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This is not Ronald Reagan's GOP
Forget the Grand Old Party. Today's maddening, intransigent GOP is a Gang Of Purists
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
T

his was the week when the grand bargain on the debt ceiling all but died, when Republicans opted to continue impaling themselves on the hook of the Paul Ryan plan — because they really do want to voucherize and destroy Medicare.

House Speaker John Boehner, who had proposed the grand bargain, which the president then advanced in negotiations with both parties, abruptly abandoned it as his caucus rebelled and Majority Leader Eric Cantor schemed a coup to depose him.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who may care about the country but surely understands political strategy, then offered another path out of the box canyon into which Republicans have backed themselves — where they face the prospect of being blamed for collapsing the full faith and credit of the United States, cutting off Social Security checks, and perhaps shattering the national and global economies. McConnell's was a clever and cynical tactic: Give the president the authority to raise the debt limit in three tranches — any one of which Congress could override with a two-thirds majority in both houses — so Democrats would have to cast three votes for higher debt while Republicans could enjoy three votes against it and reinforce a campaign message. McConnell was supported by The Wall Street Journal — which is conservative, not crazy — but scorned by tea-baggers in and out of Congress who live in their own private fiscal world, which bears about as much relationship to economics as creationism does to science. Playing to the extremists, the lupine Cantor then escalated the confrontation by concocting a fable that the president stomped out of the debt talks at the White House; in fact, Obama had rejected Cantor's demands and the session was ending for the day. The president does live and work in the White House — much as Cantor and his ilk can't abide that — and as a matter of course, leaves when a meeting concludes.

Those who hate the government can't run the government — except into the ground.

This cheap attempt to make Obama look bad was too transparent to convince anyone other than Cantor's peanut gallery. But the episode and the entire course of events over the past week reveal the fundamentally misshapen character of today's Republican Party. It is not a governing party: As I've observed before, those who hate the government can't run the government — except into the ground.

Meanwhile, the GOP's presidential candidates are eagerly embracing — or being compelled to coddle — a far-out agenda. Most of them may be rooting for default, and some are claiming, incredibly, that it would be no big deal. (Maybe they should consult former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson about the crash of Lehman Brothers before they invite the mother of all financial crises.) And the only Republican presidential contenders who might have a plausible chance — Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — are regarded with suspicion in their own ranks, less now for their Mormon religion than for the sin of occasionally looking reasonable. Indeed, this was also the week when two different polls showed Michele Bachmann leading Romney in Iowa — by three or 13 points — while other Republicans were longing for the candidacy of secession-friendly Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The dominant forces in today's GOP not only propose to roll back the history of the past 75 years; they have also betrayed their own history. They are not the Grand Old Party as we have known it; they are the Gang Of Purists — bent on the politics of polarization, their more sensible leaders held hostage to the threat of defenestration in the next round of primary contests. They invoke Ronald Reagan as their hero, but they are the real RINOs: Reaganites In Name Only. Indeed, they are out of step with every Republican president from Richard Nixon to yes, even George W. Bush, whom they openly disdain after giving him lockstep support while he was in office.

Nixon himself was a polarizing figure, in part because of the Vietnam War, and then because of the paranoia which impelled him to "high crimes and misdemeanors." But there was another Nixon, too, one who was ready to bargain and move — at least on domestic issues — whether his motive was political advantage or the merits of policy making.

When George McGovern and Edward Kennedy took up the issue of hunger in America, Nixon sent Congress a message calling for decisive action. By the end of his foreshortened term, he had expanded the number of Americans receiving food stamps from 3 million to 16 million.

When Edmund Muskie and Scoop Jackson, other senators who were rivals to Nixon's re-election, took up the issue of the environment, the president at first held back, but then advocated and signed landmark legislation, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Nixon had campaigned in 1968 on the Southern Strategy that exploited the region's resentments against civil rights and desegregation. But once in the Oval Office, he instituted the Philadelphia Plan, the first major federal program for affirmative action, and the progenitor of a host of similar initiatives.

