October 21, 2005
There are so challenges facing Republican leaders lately, it's like the whole party is shooting white water rapids in a leaky rubber raft. On one hand, it's almost fun to watch various Republican honchos squirm on the hot seat, as many of them had become much too smug and complacent after winning consecutive elections in recent years. The strong leaders among them will survive and become even stronger, while the "chaff" will be winnowed away. I thought it would be helpful to offer a sampling without going into detail. Bear with me as I try to assess things objectively.
Democrats were gleeful at the sight of Tom DeLay having his mug shot taken after being arrested and arraigned, though the Texan grinned at the camera to show that he's not worried. Ironically, he objected to having a Democrat serve as judge in his case, just as Saddam Hussein was denying the legitimacy of his criminal trial in Baghdad. DeLay can handle himself just fine, and this will be a test to see whether his political-survival smarts will prevail over his pugnacious instincts. If he did indeed violate campaign finance laws, I'm sure he can avoid jail time by plea bargaining. His future role in the party will depend on whether he can wake up to the discontent of economic conservatives and join the movement toward true reform that Gingrich pioneered, and Oklahoma's Tom Coburn has resurrected. I think he has a pretty good shot at that; he's certainly young enough to shift policy course.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is reportedly focusing his investigation of the Valerie Plame leak on Vice President Dick Cheney's office (see Washington Post), prompting some to speculate that Cheney will step down, in favor of Condoleeza Rice. Fitzgerald's grand jury term expires next week, meaning that it will be make-or-break time for any indictments, but another extension is also possible. Andrew Sullivan has been following this case closely, and thinks Cheney is cornered: "Condi for Veep?" Combined with the recent disclosures about mistreatment of Muslim prisoners by American soldiers, which he has been harping on for months, his opinion once again counts highly with me. (See my May 18 post.)
In a speech to the New America Foundation in Washington, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, an aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, declared that there was a "cabal" between the Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, which "hijacked the government's foreign policy apparatus." Those are extremely strong words, even for a discontented policy thinker, and he's better have evidence to back up his case. In his view, Condoleezza Rice was "part of the problem" because she wanted above all to keep Bush's confidence. See Financial Times. I certainly hope that is not the case.
One can't help but notice that all of these challenges are reaching a climax just as the off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey are about to be held. Jerry Kilgore has fallen behind Tim Kaine according to the latest poll, no doubt reflecting the decline in Bush's approval ratings, to some extent. Kilgore is drawing heavy criticism for the barrage of negative ads attacking Kaine, mostly over the death penalty. I think that's a perfectly valid issue, but Kilgore and his advisers are overplaying it, and it may backfire.
Tax-cut zealot Grover Norquist met with a group of Log Cabin Republicans recently, angering the Religious Right which objects to any accommodation with gays. See gopusa.com [and The Carpetbagger Report]. Andrew Sullivan is understandably annoyed by the reaction to Norquist's "big tent" outreach effort. One again, this illustrates the failure of economic and social conservatives to see that their long-term objectives coincide, as long as traditional small-government conservatism is emphasized.
The conservative uproar over the nomination of Harriet Miers raises the question once again of the Republican party's identity in this moment of flux and turbulence. Jonah Goldberg writes of this situation in the National Review Online (via Instapundit),
I actually think this is a profoundly significant signal in the ongoing -- and at times somewhat lamentable -- transformation of the GOP into a populist party.
There is a small but vital streak of prairie populism in me, but I agree that pandering to populist tendencies is a risky maneuver. The big danger for the Republicans is that they may abandon their historical and intellectual roots in a short-sighted pursuit of votes in a socio-economic system that is unstable, and may even shift dramatically in an unfavorable direction, depending on future global events. The key to success for a party that is in flux is to maintain a healthy, creative balance between elite-intellectual and populist dynamics.