Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Moment of Truth for the GOP

Now that the great government shutdown of 2013 is over, there has been a plethora of pontification from the pundits on who won and who lost. Let me just cut to the chase here: nobody won and everybody lost.

Really, $24 billion sucked out of the economy, hundreds of thousands of workers furloughed, no head start, no meals on wheels, the entire Republican Party reduced to the level of the Keystone Cops and a political process that is more polarized and paralyzed than at anytime in the history of the Republic. You find me a winner in there somewhere.

Yes it was refreshing to see Barack Obama finally stand his ground and refuse to negotiate with a loaded gun to his head. Obviously he learned his lesson after 2011. Hopefully he can bottle that newfound steadfastness; he's going to need it at least a few more times before he leaves office. And while we're at it, kudos to Harry Reid, who did most of the heavy lifting in the Senate. Nice all around job by both men.

Winners and losers aside, the real issue for me comes down to two basic questions: What have the Republicans learned from this debacle? What are they prepared to do about it? If the last few days are any indication, the answer to both is nothing.

Basically, the GOP has fractured into two factions: those who hate Obama and are committed to defeating him and his "agenda" at every turn but want everybody to see them as reasonable and those who hate Obama and are committed to defeating him and his "agenda" at every turn and don't give a rat's ass how they look or sound while they're doing it.

David Frum once said that the problem with the Republican Party wasn't its message but its messengers. I respectfully disagree. Want to know the difference between Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz? Simple, the latter is a sociopath. Aside from that, both men are virtually identical in their ideology and temperament. Let's not forget that long before Cruz got elected, it was McConnell who proudly declared that his number one objective was to make Obama a one-term president. That hardly sounds reasonable. In fact, it's straight out of the Roger Ailes play book.

Spare me all the moderate Republican hokum. There are no moderates in the Republican Party and there haven't been in a very long time.  The Party of Lincoln is now the Party of Goldwater. Want proof? The loudest critic of the GOP's tactics during the shutdown was none other than Peter King. If Peter King is a moderate than Sarah Palin is Elizabeth Warren. And then there was Tom Coburn, the so-called "friend" of Barack Obama who is another supposedly "moderate" Republican senator, gleefully boasting that defaulting on the debt was no big deal.

Give me a break!

Take a good, hard look at all the so-called moderate Republicans who had the "courage" to "challenge" their party the last two and a half weeks. What you'll find is startlingly. Almost to a man and woman they were united in their stance against Obama and his healthcare law. The difference came down to strategy. When Peter King called his party nuts, he was referring to its tactics, not its aims and goals.

The real problem with the Republican Party isn't just the crazies that have taken over, but the power structure in general. The Party has moved so far to the right over the last couple of decades that there just isn't any room for moderation to flourish. Show me an Eisenhower or a Teddy Roosevelt anywhere in this lot. Shit, show me a Nixon, for that matter. You won't find them, because the Party has basically chased them away. Old-guard conservatives like Dick Lugar and Olympia Snowe are being systematically purged like the plague. Chris Christie, one of the few independent voices left in the Party, is shunned and despised by the base.

It's easy to blame the Tea Party, but the fact is that there is no one in the GOP who has had the real courage to not only criticize the insanity within the rank and file, but the actual orthodoxy, as well. Basically, the main positions of the Republican Party have remained unchanged and unchallenged since Ronald Reagan rode his white horse into town. Oh, there have been a few dissenters - Bruce Bartlett comes to mind - but none of them have had the juice needed to affect change within the party apparatus. Truth is, I can't think of another political movement that has been this static and moribund for this long and survived.

Consequently, the Republican Party has been reduced to second tier status on a national level and wields power in the House only through the auspices of gerrymandering. In essence, you have competing interests within the Party. The House fears primary challenges; the Senate and RNC general elections. Schizophrenics are more stable.

And it is those competing interests that make it extremely unlikely that anything will change in the near future. The House is beholden to the interests of a narrow slice of the electorate. Without exception, every representative who voted for the debt-ceiling deal has a bull's eye on their back. Many of them will be primaried next year and some of them will lose to candidates even more extreme than they were.

