Trivial Pursuits

Where Are the Serious Republicans?

Republicans were few—you could count them on one hand—in our Chicago neighborhood. The one on our block, Bob O’Rourke, was the Republican counterpart to Ann W. O’Brien, the Democratic precinct captain and my aunt. O’Rourke, always dressed in suit and tie (even on the hottest days), had an office job. He was invariably polite and genial, though a bit reticent around my father and his fierce Democratic loyalties. O’Rourke had the duty, as did my aunt, to get his voters to the polls—few though they were. This was more time-consuming for her than for him; even so, she never failed to help him out on other precinct-captain duties, negotiating the repair of potholes, arranging garbage pick-ups, and removing fallen tree branches. Now and again, my aunt may have turned one of his voters to her own purposes by offering a very special favor (a city job). As far as we know, he never turned one of hers. He was too upright: a model Republican, full of probity and gravitas—the Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft of Carmen Avenue.

That probity and gravitas long served as a counterweight to the transgressions and rowdiness of the Democrats. But today there are few Republican exemplars of either probity or gravitas: only Richard Lugar of Indiana comes immediately to mind. Most of his congressional colleagues are not serious about governing; too many are just, well, clownish.

When did Republicans lose their probity and gravitas? Does Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid go too far back? Richard Nixon was smart, but lacked probity (remember the racist underpinnings of his Southern strategy). Ronald Reagan had plenty of probity but not gravitas (recall supply-side economics and its trickle-down corollary). George H. W. Bush personified probity and gravitas lite.

The tendencies to stray from traditional Republican policies of limited government and balanced budgets may have been festering, but none of these Republicans were truly pursuing the goal of no government at all. That began with the “Contract with America,” a manifesto conceived by the Heritage Foundation and hatched for the 1994 congressional elections by Congressmen Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and John Boehner. The plan essentials were to dismantle government by reducing its resources (income taxes, mineral royalties, etc.) and eradicating regulations. Then, as the government ceased to function, the Gingriches of the world could proclaim a self-fulfilled prophecy: Government doesn’t work. President Bill Clinton was correct in calling it the “Contract on America.”

“The Party of No” came into its own in 2000 with the “election” of George W. Bush and Republican control of Congress. Gingrich was out of office, cheerleading from a cushy perch, but DeLay and Armey were there to carry on. With the help of W. and Vice President Dick Cheney, they brought us to where we are today: tax cuts that destroyed a balanced budget, Medicare Part D, two wars financed off-budget, illegal and immoral practices against foreign prisoners, a deregulated economy, and soaring deficits. The Democrats didn’t exactly acquit themselves with probity in the Bush years (many of them embracing those tax cuts). While the Republicans were in charge, the Democrats were unwilling or unable to put the brake on such irresponsible governance.

Though the Democrats are now in control of Congress, they are obstructed by the minority. The Party of No systematically thwarts Democratic efforts to extend unemployment benefits, reform the financial system, bring down health-care costs, stimulate the economy, and begin to remedy the budget deficit. At the same time, the Senate impedes the president’s ability to govern by holding up the appointment of cabinet-level administrators and federal judges. The Republicans’ goal: implementing the contract on America by sapping the effectiveness of government.

If Republicans take back control of Congress on November 2, this zombie politics will come into full play with the Party of No joined by the Party of Hell No (the Tea Party) in eviscerating government. Minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), he of the perpetual tan, regularly announces Republican policies that turn out to be no policies; if he becomes speaker of the House, it will be No with a vengeance, including investigations of everything the Democrats did, or tried to do, in the 111 Congress. Should Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) become Senate majority leader, the paralysis will reach out the door and down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House where President Barack Obama will have only the power of the veto to thwart them.

Unless Obama and his fellow Democrats rally their base to step up and stop a Republican sweep in the midterm election, we will become the nation that the Republicans have worked so hard to create, a nation with a fourth-rate government, a third-rate economy, and a first-rate military (imagine what they will do with that).

The party of probity and gravitas has become the party of duplicity and triviality. Where are the Bob O’Rourkes of this world when we really need them?


This column was first published on our Web site on September 22, 2010.

