after the Tea Party, the Glenn Beck show, Big Government, James O'Keefe, lots of fantastically profitable quarters at Fox News, stellar ratings for talk radio, a booming conservative book market, and Breitbart antics aplenty, the right is about to choose among Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, three guys who bought into Bush-style conservatism.
Very little has actually changed in the last few years. The main difference is that Romney is a bit less acceptable to the right, but running in a field sufficiently weaker that he is more likely to win.
Breitbart doesn't perceive any of this because he now exists in a strange bubble of experiences: red meat speeches; a Twitter account deliberately aimed at provoking the detractors most likely to hurl vile insults; an email account filled with tips for his Web sites; and street confrontations with leftist activists.
Hence the paranoia.
Remember the people who took to the streets circa 2003 to oppose the Iraq War? "This is my thesis. The anti-war movement was never about anti-war," Breitbart says. "It was a Saul Alinsky organizing tactic to get Barack Obama and the left elected." (I guess Bush played right into their hands!) In the Breitbart bubble, Harvard isn't an elite university populated by careerist students and tenured business and economics faculty with close ties to Wall Street and the Fortune 500. They're "radicals at Beirut on the Charles." (Not that he'd hold attending against Mitt Romney or George Bush!)
In the Breitbart bubble, "Barack Obama is a radical. We should not be afraid to say that." How is he radical? "I've got videos. This time we're going to vet him. From his college days. We're going to show you why racial division and class warfare were central to what hope and change were to 2008."
Personally, I don't think Obama deserves a second term, due to his actually radical, Cheneyesque abuses of executive power, his violating the War Powers Resolution in Libya, his civil liberties abrogations, his broken promises on transparency, and his warrantless assassinations. I'll likely vote Gary Johnson at the ballot box. But if Breitbart plans to persuade the American people that Obama is stoking racial division; if he's seriously going to play the class warfare card against a guy who sinned by bailing out Wall Street rather than raging against it; he and his followers deserve to lose too, and to be ridiculed meanwhile for their absurdist narratives.
Usually, fanatically loyal partisans hurt an ideological movement by giving its leaders cover as they sell out. And hard core activists hurt a movement when they let their rhetoric cross over from rabble-rousing to self-discrediting nonsense. It's rare for someone to simultaneously hurt a movement in both of these ways. As a shameless Mitt Romney apologist, however, I have no doubt that Breitbart will manage it.