What’s Different About the New ‘New Right’?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 7, 2012 · 9:37 AM EDT

Thirty-five years ago, just before I came to the nation’s capital, a political force emerged nationally and in Washington, D.C.

The “New Right” was a movement of conservatives who preached a more consistent and confrontational conservatism and mobilized evangelicals for the battle ahead.

In many ways, the movement was a reaction to liberal Supreme Court decisions, the anti-war movement and the growth of governmental power during and after President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

The late Paul Weyrich was the foremost political strategist of the movement. He was joined by people such as Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, televangelist Jerry Falwell and direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie, all of whom (though there were differences in style and approach) wanted to steer the country dramatically to the right.

Today, there is a new anti-Washington, anti-government, conservative force in this country, though if the calls I receive are any indication, journalists are having trouble distinguishing among its various elements. The movement isn’t exactly homogeneous.

The Club for Growth, a generally libertarian economic organization supported by wealthy businessmen and anti-government types, isn’t the same as the so-called tea party, which is much more grass-roots, downscale and decentralized.

D.C.-based FreedomWorks sees itself as leading the tea party movement, though it is hard to say that a group that is chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) is anti-establishment. Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund describes itself as a “grassroots organization dedicated to electing strong conservative leaders to the United States Senate,” though it seems more like a platform for DeMint to maximize his own clout.

I have been trying to figure out how the current crop of conservatives — people such as GOP Sens. DeMint, Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.), and Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Paul Broun (Ga.) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.) — differ from the earlier version, which included Weyrich and elected officials such as Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.), Steve Symms (R-Idaho) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

I’ve finally concluded that the difference really isn’t in their agendas, values or goals. It isn’t their attitudes toward government or the Constitution. Both the old and new New Right generally have the same views on legal abortion, taxes, government spending, government bureaucrats and regulations.

The difference is in how they view the political process — nothing more and nothing less. But it turns out to be a significant difference.

When I spoke recently with a longtime political operative and strategist who worked closely with Weyrich in the early days of the New Right, he had no problem comparing the two movements.

“Paul used to say, ‘We’ll get what we can get and then try to come back for more later.’ He understood that you can’t get everything you want all at once. Conservatives today don’t care about short-term, incremental gains. In fact, you get the impression that they prefer total paralysis. They don’t worry about creating chaos.”

While Helms was known as “Senator No” because of his record of opposing Democratic initiatives, most conservatives treated compromise as a legitimate part of the legislative process. On most issues, particularly dollars-and-cents questions, which are particularly suited to compromise, they got and they gave.

Many in the new New Right, whether tea partyers, Club for Growth supporters, FreedomWorks activists or allies of DeMint, have an all-or-nothing approach to the legislative process. They see incremental gains as selling out, compromising on principle.

It’s fascinating to watch new New Right conservatives tag anyone who is not a perfect conservative in their eyes as a member of the establishment, a moderate or not a “real” Republican.

Thirty years ago, there were moderate and liberal Republicans in Congress, people like Illinois Sen. Chuck Percy, New York Sen. Jacob Javits, and Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee. There was a big difference between their views and the views of Idaho’s Symms and New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R).

But now, tiny distinctions, or differences in style and approach, are enough to create supposedly dramatic divisions in the GOP ranks.

Shortly after the Texas GOP Senate primary, the Club for Growth sent out an email referring to “moderate, establishment candidate David Dewhurst.”

The lieutenant governor’s opponent in the runoff, Ted Cruz, is the darling of most new New Right groups. DeMint, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, TV host Sean Hannity, RedState’s Erick Erickson, Paul and Amash all support him.

But Dewhurst is no moderate on the issues. He’s been endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the Texas Right to Life PAC and that “moderate” Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Dewhurst’s problem is that he has served in government and has had responsibility for making government work, so he hasn’t had the option of opposing everything. And that’s enough reason for DeMint, who once said that he would prefer 30 reliable conservative Senators over a majority if it included moderates, to favor Cruz over Dewhurst.

Of course, Dewhurst isn’t the only generally conservative Republican to be demonized by the new New Right.

Just two years ago, “conservatives” who supported Ken Buck for the GOP Senate nomination in Colorado portrayed former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton as a “moderate” and part of the “establishment.” Norton, who had the endorsement of former Sen. Armstrong and who endorsed Rick Santorum for president this year, was an unapologetic conservative. But because she was an officeholder, those in the new New Right attacked her.

This cycle, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) are also battling charges of “moderation” from conservative opponents backed by some new New Right groups.

There is irony here. Weyrich, who was regarded by many as a “bomb-thrower” in his heyday, suddenly looks like a relative moderate in his understanding of the give-and-take nature of legislative process. The same goes for Ronald Reagan, the hero of many in the new New Right.