While this is certainly good news for Democratic prospects down the road, it is bad news for the nation as a whole. Reoccurring crises may be fodder for the wing nuts who view it as their life's mission to take back a country they feel was stolen from them, but as a way of governing it is an abject failure. For the political process to work, both parties must be contributing partners.

This is a moment of truth for the GOP, a turning point, if you will. The Party can either learn from its mistake or it can continue along the same disastrous path that almost destroyed the U.S. and global economies. Expecting the Tea Party to change its tactics is naïve and dangerous; expecting that somehow this malignancy can be reasoned with or managed is equally delusional. Far from moderating or slowing up, the Tea Party is ramping up its efforts for the next fight. One does not reason with a madman.

In the late 1980s, the Democratic Party stood on the verge of electoral extinction. It had just been drubbed in its third consecutive presidential election. While it continued to hold Congress, nationally the party was seen as out of touch with the American mainstream. All seemed lost until the emergence of Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton ran a center-left campaign that appealed to voters and he won the general election that year. While progressives were disappointed, they managed to swallow their pride.

Admittedly, the spot Republicans find themselves in is far worse than the predicament Democrats were in 25 years ago. For one thing, progressives weren't threatening to destroy the country if their demands weren't met. But in many ways, the disconnect between the local and national parties was eerily similar. It wasn't until Clinton's election that Democrats had their epiphany. Ever since, they have been primarily a center-left party

My gut tells me that there are moderate Republicans out there; Republicans who don't think Obama is a socialist out to destroy America. They believe in lower taxes, but believe in investments in infrastructure and education. While they believe that there are some regulations that are excessive, they're not naïve enough to believe that corporate America should get carte blanche when it comes to the environment and the financial industry. They believe in a strong defense, but don't feel the Pentagon should have a larger budget than the next ten countries combined. While they are still pro-life, they reject the demonization of gays and lesbians that their party has made a living on.  Most of all they aren't locked in a "government is the problem" paradigm. They believe government does have a role to play in both society and the economy. For them it's a matter of degree.

I think there is a strong demand within the electorate for these moderate Republicans, as well as moderate Democrats. With all the talk about the bases driving their respective parties, it's center that drives the country. Fact is, Reagan's Democrats and Clinton's Republicans were the same demographic group. A Republican who could speak to that demographic would be more popular than most believe. He or she could easily be the next president.

It's hard to imagine, but forty years ago the Republican Party was considered mainstream. It was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency and established relations with Communist China. The Democratic Party, by contrast, appealed to what we might commonly refer to as fringe voters. It wasn't until Reagan, that the GOP began its long rightward march. The Tea Party is but the pièce de résistance of a thirty year journey.

The challenge for the Republican Party is to reclaim the place it once occupied in American politics, where policies like supply-side economics were rightfully called voodoo and compromise wasn't considered a four-letter word. It's important to remember the Tea Party didn't just seize control of the GOP; it was invited in with open arms.

The nice thing about invitations, though, is that they can be revoked. The GOP isn't helpless. They made this pact with the devil; they are more than capable of breaking it. All it takes is one or two brave souls to speak up and say "enough." To some extent we are already beginning to hear a few rumblings from within the rank and file. Some have grown tired of the shenanigans of Ted Cruz and his contingent. Frustration is also being expressed by the financial community who are long-time supporters of the GOP and are understandably concerned that this fringe element could threaten their interests. Some have vowed to take action if this doesn't abate. Such news is certainly reassuring.

But it will take a lot more than one or two voices in the choir and a few disgruntled donors to exorcize this demonic presence. Collectively, the Republican Party truly needs to take stock of itself. It must decide whether it wants to be taken seriously as a national party or whether it wants to remain the fringe party that it has become. Doubling down on failed strategies or cowering to extremist elements simply to appease a smaller and smaller insular demographic is a sure fire way to consign it to the same fate as that of the Whig Party.

One thing is certain, the country can't take this three ring circus much longer.

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