Related: Extreme Makeover, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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It is clear that anyone who opposes Obama's enlightened policies, couldn't be doing so because those policies don't work and are driving the US economy into the toilet.  No, opponents of Obama's radical leftwing agenda are clowns and lack gravitas and probity.  This article, lacking nuance and full of name calling, is a perfect example of liberal smugness.  Devoid of any serious analysis and ignoring the disatrous Obama presidency, Ms. Steinfels feels empowered simply to declare that people who disagree with her are defective clowns, who should simply be ignored.  She wants all Republicans to be like the hapless Mr. O'Rourke, a Republican leader in Chicago, who because of one party Democratic rule in Chicago did not have the clout to do anything for potential voters.  Ms. Steinfels proudly notes that her aunt may have bought off a few Mr. O'Rourke's voters, but he probably didn't turn any of hers.  At least, he wore a suit.  Poor Ms. Steinfels longs for the Chicago of her youth, which but for the rampant top-to-bottom corruption and Stalinist control of the local government, was the closest thing to heaven on earth. 

Where are the serious Republicans?


It is true that for too long the Republican Party has been full of unserious squishes, who are more concerned with go-along and get-along than seriously actually doing something.  But since the latter are the ones held up as the model Republicans, the real question should be:  Where are the serious Commonweal columnists?


As for mocking someone's skin color, you do realize that, given his ancestory, that that is Boehner's natural skin tone?

Curious to know the standard Mr. Miller, above, uses to measure the failure of Obama's economic policies, since it was fairly clear that our economy was already in the toilet the day the fellow took office.  This is a common objection to Obama that one hears all the time but I still don't see how it squares with reality.  I'd really like to know what Mr. Miller is talking about; it seems one thing to oppose the president's policies on principle, but quite another to ignore the consequences that these principles -- tax cuts for the wealthy, unfunded wars, systematic efforts to starve government agencies of funds -- have had upon our national economy and the effectiveness of government in general.  Without any substantiation of these broad claims, and without some kind of responsible acknowledgment that GOP policies of the past have actually led us to this moment, and a plausible explanation as to why a return to those policies would ever lead us out of this moment (a tall order, granted), I'd have to conclude that Mr. Miller is just using this space to throw a very familar-sounding kind of Republican tantrum.  By golly, you're angry.  What could that be about?

On the other side of the political fence -- what can one say about the former senator from Delaware who is now VP?  He seems to at very least suffer from 'foot in mouth disease' on a very regular basis.  Talk about clownishness! 

On the other hand the "Chicago Mafia" which is presently running not only Chicago but at least the Executive Branch of the Federal Government -- they are really dangerous to polity!  Of course too the State of Illinois seems to partake of the 'swamp politics' (comic in musicals only) which passes for polity in Chicago. 


I am longing for a fair rational commenary free of partisan angry biased attitudes.



Hank, just keep swilling the Kool Aid so you don't notice the dramatic increase in the national debt, continued record unemployment and the largest increase in poverty since records have been kept. As to"tax-cuts for the wealthy", they have been in place for years and were in place when Obama took office.  Obama did nothing to end them despite massive majorities in both houses of Congress.  The Republicans also overspent, but they look frugal compared to Obama.  Keynsian economic policies have never worked.  As Margaret Thatcher once noted, socilaism is terrific, but sooner or later you run out of other people's money.  We are now out of other people's money.     

Mr. Miller complains that Ms. Steinfels's column is "devoid of any serious analysis." I search in vain for signs of serious analysis in his comments. Lots of crude metaphor ("Obama's enlightened policies...are driving the US economy into the toilet"; "just keep swilling the Kool Aid"), argument-by-adjective ("Obama's radical leftwing agenda"; "disatrous [sic] Obama presidency"), bald assertion ("Keynsian economic policies have never worked"), and shopworn maxims ("socialism is terrific, but sooner or later you run out of other people's money"). Maybe this is what counts for analysis at a conservative Beltway think tank, but around here we call it bluster. 

Mr. Boudway, like Mr. Bunker, doesn't seem to notice the disastrous state of the US economy.  Please  note that he also doesn't refute my assertion that Ms. Steinfels article is both without nuance or analysis and also is an exercise in name-calling.  I was commenting on a feature article in Commonweal, not writing a feature article.  His criticsim is as devastating a comeback as "So's your mother."  The problem for true believers like Messrs. Bunker and Boudway is that their kindred spirits have had complete control of the government - White House, Senate and House for nearly two years and their policies have been shown not to work.  One can understand their disappointment - its's like when a child is told that there really is no Santa Claus.  Their reaction is to shoot the messenger.

