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Newsweek's Alter: 'Radical Republicans' Have 'Extreme Agenda,' Progressives 'Need to Learn What the Stakes Are'

Appearing as a guest on Tuesday's Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter repeatedly characterized the conservative wing of the Republican party as "radical" and "extreme" as he and host Maddow discussed the possibility that conservative talk radio host Bill Cunningham would broadcast his radio show from House Minority Leader John Boehner's office on Election Day. Alter asserted that the Republican party became radical in 1994, and soon advised "progressives" that they "need to learn a little bit about what the stakes are" because Republicans currently have a "radical agenda." Alter:

You know, it began in 1994. That was where we got radical Republican leadership for the first time. The reason that they succeeded was that the moderate Republican leadership of the old days had failed to regain control of the House of Representatives. So the lesson after '94 was: Be radical and maybe you can come back into power. ... so the message is not really for other Republicans. The message is for Democrats and how much do Democrats care about turning over a branch of our government to extremists, to radicals.

He soon concluded:

I do think it's a challenge for progressives, who are saying, 'Oh, I'm not, you know, I'm disappointed in Obama. I'm not that excited, you know. I'm not going to work the way I did the last time.' Well, they need to learn a little bit about what the stakes are. So an incident like this reminds us that we're talking about a different crowd with a radical agenda that they want to impose on our country.

It is no wonder that Alter would find the views of conservatives "radical," since last November, as he recounted that conservatives like former Congressman Bob Barr, Grover Norquist and David Keene are "principled conservatives" as they disagreed with Rudy Giuliani on the trying of terrorist suspects in civilian courts, Alter admitted to disagreeing with conservatives 98 percent of the time. Alter: "But, you know, they are principled conservative - even if you disagree, as I do with, you know, 98 percent of what they stand for."

Below is a complete transcript of the segment with Jonathan Alter from the Tuesday, August 31, Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC:

RACHEL MADDOW: So if we believe [Bill Cunningham], the "Obama's a Muslim" radio guy who so horrified the Republican leadership in 2008 that they apologized for him and repudiated him and said they regretted him being at a John McCain event, he now says he has been invited by the Republican leadership to broadcast from House Republican Leader John Boehner's office on Election Day. Now, we asked John Boehner's office to confirm talk show host Bill Cunningham's claims about this invitation. Mr. Boehner's office replied to us tonight saying in part, quote, "Leader Boehner has made no plans for election night." So maybe it will happen, maybe it won't.

But if the anti-Obama attacks that were deemed out of line and out of bounds by Republicans during the smash mouth presidential campaign are now back in bounds, that stuff's now okay, then I want to know is there any new line? Is there anything anymore that is too much of a low blow? Joining us now is Jonathan Alter, Newsweek senior editor and columnist and MSNBC contributor. His latest book is The Promise: President Obama Year One. Jonathan, thanks very much.

JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK: Hi, Rachel.

MADDOW: Hi. Is there less of a down side in a midterm than there is in a presidential election to latching the party onto one of these "Obama's a Muslim" far-right guys?

ALTER: You know, I don't think they're even kind of making that kind of cool, political judgment. They have just become a talk show party. You know, Obama asked them, the Republican leadership, point blank in February of 2009, in a private meeting that I have in my book, "Do you want to be the party of Rush Limbaugh?" And they didn't answer the question, but the answer is apparently yes. They are willing to latch themselves to these extreme folks. And this represents a pretty big change in American politics because we're not talking about obscure back benchers. We're talking about the leadership of one of our major political parties, and there is a very strong possibility that John Boehner will be the next Speaker of the House of Representatives, in line in presidential succession.

MADDOW: In terms of John Boehner's role, though, we talked a week ago about whether or not him becoming an opposite number to President Obama for these elections was a good thing for Democrats or a good thing for Republicans. We thought it seemed like a bad choice for Republicans. But if they really are having talk show hosts broadcast from his office on election night, that not only says they think they're going to win, but it says that they really do want him to be the center of attention, doesn't it?

ALTER: Well, they just are, you know, looking forward to a big victory. I mean, Boehner is getting kind of cocky at this point. So whether they've made these plans with this guy Cunningham or not, who knows? Cunningham insists that he has been invited in there. But the larger point still obtains that they are willing to be associated with people who are out of bounds. Now, the clip just showed, you know, that he called him Barack Hussein Obama. At this point, since Obama decided on Inauguration Day to be sworn in as Barack Hussein Obama, that insult doesn't sound that terrible. But this is a guy who has said that Obama has the mark of the beast on him, that he's the anti-Christ. Cunningham has said that. So we're talking about some pretty wacky stuff, and I think one of the big stories of our politics is that the wacky has now moved from the fringe into the center of our politics.

MADDOW: But it does imply some sort of calculation that that's a good move, that the excitement that you get for people who are far right, from bringing in people like that, compensates for any price you'll pay with anybody who considers themselves a moderate. Is it just a calculation that there are no moderates anymore?

ALTER: Well, remember, they're still in primary mode. And in primary mode, there's a great danger within the Republican party in seeming moderate. It's almost a dirty word to be moderate. Look at what happened to Senator Bennett of Utah, which is a classic example, a very conservative Senator. But, you know, he dared to work with some Democrats on some moderate legislation. And he was just, you know, thrown out of the party. So this is not your father`s Republican party. This is a different kind of political party nowadays, and I think the entire political system is just beginning to accommodate itself to this. You know, it began in 1994. That was where we got radical Republican leadership for the first time. The reason that they succeeded was that the moderate Republican leadership of the old days had failed to regain control of the House of Representatives. So the lesson after '94 was: Be radical and maybe you can come back into power.

MADDOW: Yeah, count on your base. Don't count on the middle.

ALTER: Right, so the message is not really for other Republicans. The message is for Democrats and how much do Democrats care about turning over a branch of our government to extremists, to radicals. And so if this can't close the so-called enthusiasm-

MADDOW: Enthusiasm gap?

ALTER: -gap, you know, what can? And I do think it's a challenge for progressives, who are saying, "Oh, I'm not, you know, I'm disappointed in Obama. I'm not that excited, you know. I'm not going to work the way I did the last time." Well, they need to learn a little bit about what the stakes are. So an incident like this reminds us that we're talking about a different crowd with a radical agenda that they want to impose on our country.

MADDOW: Jonathan Alter of, Jonathan Alter, I'm sorry, an MSNBC contributor, the author of The Promise about President Obama's first year in office. It is great to have you here. Thanks, Jon.

ALTER: Great to see you, Rachel.

-Brad Wilmouth is a news analyst at the Media Research Center.