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Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Republican Party's Real Problem

Peggy Noonan penned an article in the June 2, 2007 edition of the Wall Street Journal summing up her frustration with the Administration of George W Bush. The piece, entitled Too Bad, might have been more appropriately entitled Too Late.

Noonan's piece was prompted by recent signs of revolt within the Republican Party over aspects of immigration reform legislation being promoted by the Bush White House and criticism from Bush of conservative Republicans over their opposition. As Noonan sees it, the Bushies' strategy for defending their proposal has progressed from a "too bad" approach (really just a family-friendly rephrasing of the true "tough sh**" vibe actually employed) to a more individual, "you're bad" vibe. For Noonan, this new arrogant, self-serving, self-righteous, holier than thou approach to government has suddenly become intolerable. Intolerable in her thinking because, as she puts it, "What Bush is doing, and has been doing for some time, is sundering a great political coalition."

After cracking open the door of recognition about the numerous failures of the GWB Administration, Noonan lays out a more far-reaching conclusion -- that GHWB and GWB have both been "great wasters of political inheritance." In her mind as she wrote the piece, this concept of "inheritance" and the squandering of that inheritance by two generations of Bush Presidents is promoted as a justification for a sudden abandonment of support of the Bush agenda and absolution of any responsibility for the consequences of supporting its flawed policies and incompetence. Her attempt not only fails to provide that absolution but actually highlights the culpability of the conservatives who were co-opted by electoral success into putting thieves, perverts and idiots into power because they spouted the proper sound bytes every two or four or six years.

Her "inheritance" concept itself is the most apropos encapsulation of everything that has come back to plague the Republican Party. The very word "inheritance" has no useful application in a democracy yet its use makes it clear true blue Republicans view history since 1968 as a forty year entitlement to the West Wing with two pesky interludes (77-81 and 93-2001) where power was temporarily relinquished due to a bogus corruption scandal over a "third rate burglary" and a Republican incumbent President who was punished for breaking the faith by hiking taxes. I really feel there is no exaggeration here. Think back to 2000. When Bush took office, the primary mood at the time within the Republican Party was not one of winning an election in a longer series of see-saw battles with legitimate 50/50 odds but rather one of vindication, of winning back an trophy unjustly taken away and, in particular, of avenging the embarrassing loss of the father by the victory of the son.

More importantly, think of the logic that led to the Bush candidacy in 2000. He used his name recognition to win the Governor's seat in Texas (a traditionally weak Governorship due to the Texas Constitution -- the Texas House Speaker has nearly as much power as the Governor). After winning re-election in a landslide in 1998, GWB basically concluded on Inauguration Day in January 1999 that if re-election as Governor was this easy, the Presidency was also within reach. Like Dad, he had no particular goal for what to do AS President, he just wanted to BE President. With nothing to do as Texas Governor, plenty of time was available for fundraising, putting Bush millions ahead of the pack before filing for a single primary. The Republican primary was virtually locked up before the first ballot was cast.

Going back, think of Bush Senior's career. GHWB despised many of the policies of Ronald ("voodoo economics") Reagan. He accepted the second chair gig as a consolation prize to keep his career arc going. GHWB ran for President in 1988 (and won) because he wanted to be President -- not that he had any identifiable goal to accomplish once he got there, he just thought being in charge to react as things happened was the next logical progression in the arc of his career. Eight years in dutiful service to the party as Vice President entitled him to first crack at the lead once the part became available.

Going further back, think of the events that toppled Nixon. Despite a likely win in 1972, Nixon and his supporters felt entitled to a landslide and engaged in two years of dirty tricks that wound up toppling his Presidency once uncovered. Given the staff from the Nixon Administration that wound up in the GWB administration, it is quite easy to argue that many of the controversial Presidential Directives and the antagonistic attitude of the GWB administration towards Congress, the Courts and, well, pretty much EVERYONE stems directly from the "get even" philosophy brought back into the White House from these players.

