The GOP is still shell-shocked. After the collapse of the Bush presidency and the Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008—especially the improbable, to their minds likely inconceivable, ascendancy of Barack Obama—the Republicans have dug themselves in behind the barricades of a nihilistic right-wing populism. They apparently think it's a position to fight back from—not just in the rhetorically heated summer of 2009 but in the cooler Novembers of 2010 and 2012.
As events unfold, Republicans are likely to discover that they've dug themselves deeper into a hole, leaving them bereft of positive ideas to offer voters an alternative, appealing conservative vision of the future. Quick: Think of a big idea—any bold initiative—that the present GOP stands for. It is a party without a platform.
In a private conversation, one of their wiliest strategists conceded this to me, and then suggested that the only expedient left for Republicans is to keep digging. He calculates that a health-reform bill probably will pass this year, but that the GOP can still run against it next year. How? Since reform won't take full effect until 2013, voters won't know that when the Republicans rail against death panels, rationing, socialized medicine, and the rest, they're the ones who will be deserving of Joe Wilson's verdict: "You lie!" They will even cast their opposition to reform as an expression of their devotion to protecting Medicare—which the GOP overwhelmingly opposed in the first place, then sought to slash during the Gingrich revolution. One of their congressional leaders, Roy Blunt, even denounced Medicare in July as proof that "the government should have never gotten in the health-care business." Apparently he hadn't gotten the new talking points.
I guess you could dignify the coming GOP sleight-of-reality as a strategy; but their desperation is almost certain to be confounded by economic recovery. The revival of growth and jobs will reinforce the president's authority while draining the GOP's. What will Americans believe: the truth in their own lives or the discredited distortions of the stimulus-denying, do-nothing Republicans? I can hear the Democratic message now: The party of "no" was wrong on the economy and they're wrong on health care.
Across the board, the default to negativism now seems embedded in Republican DNA. This week, on the basis of new national intelligence estimates, President Obama modified the Bush plan for missile defense in Europe to make it more effective against short- and medium-range missiles fired from Iran. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham slammed the decision as "a capitulation to the Russians." Unfortunately for him, the recommendation came from Obama's—and Bush's—Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, himself a former director of the CIA. The decision was backed up, he added, by "the advice of [the] national security team and the unanimous support of our senior military leaders."
None of this mattered to Republicans; they couldn't help themselves. Their knee-jerk reaction was to rush out a latter-day variant of the old charge that Democrats are soft on Communism. (Never mind that nothing could have been more soft-headed than George W. Bush's conclusion that Vladimir Putin was "trustworthy" after the president "was able to get a sense of his soul" by looking Putin in the eye.) The attack on Obama's decision stirred the adolescent wonder of the GOP's Star Wars–loving base; but it's unlikely to carry much credibility with mainstream America in a world in which Soviet Communism is defunct.
At home, where the threat of under-regulated financial markets is still very real, Republican negativism echoes the populist cry against bailouts while scorning the financial reforms the president has proposed to prevent another crisis. In harmony with the tune of vested interests, GOP legislators disdain the Obama call for a consumer financial protection agency to oversee credit cards and mortgages. Inaction is their only remedy for the mortgage malpractice that fueled the housing bust and took the rest of the economy with it.
The Republicans are against, against, against; against legislation to combat climate change, against hate-crimes legislation, against equal rights for gays, against a woman's right to choose, against immigration reform, against reforming college loans to benefit students, not banks. What in the world are they for except Star Wars, torture, and tax cuts for the wealthy?
The GOP's dance of death might have some traction now; employment is still lagging and voter apprehension is still rife, despite the first polls showing a modest rise in economic confidence. But the next election is more than a year away. By then, the terrain will have changed. Perhaps the GOP will try to cobble together a pale facsimile of 1994's Contract With America. The controlling reality, however, is that their intellectual cupboard is bare. As David Frum argues, the GOP has failed to develop new ideas to meet new challenges. There are conservatives, including Frum, who could give the GOP something to say other than "no." (Tell Steve Forbes, a potential idea factory, to come up with genuinely conservative proposals other than the flat tax.)
But that won't happen now. Because after this summer of discontent, Republicans think they can ride a wave of bitter tea to electoral victory. Once the tide runs out, they will be left high and dry. After health reform passes, probably with the help of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Republicans will crawl out of their hole to assail it in the campaigns ahead as "socialism" or worse.
Snowe says today's Republican Party is not the one she originally joined. She's a different, lonely drummer now in the GOP's sour, discordant band. But perhaps when their nihilism has run its losing course, the GOP will go back to work and build a platform from the ground up. Imagine how refreshing it would be if the Republicans actually offered something—instead of opposing everything.
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