Democrats Go Looking for An Antichrist Superstar

Are Democrats smart to hope that gaffe-prone, crazy Republicans will save them?
Photograph by Getty Images

The very first question at John Boehner's post-election press conference went to CBS News reporter Nancy Cordes. She asked Boehner what he expected from a slightly larger GOP conference, given that it included men who thought "that women need to submit to the authority of their husbands, that Hillary Clinton is the anti-Christ and that the families of Sandy Hook victims should just get over it."

That same day, Politico's Alex Isenstadt wrote a think-piece asking how the new class of "10 to 20 Michelle Bachmanns" would adjust to the House, and to Boehner. "In Montana," wrote Isenstadt, "there is Ryan Zinke, who calls Hillary Clinton 'the anti-Christ.'"

Conservatives are growing annoyed with this meme, understandably so. The press is asking legitimate questions, earned from the exhausting experiences of 2011 and 2013. Does Boehner have enough reasonable Republicans to overcome the margin of kookery? Will he be able to get bills through with 30-odd Republicans revolting and throwing the House into chaos? As Cordes asked, will the new conference jam him on immigration reform like the last conference did?

The problem, for conservative readers, is that these questions appear in the context of asking—already—how the GOP will blow it in 2016. "It’s entirely possible that the 2014 conservative wave ends in an unpleasant—and possibly fatal—backwash," wrote Isenstadt. It's not just that the new GOP has expressed little interest in immigration reform, and the establishment thinks that needs to happen in order to beat Hillary Clinton. (The jury's out, if you ask me.) It's that future GOP candidates will be driven to the right by these 'wingers.'

Last month I traveled to Wisconsin to meet one of the Bachmanns-in-waiting and see how this might shake out. I found that Glenn Grothman, who comes in for rough treatment from Isenstadt, was highly aware of his negative coverage from national media, happy to talk but wary of releasing his schedule for trackers. Come January, when reporters can bug him in the halls of Congress, he'll have a tougher time avoiding questions. But Republicans invested quite a bit of energy this cycle in telling their candidates how to avoid gaffes and being the "next Todd Akin," going as far (on the Senate side) to fake-ambush them with trackers and play back the video.

Will some of the unvarnished Republicans make gaffes ready for their Jon Stewart/John Oliver/Bill Maher close-ups? Yes. But the press might already be over-rating the damage. Example one: It appears that Cordes's example of a freshman Republican saying "families of Sandy Hook victims should just get over it" was a reference to Representative-elect Tom Emmer, who's taking Bachmann's seat. The comment was made not by Emmer, but by his co-host on a defunct radio show.

And about that "anti-Christ." There is no real dispute that Zinke made the remark, and, sadly, no argument that it was under-covered. In January 2014, when Zinke entered his House race, trackers and national reporters had largely given up on Montana as a source of competitive races. The "anti-Christ" comment was reported thusly:

“We need to focus on the real enemy,” he said, referring to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he called the “anti-Christ.”

After the comment went viral, the Daily Inter Lake's Jim Mann talked to Zinke. From his interview:

"I would say this: It was perhaps a little harsh," said Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL and former state senator from Whitefish. "But I had two friends in Benghazi and the truth does matter."

Clinton and others in the Obama administration initially said an anti-Muslim film made in the United States was the catalyst for the attack, a claim that has been largely refuted.

Zinke also pointed to revelations in a recent book by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. In the book, it's purported that Clinton "openly admitted that she had not supported the surge [in Iraq] for political reasons," Zinke said.

"I think it's unacceptable to have someone put politics ahead of the safety of our troops as the commander in chief," he said, referring to the possibility that Clinton will run for president in 2016.

So he was using hyperbole, the kind you'd expect from a co-founder of "Special Operations Speaks," a political action committee founded to batter the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign over its alleged exploitation of the Osama bin Laden operation. But given the chance to explain "anti-Christ," he pivoted to Benghazi--sounds crazy to Democrats, but is well within the Republican mainstream. 

Zinke represents a conservative state. Other members, from gerrymandered seats, can make gaffes with aplomb and win anyway. The Democratic hope that these members will give them something to run against has yet to be validated.

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