Is there still a place for sane, reasonable conservatives in today’s GOP

In the spirit of Michael Lofgren’s essay about recent dramatic changes in the GOP, I have collected articles written by 11 prominent conservatives about their unhappiness with the increasingly extreme nature of the ideology, strategy, and tactics of today’s Republican party. Some of them expressed these concerns after the debt-ceiling debacle of August, 2011. Others toward the end of George W. Bush’s second term. In some instances, the writers have transitioned from GOP leader to GOP apostate, even while they remain resolutely conservative. Excerpts, including links to the complete articles or interviews, appear after the jump. If you know of other pieces in the same vein, please email me or leave a comment. The complete post can be found here.

1.  Life-long GOP Congressional staffer, Michael Lofgren, retired early and fled his party after the debt-ceiling debacle two months ago. His article has gotten a lot of press, some of it described by me here. The Washington Monthly‘s summary:

To be sure, this Republican aide is not at all a fan of Democrats. But he also believes “nothing … quite matches the modern GOP.” . . .

To those millions of Americans who have finally begun paying attention to politics and watched with exasperation the tragicomedy of the debt ceiling extension, it may have come as a shock that the Republican Party is so full of lunatics…. The Congressional directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy. […]

It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.

Let’s just note, again, that this isn’t the assessment of some wild-eyed lefty. The author is a long-time Republican aide, respected by those who’ve worked with him, who’s worked for nearly three decades with GOP policymakers.

And he’s convinced Republicans have succumbed to madness.

Lofgren’s essay is called “Goodbye to all that.” The Washington Monthly has picked out some of the most incendiary sentences, but the essay itself is a calm, well-reasoned and richly supported with factual detail. It does not lend itself to a quick summary, so read the whole thing. It is the most current and trenchant critique of the GOP of 2011 known to me.

2.  As the debt-ceiling negotiations were winding down in August, Republican New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote of his concern that the GOP is no longer a “normal party,” but one that has become too extreme to govern:

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.

A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.

The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.

This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. …

The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

3.  Republican Bruce Bartlett was a domestic policy adviser to President Reagan and a Treasury Department official under President George H.W. Bush. Before that he worked for Rep. Ron Paul and, later, for Rep. Jack Kemp:

I think the party got seriously on the wrong track during the George W. Bush years, as I explained in my Impostor book. In my opinion, it no longer bears any resemblance to the party of Ronald Reagan. I still consider myself to be a Reaganite. But I don’t see any others anywhere in the GOP these days, which is why I consider myself to be an independent. Mindless partisanship has replaced principled conservatism. What passes for principle in the party these days is “what can we do to screw the Democrats today.” How else can you explain things like that insane op-ed Michael Steele had in the Washington Post on Monday?

I am not alone. When I talk to old timers from the Reagan years, many express the same concerns I have. But they all work for Republican-oriented think tanks like AEI and Hoover and don’t wish to be fired like I was from NCPA . Or they just don’t want to be bothered or lose friends. As a free agent I am able to say what they can’t or won’t say publicly.

I think the Republican Party is in the same boat the Democrats were in in the early eighties — dominated by extremists unable to see how badly their party was alienating moderates and independents. The party’s adults formed the Democratic Leadership Council to push the party back to the center and it was very successful. But there is no group like that for Republicans. That has left lunatics like Glenn Beck as the party’s de facto leaders. As long as that remains the case, I want nothing to do with the GOP.

And here’s Bartlett July, 2010, interview in The Economist (London). Don’t overlook the comments from like-minded conservatives at the bottom of that page.

4.  Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2001-06, senior policy advisor, and a member of the White House Iraq Group, recently wrote:

The response of many responsible Republicans to these ideological trends [of the Tea Party] is to stay quiet, make no sudden moves and hope they go away. But these are not merely excesses; they are arguments. Significant portions of the Republican coalition believe that it is a desirable strategy to talk of armed revolution, embrace libertarian purity and alienate Hispanic voters. With a major Republican victory in November [2010], those who hold these views may well be elevated in profile and influence. And this could create durable, destructive perceptions of the Republican Party that would take decades to change. A party that is intimidated and silent in the face of its extremes is eventually defined by them.

This is the challenge of a political wave. It requires leaders who will turn its energy into a responsible, governing agenda. So far — in Congress, among conservative leaders, among prospective presidential candidates — that leadership has been lacking.

And so the Republican Party rides a massive wave toward a rocky shore.

5.  Former six-term GOP Congressman, Bob Inglis of South Carolina — who carries a 93% lifetime rating with American Conservative Union — stated in an interview available here and here:

Too many Republican leaders are acquiescing to a poisonous “demagoguery” that threatens the party’s long-term credibility, says a veteran GOP House member who was defeated in South Carolina’s primary last month.

