WASHINGTON -- The Cliven Bundy spectacle in Nevada has provided a Wild West backdrop for our hottest political issues as we gallop toward the midterm elections.
Politically, the conflict between the Bureau of Land Management and the Bundy family has highlighted the importance of picking one's battles wisely. Suffice to say, a smattering of pundits and politicians drank from the wrong chalice.
One day, Bundy was the new face for conservative opposition to federal expansionism, 2014's Joe the Plumber, a human metaphor for the last man armed and standing for freedom against the superior forces of federal agents.
Then, cue funeral dirge, Bundy wandered off-script and spoke his fevered mind. The tall, Stetson-topped Bundy wondered whether African-Americans weren't better off as slaves picking cotton than living on the plantation of government subsidy. The hook, the hook! Where's that dadgum hook?!
"Negroes," Bundy further observed, abort their babies and put their men in prisons. Young black males were in trouble, he said, because they hadn't been taught to pick cotton.
Obviously, there's no defending Bundy's remarks. Pundits and politicians, including most notably Sean Hannity, Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry quickly distanced themselves from the Bundy comments, though not, curiously, from his objections to the government's authority over grazing lands.
Well, of course they would disavow racist remarks. But they also never should have aligned themselves with someone who not only flouts the law but also has armed himself against government agents, indicating his willingness to protest through violence.
What's next, a shootout in Statuary Hall?
For years, meanwhile, Bundy has been enjoying the benefits of public property for grazing privileges without paying fees or taxes, as required by federal law and as reinforced by various court rulings through the years. He did pay local and state taxes, but refuses to recognize federal authority.
That Bundy has been acting illegally is not in dispute. The recent, made-for-media confrontation was in fact the finale in a years-long string of court battles, none of them resolved in Bundy's favor. Simply, Bundy doesn't recognize the U.S. government, period. Inarguably, he was not the brightest exhibit for conservative arguments for government- or self-restraint, not to mention the rule of law.
Initially, the standoff might have had a certain romantic appeal to sentimentalists weaned on cowboy flicks. The movie boards seemed vaguely familiar. The rogue rancher, his gun slung low, stands up to guvmint agents, defending his right to roam free and die young. Alarm and drama were magnified when agents confiscated and killed some of Bundy's cattle. Now that's a line too far.
Unfortunately for Bundy's defenders, Bundy wasn't Ben Cartwright and his boys defending the Ponderosa. He was the nameless half-wit who staggers out of the saloon, shooting up stars to stop the railroaders long after the train has left the station.
What were these conservative defenders thinking?
With the possible exception of Paul, they were thinking about their ratings and political base. Paul is an unapologetic libertarian and, therefore, easily sympathetic to those who contest aggressive federal rule. Perry was winking at secessionists before he began renovating his image with spectacles and a professorial air. Media are what they are.
The left does not entirely escape critique in this imbroglio. No sooner did Bundy launch his racist screed than leftward-leaning media began extrapolating Bundy's racism to signify racism throughout the Republican Party. One man's rant is not an institutional creed.
Thus, this liberal conflation is a sample of flawed logic. That said, it is not baseless. The GOP is not a party of racists, but it is a party with racists. At some political rallies in the South and elsewhere, Confederate flags do appear that can have only one purpose -- and it's not to celebrate heritage. Dog whistles also can be heard and anti-Obama signs and symbols often include the worst sort of racist stereotypes.
Are all Republicans racist? Of course not.
But Republicans should repent of associating with anyone espousing or endorsing such incendiary nastiness. And championing lawlessness does nothing to elevate discourse, civility or any of the other higher roads to which we might more enthusiastically aspire.
The GOP does not deserve to be indicted along with Bundy, but for too long the party has sown the wind by tolerating some of its less ennobled colleagues.
Cliven Bundy is their whirlwind.