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Republican Extremism and the Lessons of History

This crisis is about nothing other than the Republican Party – its radicalization, its stunning lack of leadership and its disregard for the Constitution

Powerless to control his caucus, John Boehner has proved to be one of the weakest congressional leaders in American history.
J. Scott Applewhite
October 10, 2013 11:10 AM ET

This latest episode in the endless Republican reality show is not chiefly about the incompetence and incessant squabbling of ideologues and petty politicians, although it's that, too. Nor is it the outcome of the intense partisan polarization that has thrown Washington into gridlock, as if the problem is abstract partisanship itself, with Democrats and Republicans equally at fault. Least of all is it about rescuing the economy from the Democrats' profligate deficit spending, as Republicans claim – not with the deficit shrinking to its lowest level since the financial disaster of 2008 and with the outlook improving. This crisis is about nothing other than the Republican Party – its radicalization, its stunning lack of leadership and its disregard for the Constitution.

Inside the Republican Suicide Machine: How the GOP Is Tearing America Apart

The Republicans have now joined a relatively small number of major American political parties that became the captive of a narrow ideology and either jettisoned or silenced their more moderate elements. The Democratic Party suffered this fate in the 1840s and 1850s, when Southern slaveholders took command of the party's levers of power. So, temporarily, did the Republicans in 1964, when Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign claimed the party for extremists on the right, an augury of things to come. But today's Republicans, whatever their pretensions about channeling the Founding Fathers, are so contemptuous of American history and institutions that they cannot learn from even their own recent past.

Like earlier declines into dogmatic politics, the Republicans descended gradually, beginning with Ronald Reagan's departure from the White House in 1989. Reagan had governed shrewdly. While getting his way on what he thought was important, including dramatically lowering marginal tax rates and combating the Soviet Union, he knew how to compromise. He also knew how to exploit the culture wars, paying lip service to causes like the "pro-life" movement without risking any political capital on them. Reagan adroitly kept his true- believer supporters in line even as he raised taxes no fewer than 11 times, raised government spending by 57 percent (in current dollars), and nearly tripled the national debt to $2.6 trillion. Yet while Reagan's success continued to shape national politics for decades after he left office, he alone proved capable of holding together the conservative coalition that had swept him to power.

With no clear-cut successor on the right, the GOP turned to a scion of the old GOP establishment, George Herbert Walker Bush. Deepening divisions between center-right Republicans like Bush and a new crop of Republican right-wing firebrands like Newt Gingrich contributed heavily to Bush's ouster in 1992. Bill Clinton's innovative center-left politics seemed to revive the Democrats and sent the Republicans into paroxysms that fed their further shift to the right. But even though Clinton won re-election in 1996, his own precarious coalition did not hold. With George W. Bush's victory in 2000, engineered by a one-vote majority of the conservative phalanx on the Supreme Court, the post-Reagan GOP reached a new and more radical phase.

After an unsteady start, the new Bush administration won enormous popular support following the terrorist atrocities of September 11th, 2001. In time, his popularity diminished, but it proved strong enough to secure – narrowly – his re-election in 2004. Despite the thinness of the president's margin of victory, Bush's political strategist Karl Rove spoke of a "permanent Republican majority" that would last for a generation or more. In the conservative Weekly Standard, the pundit Fred Barnes remarked, almost matter-of-factly, that "Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades."

Four years later, the Bush administration was in its death spiral. The economy was on the brink of collapse in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis traceable to the utter lack of oversight and regulation of an out-of-control financial sector. Anger over the Iraq War, the government's passive early response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and more, had caused the president's public-approval ratings to plunge. Two years earlier, the Democrats had regained a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in more than a decade, giving them virtual control of both houses of Congress.

The anti-Bush backlash, though, was not confined to Democrats and independents. Bush had already stirred resentment on the right during his first term with his unfunded Medicare prescription-drug reforms, which many hard-line conservative Republicans viewed as a big-government betrayal. Early in his second term, Bush tried and failed to advance the privatization of Social Security, which would have put the program in the hands of the bankers, derivatives speculators and mortgage brokers. Had it worked, Bush might have gained some credibility among the hard-liners, who had long dreamed of destroying the ultimate New Deal program. Then Bush enraged much of the Republican base with his efforts to liberalize immigration policy. But it was his drastic interventions in the wake of the financial crisis to bail out the floundering banks that most offended the right wing of his party. They saw Bush's prudent actions to prevent complete economic disaster as his final act of big-government treason. The ensuing protests sparked the uprisings that turned into the Tea Party phenomenon.

The Republicans' continuing transformation into a narrow ideological party, which some observers thought would halt after Bush's failure, would have many more cycles to go. Battered and discouraged, the GOP nominated Sen. John McCain, the last major national Republican whose career stretched back to the glory years of Ronald Reagan, but his reputation for irascible independence made the right-wing Republicans worse than squeamish. In desperation for party unity, McCain opted for the inexperienced, ignorant but unassailably far-right Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, momentarily exciting the party base but, in the long run, damaging his hopes with the rest of the electorate. Sen. Barack Obama won handily, the greatest Democratic presidential victory in nearly half a century.

The Tea Party uprising helped the Republicans regain the House in 2010, in the wake of Obama's legislative victories in enacting a large, if insufficient, economic stimulus package and a diluted but nevertheless historic national health care law. Yet the Republicans' apparent rebound was actually dismaying to party politicos who had historic connections to the party's more traditional and less dogmatic conservatism. Among the most powerful of them, Karl Rove, disdainfully remarked in 2010 that the Tea Party did not strike him as particularly "sophisticated." In last year's presidential election, it took Rove and his favored candidate, Mitt Romney, until late in the primary season to fend off a bewildering gaggle of conservative hard-liners. To secure the nomination, Romney had to adopt positions popular inside Tea Party circles but fatal in the general election, including naming the Ayn Rand-admiring congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate.

For their part, the Democrats – and, in particular, the Obama White House – actively resisted understanding how much the rightward push had radicalized the Republican Party, especially its caucus in the House of Representatives. Disappointing his ardent left supporters from the 2008 campaign who fantasized he would be their "movement" president, it turned out that Obama actually believed his own campaign rhetoric about ushering in a new post-partisan spirit to the nation's capital. Predictably, he failed. Not a single House Republican and only three in the Senate voted in favor of the administration's stimulus package in 2009. After almost a year of bargaining and stalling, Congress finally passed a watered-down version of the president's health care reform bill early in 2010. Not a single Republican, in either house of Congress, voted aye.

Meet the Eight Tea Party Morons Destroying America

Those outcomes should have been obvious to anyone with a glimmer of understanding of what the Republican Party had become. Working together with the president and compromising for the betterment of the nation was not in the cards. The Republican right turned to vicious personal attacks on Obama, not only on his health care plan, but also on whether he was really an American. This character assassination, along with high unemployment and the continued sluggishness of the economy, fueled the Republicans' recapture of the House in 2010. The new Congress brought to the fore a fresh crop of leaders, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan. Dubbing themselves the Young Guns, they made no pretense of their discomfort with the new speaker of the House, John Boehner.

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