Mr. Miller, if you are going to be the messenger, you'd better make sure you've got your message right. Not only have I noticed the "disastrous state of the US economy," I remember all too well when the disaster began -- under a Republican president and a laissez-faire Fed chairman. I remember the "look, Mom, no hands" regulatory regime that led to the collapse of the financial markets, the tax cuts and unfunded wars that took the country from budget surpluses to massive debt. I did not expect President Obama or his party or anyone else to undo all this damage in two years. I wouldn't have expected it even if the Democrats really had "controlled" both the Senate and the House during all this time (to control the Senate nowadays you need a supermajority, which the Democrats had for less than a year). You keep saying the Democrats' policies have been shown not to work, but repetition is no substitute for evidence. To show that their policies have not worked, you would need to demonstrate that the economy would be in better shape today without those policies, that it would have recovered more of what was lost when Wall Street exploded, after years of stuffing itself sick with easy money. There can be no conclusive demonstration either way -- an economy is not a laboratory experiment -- but the Congressional Budget Office, which is controlled by neither party, has found that the unemployment rate would be considerably higher than it actually is if the Republicans had succeeded in scuttling the stimulus package. You (or, rather, I) could make a good argment that the president's stimulus was much too small to do all that needed to be done in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, but the Republicans' policy of sitting on their hands and letting the economy heal itself, and of complaining bitterly when the president didn't fix their mess fast enough, is evidence not only of a toxic ideology, but also of a basic lack of intellectual honor.

Mr. Boudway, though challenged, still offers no refutation of my criticism of Ms. Steinfels article as an exercise in name-calling and devoid of any rational argument or analysis.  The evidence of the dismal failure of Obama’s policies is irrefutable and ubiquitous, yet Mr Boudway doesn’t see any of it.  The response is to chant “Bush, Bush, Bush” and hope nobody notices.  The sub-prime mortgage disaster that nearly brought down the entire economy was a great liberal achievement, fathered by Barney Frank, Chris Dodd and Andrew Cuomo.  Mr. Boudway hints that the problem with the stimulus was just that it wasn’t big enough.  Santayana’s definition of fanaticism comes to mind, to wit: “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” 

Well then, Mr. Miller, if the evidence that President Obama's policies have been a failure is really "irrefutable and ubiquitous," you should have no trouble presenting it. Or are you just throwing around adjectives again? You allude to the role Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had in the subprime mortgage market, and to the Community Reinvestment Act, but I expect you know that most of the institutions involved in subprime lending were not subject to that law. Companies like Countrywide Financial were not doing the bidding of liberal busybodies; they were providing fodder for the lucrative, underregulated securitization market on Wall Street. The real problem with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was that they were trying to keep up with the big profits being made by their least scrupulous private competitors, and this meant aggresively hawking dubious mortgages. Institutions underwritten like public utilities need to be regulated like public utilities.

It's people on your side who are the votaries of magical thinking, believing that the uninhibited pursuit of individual self-interest automatically leads to the greatest possible collective welfare. The Invisible Hand is your Santa Claus, and if most people are left with a lump of coal, your side says it's because of the big, bad Welfare State, or because a lump of coal is all that most people really want or need, or because Santa Claus doesn't owe them a damn thing.

People on our side believe that the common good requires collective deliberation and collective action, which means, yes, government (of, by, and for the people), progessive taxation, and adequate regulation.

Your Santayana line is great, by the way -- and, like most of your quotations, totally beside the point. 

I can safely assume that, after his failure to respond two challenges to refute my criticism of Ms. Steinfels’ article as an exercise in liberal smugness and name-calling, he has implicitly conceded the point. 

His insistence that no liberal busybodies were pushing sub-prime lending shows how far in denial he is.  Just watch Andrew Cuomo in this video. 

“The poverty rate has reached the highest level in the half-century that the government has kept track.”

Unemployment rate in October, 2008  "Nonfarm payroll employment declined by 159,000 in September, and the unemployment rate held at 6.1 percent. “  Check the current rate to see if Obama’s policies have helped.

Mr. Boudway says that my quotations are irrelevant, but I’m content to let the reader determine that for themselves.  Mr. Boudway, like other religious fundamentalists, simply have to deny reality.  No amount of evidence will shake their fundamentalist beliefs in liberalism.  Debate is impossible with people like this.  They cling to their religion and guns smugness because they cannot accept that their belief system is delusional.

Come to California and see Republican disfunction at its height. Witless Meg has spend over $140 million to try to get elected so she can whack at the pinata called public employees. Arnold (aka GAS) is the poster child for can't get anything accomplished. Fiora was fired from HP and now is running for the Senate but admits she mostly didn't vote in the past and actually financially supported democrats.  Where oh where are the sensible, stable and well-reputed Republican candidates?  Certainly not a part of our current experience either here or nationwide.

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