Before recent events, I intended to write about the GOP's message problem with the headline: "Shoot the Messenger."
Sunday's fatal shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller makes my title inappropriate, but the idea remains relevant.
The adage, of course, is "Don't shoot the messenger," meaning we shouldn't necessarily blame the person who delivers bad news. For the Republican Party these days, however, the problem isn't so much the message. It's the messenger.
By grotesque coincidence, Tiller's murderer furthers the point.
It has long been a problem for the GOP that some of the party's cherished positions are embraced most enthusiastically by people whose grip on reality is sometimes …tenuous. This is especially true with regard to abortion.
There are certainly compelling secular arguments against abortion that one might be perfectly willing to hear. Then Randall Terry shows up.
Terry, the colorful founder of Operation Rescue, doesn't represent the Republican Party, but he is nevertheless the most familiar face of the antiabortion movement. When President Obama recently gave the commencement address at Notre Dame, who showed up to lead the protest but Terry and the equally odd carnival performer Alan Keyes?
Rather than persuading people to think differently about abortion, the Terry-Keyes act makes one want to write checks to Planned Parenthood. And smart Catholics, who were perfectly capable of articulating their objections to the president's invitation to America's premier Catholic university, were suddenly stuck in the frame with rabble-rousers who demean the message.
Such is the continuing dilemma of the GOP: How do you get out the message when the messengers keep getting in the way?
Now comes a fanatic with a gun. Let me be clear: I don't mean to compare Terry or Keyes to the shooter. The former are passionate protesters; the latter is a murderer.
Nor do I join those who accuse talk show host Bill O'Reilly and others who have spoken out against Tiller as somehow being responsible for his murder. The man who pulled the trigger is responsible for Tiller's death. Period.
That said, fire-breathers on the right don't help, whatever the cause. They may warm the base, but the Republican base is becoming a remote island in mainstream America. Everyone else is paddling away.
Accurately or not, the right-wing wacko contingent increasingly dominates the public perception of the GOP. And, fairly or not, that perception makes it easier for characters such as Scott Roeder, the suspected shooter, to become associated with the party.
Roeder is already emerging in stories as a right-wing character from central casting. Previously arrested on explosives charges, Roeder was once attracted to the Montana Freemen, best known for engaging FBI agents in an armed standoff in 1996. Roeder's ex-wife told the Associated Press that he had become "very religious, in an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye way. …That's all he cared about is anti-abortion. 'The church is this. G-d is this.' Yadda yadda."
Some Internet commentary even refers to Roeder as a "Christian terrorist." Let's see: Christian, pro-gun, anti-government, pro-life. Sounds like a Republican, right? Oh, and he's suspected of being an assassin. Connect them dots.
No, it isn't fair. The GOP can't control who joins the party, and Republicans don't have a corner on random crazies. But what the Democrats have that the Republicans lack is a moderating voice to neutralize the party's more strident characters. While Democrats have Obama, Republicans are stuck with the squeakiest wheel du jour.
One can convincingly argue that the media have a hand in perpetuating the conservative caricature, but the Republican Party has contributed to the distortion by pandering to its less rational elements. Still fresh in our minds is the last presidential election a strange season that might be attributed to GOP desperation if not for a prior history in times of political prosperity.
Two words: Terri Schiavo. During that 2005 Operation Rescue debacle complete with death vigils and lamentations Bill Frist, then the Senate majority leader and a practicing physician, lent credibility to the circus performers by diagnosing Schiavo's condition via video and challenging other medical opinion that she was in a persistent vegetative state.
And let's not forget how the GOP handled the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois against one Barack Obama. They inserted their own African American, none other than Alan Keyes. That worked out well.
We should never shoot the messenger, it should go without saying. But until the Republicans marginalize those who belong in the margins, they won't be attracting many new recruits. And the messengers will continue to obscure the message.