October 2, 2004

IT'S 1936, NOT '76:

Party Down: Like the Democrats during the 1970s, today's GOP is hidebound and out of touch. (Benjamin Wallace-Wells, 10/04, Washington Monthly)

This has been the summer of Republican discontent--a rare moment of finger-pointing and introspection after some in the party began to examine the sum product of four years in power, and concluded that, judging by their own principles, the GOP should have done much, much better: In late May, the libertarian Cato Institute hosted a conference on the legacy of the Republican revolution of 1994, a decade later. Dick Armey, the retired House Majority leader who helped engineer the 1994 takeover, was the keynote speaker, and he was decidedly glum. The party, he said, has reverted to "doing the wrong things so we can get reelected to the right thing." Newt Gingrich, who followed Armey, told the audience that their revolution had reached a tipping point in the late 1990s, when it had traded in ideology for interest groups. These were criticisms that Gingrich and Armey had been voicing privately for months, but such a public airing had a bracing effect. "When you want to talk to people outside of government to get perspective on how you're doing in terms of conservative principles, you talk to Gingrich, you talk to Armey, and maybe there's a third guy, but I can't think of him right now," a senior aide to a conservative Southern congressman told me in August. "People paid attention." Within a month, the floodgates seemed to open. The right-wing pundit Robert Novak wrote a June column blasting "runaway spending" by Republicans in Congress. In a July speech before the National Press Club, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, often described as a possible '08 presidential candidate, tore into his party for a legislative attitude where "nothing can get done unless every Congressman has something to take back to his district." Meanwhile, on the Hill, internecine squabbles had stalled major legislation on energy, tax reform, and highway funds. The Wall Street Journal, interviewing House Speaker Dennis Hastert about the legislative logjam, caught him in a contemplative mood: "The American people don't want us pointing fingers," he told the paper. "They want us to do something."

Yet as Congress closed shop for the summer, divisions between Republicans had meant the House couldn't pass a 2005 budget, a depressing signal of failure. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of the job being done by Congress, which had been hovering around 40 for the past five years, leapt to 52. Several polls taken in the spring and early summer showed that voters preferred Democratic positions to Republican ones on every single domestic policy issue. And the grinding, bloody fight in Iraq had some of the war's strongest GOP proponents throwing up their hands in disgust at the administration's failure to plan for the post-Saddam occupation. Indeed, by late summer, a few Republicans who could politically afford to--such as retiring Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.)--were openly questioning the wisdom of the whole venture, as were a majority of the American people.

With John Kerry still leading most campaign polls, conservative despair began to take on a more hysterical tone, and epic scope. "The era of small government is over," warned David Brooks in The New York Times, shortly before the Republican national convention. "We'll let slip a thinly disguised secret," wrote Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard. "Republicans are supporting a candidate that relatively few of them find personally or politically appealing." Even Pat Buchanan, in his vampy style, warned of a coming "civil war" within the party.

Such open hostility subsided during the GOP convention, damped down by the balloons and the president's rising poll numbers. Still, the summer's feud was like a peek inside a volcano: It offered a glimpse of the eventual eruption. The attacks on the party and its leaders came, scattered but forceful, from all parts of the GOP; though most critics shared a bill of complaint, each faction had its own recipe for salvation. The Armey-Novak conservatives wanted the party to renew its commitment to the small-government principles of 1994 and 1980. Brooks and the moderates looked to 1904, to the strong government conservatism of Theodore Roosevelt. Both groups were wishing for a kind of soul transplant: If the party could just reclaim its essence, they hoped, the current drift might be resolved.

But both of these historical analogies are hopeful fantasies about what the GOP might someday become, not reasonable guesses at the near future. The truth is, for all its apparent strength, the modern Republican Party has worked itself into a position of profound and growing decay. Worried Republicans are right to look to the past to help sort out their future. But the right date isn't 1994 or 1904. It's the late 1970s--and the party to look at isn't the Republicans, but the Democrats. Like the Democrats of that period, the current version of the Republican Party is supremely powerful but ideologically incoherent, run largely by and for special interests and increasingly alienated from the broader voting public. Today's GOP is headed for a profound crackup. The only questions are when, exactly, the decline will start--and how long it will last.

