Little Mr. Asshat has produced “A Hole in the Center,” and opines that the Republican Party needs centrists, but not unprincipled ones like Arlen Specter. Bobo gives us “The Long Voyage Home,” and says Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom that they are no longer the party of community and order. Crap — I just had a flashback to Tricky Dicky’s cries for Lawn Order… Mr. Herbert, in “Jack Kemp’s Futile Quest,” says Jack Kemp meant well, but the great irony that cloaked his career was that it was not possible to achieve the ends he sought using the means he pushed with such zeal. Here’s Asshat:
You can’t have a successful political party without centrists. Happily for Republicans still smarting from last week’s defection, you can have a successful political party without centrists like Arlen Specter.
Political debates are often framed in binaries: Middle-of-the-roaders versus hard-liners, moderates versus ideologues. But American politics is more complicated than that. There are multiple rights and lefts, and multiple middles as well. So-called extremists can serve the country well. And self-conscious moderates can be intellectually bankrupt.
Specter himself is an almost too-perfect example of this point. The Republican Party will miss the Pennsylvania senator’s vote, but it’s hard to imagine anyone taking inspiration from such a consummately unprincipled figure.
The larger species to which he belonged — Republicanus Rockefellus, the endangered Northeastern moderate — likewise has little to offer a party in distress. Indeed, if you listen carefully to high-profile Yankee moderates like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee, who fanned out across op-ed pages and TV shows last week to bemoan their marginalization, it seems as though they don’t even understand their own political situation, let alone the Republican Party’s.
The Northeastern moderates tend to style themselves as fiscal conservatives, spinning a narrative in which they’re the victims of a doctrinaire social conservatism and its litmus tests. But many of them are just instinctive liberals who happen to have ancestral ties to the Grand Old Party. Chafee fit that bill; so did former Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, who amassed a distinctly left-wing record after he bolted the Republican Party in 2001 to become an “independent.” For that matter, so does the retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a New England native and Republican appointee who often gets described as a moderate, but boasts the jurisprudence of a reliable liberal.
Others, like Collins and Snowe and (until last week) Specter, are simply horse-traders and deal-cutters, whose willingness to cross party lines last month to vote for $800 billion dollars in deficit spending tells you most of what you need to know about their supposed fiscal conservatism. They’re politically savvy but intellectually vacuous. Their highest allegiance isn’t to limited government. It’s to meeting the party in power halfway, while making sure that the dollars keep flowing to their constituents back home.
In this sense, they’re the Republican equivalent of Southern Democrats like John Breaux and Billy Tauzin, who survived the South’s gradual rightward turn in the 1980s by mastering the art of the congressional deal. (Tauzin, tellingly, pulled a reverse-Specter after the 1994 Republican landslide and joined Newt Gingrich’s majority.) This sort of politics will always be with us, and no doubt Mainers, in particular, are grateful that their senators are so good at the Senate’s backroom politics. But the idea that peeling a $100 billion dollars off whatever the Democrats ask for and declaring victory represents some kind of path forward for a reeling Republican Party is risible.
This doesn’t mean that Republicans should be happy that their tent is shrinking toward political irrelevance. But more Lincoln Chafees and Olympia Snowes aren’t the answer. What’s required instead is a better sort of centrist. The Reagan-era wave of Republican policy innovation — embodied, among others, by the late Jack Kemp — has calcified in much the same way that liberalism calcified a generation ago. And so in place of hacks and deal-makers, the Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.
Hart, Clinton and their peers were critical of their own side’s orthodoxies, but you couldn’t imagine them jumping ship to join the Republicans. They were deeply rooted in liberal politics, but they had definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals.
No equivalent faction — rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today. Maybe something like it can grow out of the listening tour that various Republican power players are embarking on this month. Maybe it can bubble up outside the Beltway — from swing-state governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or reformists in deep-red states, like the much-touted Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. But to succeed, such a faction will have to represent something legitimately new in right-of-center politics. It can’t sound like Rush Limbaugh — but it can’t sound like Arlen Specter either.
Would someone who gives a crap about him please tell him that Republicans have made it their cause in life to stamp out centrists? Here’s Bobo:
Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes — freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.
But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.
For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, “My Darling Clementine,” Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners.
The movie, in other words, is really about religion, education, science, culture, etiquette and rule of law — the pillars of community. In Ford’s movie, as in real life, the story of Western settlement is the story of community-building. Instead of celebrating untrammeled freedom and the lone pioneer, Ford’s movies dwell affectionately on the social customs that Americans cherish — the gatherings at the local barbershop and the church social, the gossip with the cop and the bartender and the hotel clerk.
Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.
They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids? The answers would produce an agenda: the disruption caused by a boom and bust economy; the fragility of the American family; the explosion of public and private debt; the wild swings in energy costs; the fraying of the health care system; the segmentation of society and the way the ladders of social mobility seem to be dissolving.
But the Republican Party has mis-learned that history. The party sometimes seems cut off from the concrete relationships of neighborhood life. Republicans are so much the party of individualism and freedom these days that they are no longer the party of community and order. This puts them out of touch with the young, who are exceptionally community-oriented. It gives them nothing to say to the lower middle class, who fear that capitalism has gone haywire. It gives them little to say to the upper middle class, who are interested in the environment and other common concerns.