While not naming names, 12-year incumbent Rep. Bob Inglis suggested in interviews with The Associated Press that tea party favorites such as former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and right-wing talk show hosts like Glenn Beck are the culprits.

He cited a claim made famous by Palin that the Democratic health care bill would create “death panels” to decide whether elderly or sick people should get care.

“There were no death panels in the bill … and to encourage that kind of fear is just the lowest form of political leadership. It’s not leadership. It’s demagoguery,” said Inglis, one of three Republican incumbents who have lost their seats in Congress to primary and state party convention challengers this year.

Inglis said voters eventually will discover that you’re “preying on their fears” and turn away.

“I think we have a lot of leaders that are following those (television and talk radio) personalities and not leading,” he said. “What it takes to lead is to say, ‘You know, that’s just not right.’”

“It’s a real concern, because I think what we’re doing is dividing the country into partisan camps that really look a lot like Shia and Sunni,” he said, referring to the two predominant Islamic denominations that have feuded for centuries. “It’s very difficult to come together to find solutions.”

6.  Bob Bennett, 18-year Republican Senator of Utah contends:

Last month, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) came in a distant third behind two other GOP candidates vying for the three-term senator’s seat at the Utah Republican Party’s nominating convention in Salt Lake City. His defeat was heralded as a Tea Party victory and prompted Utah’s other GOP U.S. senator, Orrin Hatch, to say tea partiers “don’t have an open mind” and “won’t listen.” Yesterday, Bennett had some harsh words for his party and its future:

“As I look out at the political landscape now, I find plenty of slogans on the Republican side, but not very many ideas,” Bennett told The Ripon Society.

“Indeed, if you raise specific ideas and solutions, as I’ve tried to do on health care with [Oregon Democratic Sen.] Ron Wyden, you are attacked with the same vigor as we’ve seen in American politics all the way back to slavery and polygamy; you are attacked as being a wimp, insufficiently pure, and unreliable.”

Bennett predicted that the GOP would win back control of the House in this year’s midterm elections, but added, “The concern I have is that ideology and a demand for absolute party purity endangers our ability to govern once we get into office.”

7.  David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a contributing editor of National Review, describes his politics as follows:

I’m a conservative Republican, have been all my adult life. I volunteered for the Reagan campaign in 1980. I’ve attended every Republican convention since 1988. I was president of the Federalist Society chapter at my law school, worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and wrote speeches for President Bush—not the “Read My Lips” Bush, the “Axis of Evil” Bush. I served on the Giuliani campaign in 2008 and voted for John McCain in November. I supported the Iraq War and (although I feel kind of silly about it in retrospect) the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I could go on, but you get the idea.

In November, 2008, he told the New York Times:

“I am really and truly frightened by the collapse of support for the Republican Party by the young and the educated.”

In March, 2010, he wrote the piece excerpted below, which blames the enactment of Obamacare on the “all or nothing” position Republican leaders took in refusing to negotiate with the President to move the legislation in a more conservative direction. Shortly after writing it, Frum was forced out of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He now oversees Frum Forum, perhaps the smartest conservative blog around:

A huge part of the blame for today’s disaster [in the enactment of Obamacare] attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.  . . . This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.

. . . We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.

8.  Christopher Buckley, whose father, William F. Buckley, Jr., was the architect of the conservative movement beginning in the Eisenhower administration. WFB once said to his son:

“You know, I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.”

Conservatives can be forgiven from wondering who’s doing that now. Although WFB defined “kook” more narrowly than his left-wing counterparts might have wished, he nevertheless managed to distance the conservative movement from anti-semites, anti-Catholics, and the John Birch Society. And yet the latter group has returned with a vengeance through TV personality, Glenn Beck, who often espouses their views on TV.

Christopher Buckley endorsed Obama for President in 2008, based in part, on his view that Sarah Palin was unqualified to assume the Presidency. He was then forced out at National Review, the magazine his father founded. (He published his reaction to that here). Buckley also wrote this influential piece in Washington Monthly which includes the following:

Who knew, in 2000, that “compassionate conservatism” meant bigger government, unrestricted government spending, government intrusion in personal matters, government ineptitude, and cronyism in disaster relief? Who knew, in 2000, that the only bill the president would veto, six years later, would be one on funding stem-cell research?

A more accurate term for Mr. Bush’s political philosophy might be incontinent conservatism.

On Capitol Hill, a Republican Senate and House are now distinguished by—or perhaps even synonymous with—earmarks, the K Street Project, Randy Cunningham (bandit, 12 o’clock high!), Sen. Ted Stevens’s $250-million Bridge to Nowhere, Jack Abramoff (Who? Never heard of him), and a Senate Majority Leader who declared, after conducting his own medical evaluation via videotape, that he knew every bit as much about the medical condition of Terri Schiavo as her own doctors and husband. Who knew that conservatism means barging into someone’s hospital room like Dr. Frankenstein with defibrillator paddles? In what chapter of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is that principle enunciated?