American political parties, like great empires, often seem strongest at the moment before they fall. Just as the principles and ideas that have built the new order triumph, their relevance and practicality begin to fade as new conditions emerge. Yet true believers will cling ever-tighter to the old ways of thought, and those who cling tightest are granted the greatest moral authority. Meanwhile, the constituencies that the ascendant party once rallied to its cause become powers unto themselves: parochial, imperious, demanding, and hard to discipline. Soon party leaders begin to confuse the agenda of their constituencies with the interests of the nation, and the act of governance becomes less a crafting of solutions than a division of the spoils.

This is the state of the GOP today, but it also describes the condition of the Democrats two-and-a-half decades ago. It can be hard to remember these days just how powerful and dominant the Democratic Party was in 1976. Like the Republicans in 2000, they had just elected as president a moderate, evangelical Southern governor, defeating the successor to a morally flawed president by promising to restore integrity to the Oval Office. Like the GOP today, the Democrats found themselves in control of all three branches of the federal government--the Democrats had near-veto-proof majorities in both chambers of Congress--as well as the majority of state legislatures. Organized labor, its power not yet decimated, was squarely in the Democratic camp, while the corporate lobbying sector offered significant support for the simple reason that Democrats ran everything. Just as the GOP in 2000 tended to look at the Clinton administration as an unfortunate detour on the road to a permanent Republican majority, so Democrats in 1976 looked back on the Nixon years as a temporary aberration from the natural order in Washington, one Democrats had and always would dominate. It wasn't just that the party was powerful; the Democrats, returning to the capital in the winter of 1977, thought their principles put them on the right side of history, and the country had come back around to seeing things their way.

But for all the party's political power and institutional strength, it was in an intellectual rut, returning again and again to ideas that had long ago stopped working. Like any party, the Democrats then were a coalition of factions. New Deal economic constituencies (labor, farmers, industrial and energy interests) coexisted with newer liberal-left, socially-conscious groups (environmentalists, rights-conscious black and Hispanic organizations, feminists, Naderites) that had emerged from the tumult of the 1960s. These various factions often disagreed vehemently. Environmentalists clashed with autoworkers over fuel-efficiency standards; building trade unions were at war with civil rights groups over affirmative action. Scoop Jackson Democrats wanted Washington to take a tougher line with our Soviet enemies; human rights doves wanted Washington to take a tougher line against our tyrannical allies, such as Ferdinand Marcos. What all of them could agree on, however, was the vital importance of big government. Each wanted more spending for its programs, more robust regulations, and a stronger hand for Washington in the market to restrain the forces that threatened its own interests. Big government was the glue that held the Democratic coalition together. It was also the moral cause that defined the party, and in 1976, that cause seemed beyond dispute. Even Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency and instituted wage and price controls to fight inflation. The argument seemed over. Big government had won.

But of course, the argument was anything but over. An increasing number of voters were becoming aware that government was failing to make much headway against the major problems of the day. The economy remained weak, energy costs were rising, and social chaos was spreading in the cities. A few reform-minded Democrats and intellectuals were starting to rethink the premises of big government liberalism, to wonder if there might be less expensive and bureaucratic--and more effective--means to traditional liberal ends. Carter was inclined to agree with them. But such thinking was anathema to the party's liberal leaders and most powerful interest groups, and they were positioned to stop it.

This is a hilariously inept column, ignoring the fact that by the end of Jimmy Carter's term liberals had controlled the three branches of government for almost fifty years and would not completely lose control of all three branches for another twenty years. It is true that liberalism had essentially run out of ideas by 1976--other than national health care--but that's not the same thing as losing power. Such a seventy year cycle is fairly typical in American politics--FDR, for instance, having ended the Republican era that began in 1860, seventy years after the Founding.

