Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Overreach and Internal Discord: The Future of the G.O.P.

(November 2004)

In the eyes of the Republican Party, the American electorate has given them an unqualified mandate to lead the country on a sharp rightward turn. After all, they emerged from what was deemed the most important election in years with a wider lead in both houses of Congress, a slight majority of statehouses, and a president who even won the popular vote. In the words of the first commander-in-chief with an M.B.A., “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it”.

What that means is, from now until Bush’s last days as a lame-duck president, do not expect any policy changes lacking the right wing’s blessing – take House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s derailing of the 9/11 Commission’s intelligence reforms as Exhibit A. Since the 2004 election validated Karl Rove’s tend-the-base strategy, the captains of industry and evangelical groups expect payback for all their work towards their candidate’s re-election. And they are expecting more than just leftover scraps from the 2000 platform.

“Now comes the revolution”, blogger Richard Viguerie declares, “If you don’t implement a conservative agenda now, when do you?” And by conservative agenda, he and his comrades are not just talking about plugging a hole in progressives’ ambitions for the 21st century. Leaders in the GOP are talking about rolling back the progressive edifices of the 20th century. Income taxes – flattened. Social Security – privatized. In his victory speech, President Bush outlined his very own “vision thing”: an “Ownership Society” in which law-of-the-jungle free market economics is used to solve just about every problem ranging from health care to public education.

My impression is that the Republican Party is lapsing into a state of intoxication, and their drugs of choice are pride and ideology. According to exit polls, the reasons voters offered for giving President Bush another term were that they admired his overt religiosity, traditional values, and dogged rhetoric about fighting terrorism. When it comes to bread-and-butter economic issues, the Republican leadership simply does not have a mandate to carry out the sweeping changes that they promise; in fact, the positions voters preferred on taxes, health care, and Social Security belonged to John Kerry. Just as how Mr. Bush refused to answer reporters’ follow-up questions by invoking “the will of the people” during his post-victory press conference, the GOP is grotesquely misinterpreting whatever mandate to lead that it has earned. It is as though the people have given the Republicans their car keys in order to drive them home safely, but our designated drivers are taking it as an OK to drive to their favorite bar across town. And if those at the wheel are actually going to party as hard as they say they will, at the end of this ride we are going to find ourselves in a ditch.

Unsurprisingly, this agenda is not so palatable among the rank and file. Though the party marched in lockstep through the last election cycle, the Republican-on-Republican literary combat has already begun with Pat Buchanan’s latest book, Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency. The charge is that there is an ever-widening gulf between the party’s nascent big government, interventionist wing and the true inheritors of the conservative philosophy. True fiscal conservatives like Senator John McCain loathe the status quo of deficit spending, exploding national debt, and public policy tailored to special corporate interests. True legal conservatives like Senator Arlen Specter do not want domineering judges who remake the law in line with their own political whims. True rugged individualists, like the Cato Institute and the Alaska state legislature, are horrified by the Justice Department’s wanton disregard for civil liberties. But Republican politicians who dare to stray from the official line, such as Senator Specter, are tagged “RINO”s (Republican In Name Only) threatened with having their party’s nomination and committee chairmanships pulled out from under them.

Let us not overlook the overlook the ten-thousand-pound pink elephant which is spawning friction among the caucus: Iraq. If there has ever been an example of neo-conservative overreach, this it, for American troops are dying not to eliminate an explicit threat to national security, but to promote democracy in Fallujah. Republican Congressmen like Doug Bereuter of Nebraska and Ron Paul of Texas are joining the steady drip of dependable party men who can no longer support the war, and rightly so, for it clashes with the principles for which they have dedicated their entire careers.

So what can we anticipate from the Republican Party over the next four years? Barring a Democratic upheaval in the midterm elections, they should be able to achieve pretty much everything they want with ease, but this could very well be more of a curse than a blessing. As Tom DeLay wanted to have the Contract with America broken so that he could remain House Majority Leader while under indictment for criminal charges, his colleagues effortlessly exercised their wherewithal to see it done. That this is what the GOP is spending its “political capital” on, however, cannot possibly benefit the party’s standing in the long run, and conscientious Republicans who abide by their core values of prudence, restraint and personal responsibility are furious. By the time the next presidential primary season rolls around, expect the disciples of Edmund Burke to revolt against the charlatans who have sullied their proud tradition. And if their infighting gets ugly enough, it might just rip apart the Republican coalition.

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