Despite the failures [of conservatism during the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan years], one had the sense that the party at least knew in its heart of hearts that these were failures, either of principle or execution. Today one has no sense, aside from a slight lowering of the swagger-mometer, that the president or the Republican Congress is in the least bit chastened by their debacles.

George Tenet’s WMD “slam-dunk,” Vice President Cheney’s “we will be greeted as liberators,” Don Rumsfeld’s avidity to promulgate a minimalist military doctrine, together with the tidy theories of a group who call themselves “neo-conservative” (not one of whom, to my knowledge, has ever worn a military uniform), have thus far: de-stabilized the Middle East; alienated the world community from the United States; empowered North Korea, Iran, and Syria; unleashed sectarian carnage in Iraq among tribes who have been cutting each others’ throats for over a thousand years; cost the lives of 2,600 Americans, and the limbs, eyes, organs, spinal cords of another 15,000—with no end in sight. But not to worry: Democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Just ask Hamas. And the neocons—bright people, all—are now clamoring, “On to Tehran!”

What have they done to my party? Where does one go to get it back?  . . .

9.  Former GOP Congressman, Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida, now an MSNBC commentator. He wrote this piece for Washington Monthly in October 2006:

But compare Clinton’s 3.4 percent growth rate to the spending orgy that has dominated Washington since Bush moved into town. With Republicans in charge of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, spending growth has averaged 10.4 percent per year. And the GOP’s reckless record goes well beyond runaway defense costs. The federal education bureaucracy has exploded by 101 percent since Republicans started running Congress. Spending in the Justice Department over the same period has shot up 131 percent, the Commerce Department 82 percent, the Department of Health and Human Services 81 percent, the State Department 80 percent, the Department of Transportation 65 percent, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development 59 percent. Incredibly, the four bureaucracies once targeted for elimination by the GOP Congress—Commerce, Energy, Education, and Housing and Urban Development—have enjoyed spending increases of an average of 85 percent.

It’s enough to make economic conservatives long for the day when Marxists were running the White House.

This must all be shocking to my Republican friends who still believe our country would be a better place if our party controlled every branch of government as well as every news network, movie studio, and mid-American pulpit. But evidence suggests that divided government may be what Washington needs the most.

During the 1990s, conservative Republicans and the Clinton White House somehow managed to balance the budget while winning two wars, reforming welfare, and conducting an awesome impeachment trial focused on oral sex and a stained Gap dress.

10.  David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, the organization that is the driving force behind the intelligent design movement. He is a also a frequent contributor to National Review. In August 2010, he wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times called “From Neo-cons To Crazy-cons”:

Once, the iconic figures on the political right were urbane visionaries and builders of institutions — like William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and Father Richard John Neuhaus, all dead now. Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, whose news and opinion website, Breitbart.com, is read by millions. In his most recent triumph, Breitbart got a U.S. Department of Agriculture official pushed out of her job after he released a deceptively edited video clip of her supposedly endorsing racism against white people.

What has become of conservatism? We have reached a point at which nothing could be more important than to stop and recall what brought us here, to the right, in the first place.

Buckley’s National Review, where I was the literary editor through the 1990s, remains as vital and interesting as ever. But more characteristic of conservative leadership are figures on TV, radio and the Internet who make their money by stirring fears and resentments. With its descent to baiting blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, its accommodation of conspiracy theories and an increasing nastiness and vulgarity, the conservative movement has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism. Once the talk was of “neocons” versus “paleocons.” Now we observe the rule of the crazy-cons.

11.  Professor Stephen Bainbridge, former fellow of the Heritage Foundation, wrote this piece in August 2010 called, “It’s Getting Embarrassing to Be a Conservative.”

Advertisements

2 Responses to Is there still a place for sane, reasonable conservatives in today’s GOP

  1. hortonw says:

    That’s a good collection. And, I think it answers your question with a resounding “no.” These 11 writers are to a large extent outsiders. Sure, there are plenty of smart conservatives who are ashamed of the direction the party has taken. Is there a place for them in the party? Do they have any power in the party? Not really.

  2. Good list. hortonw, these people were not outsiders before they left office or the administration. (Besides Buckley and Klinghoffer; don’t know anything about Bainbridge) I wouldn’t give too much credit to Gerson, Frum or Brooks. It sure is nice to be able to forget years and years of support for Bush, especially his divisiveness, and then waking up one day and saying, what happened to my party? Well, you weren’t minding the store. As Buckley noted, constant attention must be paid to keep right-wing kooks out of positions of power. How about these members of the Senate: Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Jesse Helms, Alan Simpson, Al D’Amato, James Inhofe, Rick Santorum.

    As for Lofgren, I wrote a fair amount about him, including rebutting his conclusions (his facts are good), at my blog. The last one has links to the others.

    Second,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s