These then are more likely the very early days of a period of Republican domination and--battling a well entrenched liberal establishment--they are predictably somewhat tendentious. However, if you think of what it is George W. Bush wants to do--the Ownership Society (Third Way, compassionate conservatism, whatever you care to call it); re-establishment of a Culture of Life; and basing our foreign policy on morality, rather than Realpolitik--you see a series of issues that poll around 60-40 (from privatizing Social Security to limiting abortion and gay marriage). When a party's platform consists almost entirely of wedge issues on which it has the thick end of the wedge, it's not going to lose anytime soon.

Has George W. Bush Killed Off Conservatism? (Andrew Ferguson, 9/14/04, Bloomberg)

Am I the only one who sensed the spectral presence of Bill Clinton (pre-bypass) hovering over George W. Bush as he delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention?

The speech, or at least its second half, has been widely praised as a stirring justification for the country's continued vigilance in the war on terror -- along with Bush's subtle conflation of ``continued vigilance'' with ``my re-election.''

But that's not the half of the speech that reminded me of Clinton.

The first half, in which Bush outlined his domestic agenda, received less praise -- a ``laundry list,'' critics called it -- but it was much more interesting, and its political significance, I'll wager, will be farther-reaching.

For in it Bush declared the death of American conservatism. As a guide either to governing or to politicking, conservatism is over, finished, kaput. The hovering presence of Clinton looked pleased.

And well he might have. The ``laundry-list'' technique that Bush used in that long first half was perfected by Clinton. And it is more than a rhetorical trick. The laundry-list speech, consisting of brief summaries of one program after another, is uniquely suited to a style of governing, and a philosophy of government, that Bush has happily embraced.

The future of conservatism is not small government--which voters have resoundingly rejected in every democratic society extant--but redirecting government towards conservative purposes: forcing a stake in society upon everyone.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2004 8:18 PM

Orrin, you are very right. Small government is libertarianism, which leads to anarchy, which is chaotic lawlessness, which creates so many problems, which ultimately--ironically--takes us directly to totalitarianism.

Posted by: Vince at October 2, 2004 8:36 PM

Small government might be possible, some day. But the route to it seems to lie through the "Ownership Society". The sooner libertarian types figure this out, the faster it might be possible to head in that direction.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 2, 2004 9:37 PM

The $64,000 question, or at least the $0.02 comment, is if such policy can be implemented without an explosion in cost and government intrusion. Hasn't small government failed in the polls because no one wants to give up their own entitlements? Or giving folks the benefit of the doubt, because they feel it isn't fair? If Europe and Japan teach us anything, it's that societies are perfectly willing to run themselves into the ground for their short term interests.

Posted by: MikeB at October 2, 2004 10:49 PM


Transition costs will presumably be pretty steep, but then they disappear. How, though, could a system where you invest your own SS be more intrusive than one where government takes it and gives it back fifty years later?

Posted by: oj at October 2, 2004 11:02 PM


A libertarian will never accept such things as the Ownership Society. If he did, then by definition, he could no longer be a libertarian.

Posted by: Vince at October 2, 2004 11:55 PM

Carter and Bush may appear similar on the surface, and the parties of both were in complete control of Washington, but that's where it ends.

Carter was a micro-manager, he even reviewed and approved the White House menus, for goodness sake, and he fought constantly with Congress.
Carter also fumbled the biggest foreign policy issue of his day, laying the groundwork for 9/11.

Bush delegates more, and has had far more success in getting bills through Congress. He's also been far more successful at disciplining the wogs.


You may wish to re-think your last statement; Libertarians are as diverse as Dems or Republicans.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 3, 2004 7:34 PM


I know that. However, the Libertarian Party is probably the most rigid party out there; and if they were to be a little bit more flexible on certain issues, they would receive very harsh criticisms from other party members. It's funny how a party that champions individualism could be so collective in its thinking.

Posted by: Vince at October 4, 2004 6:11 PM