The Republicans talk more about the market than about society, more about income than quality of life. They celebrate capitalism, which is a means, and are inarticulate about the good life, which is the end. They take things like tax cuts, which are tactics that are good in some circumstances, and elevate them to holy principle, to be pursued in all circumstances.
The emphasis on freedom and individual choice may work in the sparsely populated parts of the country. People there naturally want to do whatever they want on their own land. But it doesn’t work in the densely populated parts of the country: the cities and suburbs where Republicans are getting slaughtered. People in these areas understand that their lives are profoundly influenced by other people’s individual choices. People there are used to worrying about the health of the communal order.
In these places, Democrats have been able to establish themselves as the safe and orderly party. President Obama has made responsibility his core theme and has emerged as a calm, reassuring presence (even as he runs up the debt and intervenes rashly in sector after sector).
If the Republicans are going to rebound, they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of civic order. First, they will have to stylistically decontaminate their brand. That means they will have to find a leader who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable.
Then they will have to explain that there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded.
Both of these visions are now contained within the Democratic Party. The Republicans know they need to change but seem almost imprisoned by old themes that no longer resonate. The answer is to be found in devotion to community and order, and in the bonds that built the nation.
Those two on the same day are almost enough to drive me to putting gin on my cornflakes… Here’s Mr. Herbert:
I remember Jack Kemp from way back, from his football days. He was the all-star quarterback for the Buffalo Bills in the game in 1965 in which Joe Namath made his first start for the New York Jets. The United States was at war and Lyndon Johnson was drafting every young man he could get his hands on for his buildup of forces in Vietnam, but neither Kemp nor Namath had to worry about that. Football injuries made them unfit for service.
Kemp and the Bills beat Namath and the Jets on that September afternoon in Buffalo, 33-21.
Kemp, who died on Saturday from cancer, would later be much better known for his long career as a conservative Republican politician. He had two very big ideas for his party. One was terrific, spot on. The other couldn’t have been more boneheaded. The G.O.P. being the G.O.P. rejected the good idea and went hog wild for the boneheaded one.
Kemp’s good idea was that the Republicans should vastly expand their tent, get past their narrow-mindedness and begin actively seeking the support of blacks and other ethnic minorities.
The G.O.P. would have none of it. It was, after all, the party of the southern strategy, and there was precious little that was racially enlightened about its conservative wing. One of the writers who influenced Kemp’s thinking about politics, William F. Buckley, was at the opposite pole of Kemp’s progressive thinking about race. Buckley took a scurrilous stand in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated the nation’s public schools.
Whites, being superior, were well within their rights to discriminate against blacks, according to Buckley. “The White community is so entitled,” he wrote, “because, for the time being, it is the advanced race …”
Kemp was whistling in a hurricane.
The bad idea, advanced by Kemp with fanatical energy and devotion, was supply-side economics — “voodoo economics,” as George H.W. Bush so famously and rightly derided it. Supply-siders saw tax cuts as the answer to every prayer. Cut taxes, they argued, and watch the economy take off like a rocket.
What they never spelled out for the electorate was that most of the tax cuts would go to the rich, that the rich would harvest most of the money from the increased economic activity, and that the radically reduced tax revenue would send government budget deficits streaking toward the moon.
Kemp professed not to be worried about the deficits. He seemed to have believed that somehow everything would work out. The ultramilitants to his right, people even further out in their orthodoxy than Kemp, were delighted by the deficits. They wanted to “starve the beast,” reduce the government’s revenues to the point where elected officials would have no choice but to cut programs and services that benefited people who were not rich. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were primary targets.
“Our goal,” said Grover Norquist, “is to shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Norquist, a driving force behind the George W. Bush tax cuts, once called John McCain a “tax-increasing Bolshevik.” We are talking about weirdness of a very high order here, and that weirdness dominated the economic policies of the United States for years.
Working people were told they should sign onto this craziness because the economic benefits of supply-side tax policies would ultimately benefit everyone. As every scheme imaginable was developed to bolster the fortunes of the rich, ordinary people were left in the humiliating position of waiting for some of the goodies to trickle down to them.
We’ve seen how it all worked out.
The way to look at the endless theoretical and intellectual posturing of the right is to look at who actually does well when the so-called conservative policies are implemented, and who doesn’t. Inevitably it’s the rich who benefit.
Jack Kemp meant well, but the great irony that cloaked his entire career was that it was not possible to achieve the ends he sought using the means he pushed with such zeal. He wanted to help the middle class and the poor. He wanted the nation’s inner cities to thrive, and he wanted America’s prosperity to be broadly shared.
But he chose as his vehicle the party of the rich. The changes he advocated and helped shepherd into law went far beyond correcting excesses in the tax code. They radically transformed the economic system in ways that proved a boon to those who were already wealthy, were harmful to the very people he wanted to help and eventually left the overall economy in ruins.
In Saturday’s column, I mistakenly referred to Jim DeMint as the governor of South Carolina. He is a U.S. senator.
And a buffoon.