These may not have been his priorities, but they were an essential part of a process of governing — and electoral maneuvering — that pre-empted or compromised with the other party. The process was an expression of the post-New Deal settlement in which Republicans and Democrats differed on the scope and reach of government, but more often than not found answers, somewhere in between, to pressing national problems. Thus it was Richard Nixon, working with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who proposed a guaranteed national income.

All this, I suggest, and not just Watergate, is primarily why contemporary Republicans never refer to a Nixon legacy. Instead they have Reagan, who certainly sounded like a break with the post-New Deal settlement, although he was an old New Dealer himself, and quoted FDR in his 1980 acceptance speech for the Republican nomination.

Reagan got something else from Roosevelt, too — a streak of pragmatism that tempered and sometimes confounded his conservative ideology. He cut taxes, but when economic reality set in, signed two tax increases that together were the largest in peacetime history. He advocated a balanced budget constitutional amendment, but ran deficits every year of his term — during which federal spending was higher than its 40-year average. And he repeatedly raised the federal debt ceiling — a no-brainer to presidents of both parties.

Reagan denounced the "evil empire," then made peace with the Soviets. After his compact with Tip O'Neill to save Social Security, he joined with Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt to close loopholes and enact tax reform, and with Ted Kennedy to pass the 1986 immigration reform that provided amnesty and a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who had entered the United States before 1982.

Reagan was undoubtedly a conservative, but he was ready to make the system and the country work. "Facts," he famously said, "are stubborn things" — and he responded to them. You don't have to agree with all he did to recognize that his leadership was not a relentless exercise in heedless ideology.

Of course, the Republicans of 2011 willfully refuse to comprehend that; they worship the icon of a one-dimensional Reagan who never existed. With equal fervor, they regret the apostasy of the first George Bush, who betrayed the promise which helped him defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988: When we read his lips two years later, he was accurately and correctly saying that it was time for new taxes. As a result, he was challenged for renomination by Pat Buchanan, who was pouring rhetorical tea before there was a tea party. Bush's decision, combined with Bill Clinton's 1994 economic plan, which passed the House without one Republican vote, gave America a decade of record job growth and a balanced budget for the first time in a generation.

Bush I not only negotiated with congressional Democrats on taxes but made the prudent decision during the Gulf War to stop short of marching to Baghdad and occupying Iraq. For the latter, he was assailed by the neocons. And both offenses were things Bush II was determined not to repeat. He mired the nation in a needless war and locked his party into intransigent posturing on taxes — which, along with his end-term recession, are the principal contributors to today's deficits. But with this Bush, too, some of the pragmatism remained. For example, he negotiated with Kennedy to achieve a second round of immigration reform — and in the face of potential economic catastrophe and in defiance of Republican dogma, accepted and then pushed through the 2008 TARP bailouts that averted the immediate and wholesale devastation of global finance.

But over time, the rhetoric on the Right has overcome the realities that impelled presidents on the Right to modulate their positions in the national interest. Thus, John McCain had to renounce his own record to secure the GOP nomination in 2008 and then salvage his Senate seat two years later. The bitter reaction against Obama, who in critical times has compromised again and again in pursuit of bipartisan progress, has been amplified and disgraced by the caricatures of Obama as "the Other," a "socialist," "un-American" — and by an almost-spoken racist revolt against the first African-American president.

On the most pressing questions, America needs two major parties that can hammer out solutions together. They may and will campaign hard against each other — and sometimes with brutal unfairness. But as Reagan said, "When the battle's over and the ground is cool, you see the other general's valor" — and we ask what all of us "can do for our country."

Today's GOP is something very different. It's not the party of Reagan, or Nixon or Bush — and certainly not Theodore Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. And while fear and irrepressible fact in the last moments will probably extract a debt ceiling increase in some form, but probably not a grand bargain like the Reagan-O'Neill deal on Social Security, the Gang Of Purists will promptly return to their new and angry incarnation as the party of no.

Eric Cantor has become the pinched face of this pseudo-Republican Party. And John Boehner embodies the fear of so many of its leaders and members that they could be so easily consigned to the fires of unreason. No wonder he leaves every negotiating session on the debt limit and chain smokes as he climbs into the limo that Cantor covets.

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