October 30, 2006
In Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey reminisced about the glory days of the Republican Revolution, but voiced fears that "my Republican friends in Congress stand on the precipice of an electoral rout." So how did the party that had amassed a "permanent majority" get so badly off track in the last few years?
The answer is simple: Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy.
He does a good job of explaining why the Contract with America was tragically abandoned: After Newt Gingrich lost the budget showdown with Bill Clinton in the fall of 1995, many Republicans in Congress concluded -- erroneously -- that most Americans really did want bigger government after all. Based on this terrible miscalculation, they indulged in massive pork barrel spending and went along with Bush II's Big Government agenda (Medicare prescription benefit, etc.), thereby putting the nation's financial health at risk. To those of us who follow Washington politics closely, this is not exactly earth-shattering news, but it's a good concise summary of recent trends nonetheless. He calls for keeping both social conservatives and fiscal conservatives within the Republican fold so as to stage a comeback should the apocalyptic scenario of Speaker Nancy Pelosi come to pass. Once the blaming for next week's likely electoral setback is over, Republicans must repudiate the detour of the past few years and unite behind the banner of limited government once again.
Joe Gandelman (via Instapundit) has some thoughtful reflections about Armey's column, and foresees a battle between Republicans who want to keep using "wedge issues" like gay marriage against those who want to advance a conservative agenda based on ideas. (Guess which side I'm on?) If you ask me, those die-hard party loyalists who make excuses for the misdeeds of Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and the like are the real problem -- not the liberal mainstream press.
While Armey's piece just about hits the bullseye, it leaves out the "cultural dimension" of the present-day GOP maladies. More and more, I think the dysfunctional state of the contemporary American Right seems to bear out the central thesis of Richard Hofstadter in his 1965 book of compiled essays, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. (Good luck finding a copy.) Paranoid leaders, he says, are on the (ironic) "cutting edge" in their social circle, seeing emerging threats before the others do, and often contriving to artificially magnify those threats. To their weak-minded followers, self-fulfilling prophecies are a mark of genius. The world is seen as a Manichean dichotomy of good versus evil, loyalty is the highest virtue, dissent is equated with treason, and mediation is a waste of time. This pathological tendency is present on both ends of the political spectrum (remember Hillary's "vast right-wing conspiracy"?), though Hofstadter emphasizes the conservative side. Reading his critiques of the Goldwater movement and its precursors brings forth eerie similarities to current trends. For example, in a 1954 essay Hofstadter wrote of the "pseudo-conservatives" who formed the John Birch Society:
They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower administration.
With their conspiratorial world view, pseudo-conservatives are prone to repeated failure, and in fact they relish it, because every setback gives them fresh ammunition to blame their old enemies and identify new enemies. Such people have little interest in actually governing or formulating policy. When they predominate in a government, there is often little or no critical feedback from middle-level administrators, so policy goals are not attained and the machinery of government gets rusty. (Think Hurricane Katrina.) Thankfully, Ronald Reagan had the political wisdom to keep such people at arm's length even as he courted their votes. He fashioned a cabinet that favored solid pragmatists like George Shultz, while letting conservative ideologues like James Watt make minor mischief. The resulting friction wasn't always pretty, but it made possible a dynamic, goal-oriented administration that was superlative in terms of concrete achievements. The difficult question for today is how far the pseudo-conservatives of today are willing to go to blame others for the Bush administration's failures. It could get ugly, sports fans...