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.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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