To read Noonan's column in June 2007, you'd think these insights suddenly came from nowhere like a stroke of lightning at midnight. In reality, it's been high noon for quite some time. In October 1992, Molly Ivins described the exact same intra-party debate over whether the Reagan revolution really accomplished anything or if the extra trillion or two in debt racked up might come back to haunt us. Maureen Dowd's best-selling 2004 book Bushworld accurately described the bizarre, inter-generational psychodrama between GWB and GHWB in which GWB attempts to un-do the embarrassing mistakes of his father by systematically attempting the polar opposite of virtually everything his father did. The political equivalent of rolling back the odometer of history.

In contrast, Noonan's columns seem to quite transparently sell the official Republican Party line without hesitation. Here's an excerpt from her November 2, 2000 column supporting George Bush (#2) (emphasis added):

In foreign affairs Mr. Bush's intentions are marked by moral modesty and a lack of illusions: America, he repeated in the last debate, must fully engage the world, but with humility. His first and most crucial foreign-affairs endeavor will begin, appropriately, at home: improving the national defense, remedying the effects of eight years of confusion and neglect, enhancing responsiveness to future challenges, increasing morale, restoring those aspects of the old military culture that are positive and needed.

In character, personality traits, history and attitudes, Mr. Bush seems the opposite of both Bill and Hillary Clinton and of Mr. Gore. Mr. Bush has an instinctive personal modesty, an easygoing sense of both human and governmental limits. He will know how to step aside and let the country take center stage; he will know how to show respect for others; he will not bray endlessly about his own excellence, will not compare himself to Nelson Mandela, Mark McGuire, or the heroes of the novels "Love Story" or "Darkness at Noon"; he will not discuss his underpants. Laura Bush will not announce that her husband's power is hers, that she is co-president, and that she will soon nationalize 17% of the gross national product. Both Bushes seem not emotionally troubled but mentally balanced, which was once considered the lowest of expectations for our leaders but now seems like a gift to the nation

After four years of the Bush Administration, how much did Noonan learn? Nothing. Check out this excerpt from her first column after the 2004 election: (#3)

George Soros cannot buy a presidential election. Savor. "Volunteers" who are bought and paid for cannot beat volunteers who come from the neighborhood, church, workplace and reading group. Savor.

The leaders of the Bush effort see it this way: A ragtag band of more than a million Republican volunteers who fought like Washington's troops at Valley Forge beat the paid Hessians of King George III's army. Savor.

Of course, we've learned much about voter registration shenanigans conducted by paid professionals operating under direct supervision of Karl Rove (#4) so the comparison of Republican operatives to our troops huddled in Valley Forge would seem a tad overwrought. As a final grace note in her 2004 piece, she congratulated three fellow talking heads who similarly kept the faith in the face of some troubling exit polls:

Oh, another last note. Tuesday I heard three radio talkers who refused to believe it was over when the ludicrous, and who knows but possibly quite mischievous, exit polls virtually declared a Kerry landslide yesterday afternoon. They are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. The last sent me an e-mail that dismissed the numbers as elitist nonsense and propaganda. She is one tough girl and they are two tough men. Savor them too.

So four years into an Administration that had already blown over $100 billion on a war we didn't need, failed to capture public enemy number one, and sowed the seeds of our long-term failure in that unneeded war, Noonan seemed jubilant. Her guy won, her party gained seats, how bad could it be?

So what's different now? The same policies are being pursued. The same problems are going unaddressed. The same pattern of decision making that is producing these problems is still being used. What's different? Oh, your party is being tarred with the results? Oh, THAT'S what's different.

A conservative deathbed conversion at this stage of the game really doesn't cut it. Noonan's recent commentary doesn't reflect a new awareness of a flawed process that gave power to incompetent politicians with dangerous ideas and her party's role in that process. It reflects an even greater denial about the real problem -- a preference for supporting winners rather than leaders. There's a difference, Peggy.


#1) http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110010148

#2) http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=65000525

#3) http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110005844

#4) http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/052507J.shtml