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. To be sure, the party, like any political party on earth, has always had its share of crackpots, like Robert K. Dornan or William E. Dannemeyer. But the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today: Steve King, Michele Bachmann (now a leading presidential candidate as well), Paul Broun, Patrick McHenry, Virginia Foxx, Louie Gohmert, Allen West. The Congressional directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy.
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As for what they really believe, the Republican Party of 2011 believes in three principal tenets I have laid out below. The rest of their platform one may safely dismiss as window dressing:
- The GOP cares solely and exclusively about its rich contributors. The party has built a whole catechism on the protection and further enrichment of America’s plutocracy.
- They worship at the altar of Mars. While the me-too Democrats have set a horrible example of keeping up with the Joneses with respect to waging wars, they can never match GOP stalwarts such as John McCain or Lindsey Graham in their sheer, libidinous enthusiasm for invading other countries.
- Give me that old time religion. Pandering to fundamentalism is a full-time vocation in the GOP.
Who, you ask, is behind this partisan screed? Nancy Pelosi? Al Franken? Keith Olbermann? In actuality, the source is unflinchingly bipartisan in his indictment of the status quo:
Both parties are rotten—how could they not be, given the complete infestation of the political system by corporate money on a scale that now requires a presidential candidate to raise upwards of a billion dollars to be competitive in the general election? Both parties are captives to corporate loot. The main reason the Democrats’ health care bill will be a budget buster once it fully phases in is the Democrats’ rank capitulation to corporate interests—no single-payer system, in order to mollify the insurers; and no negotiation of drug prices, a craven surrender to Big Pharma.
The author is Mike Lofgren, former staff member to Senate Republicans on national security and defense budget issues. His September 3 piece in Truthout—“Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult”—is his post-retirement valedictory, after over 28 years of service. He came to my attention through James Fallows, my favorite coal-mine canary*, who posted sections in his Atlantic blog the same day—which, in turn, led to another post two days later, containing similar comments from a former Democratic staff person with 26 years in. (She was “retired” when her boss, a moderate, lost re-election last year.) Here’s an excerpt:
Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don’t think people realize how fragile democracy really is. The 2012 campaign is currently looking to be the final nail in the coffin unless people start to understand what is going on.
One thing that especially resonated with me about Mike’s piece is the importance of ‘low information’ voters. The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters’ minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.
The media likes to call this group ‘independents,’ which implies that they think so long and deeply about issues that they refuse to be constrained by the philosophy of either party. There may be a couple of people out there who fit that definition, but those are not the persuadable voters campaigns are trying to capture. Every campaign is trying to develop its candidate into an easy-to-remember slogan that makes him or her more appealing than the other guy. Actually, because negative campaigning is so effective, they are more often trying to portray the opponent as more objectionable (‘I guess I’ll vote for the crook because at least he won’t slash my Medicare’).
I can relate. After law school and the Army reserves, my first—and highly-desired—career stop was as a majority subcommittee counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, during the height of the Watergate impeachment proceedings. (I’ve since tormented my Republican friends, and picked up a few bucks in side bar bets from them in the bargain, by reminiscing fondly about the good old days, when Hillary was a brunette—and one of them. Tons of fun—apoplexy all around.) It was a surreal experience in many respects, and it was most assuredly partisan, since at bottom the constitutional remedy of impeachment is intended to be as much or more political than legal or technical. A President or federal judge can be guilty of a “high crime and misdemeanor’—abuse of office or its incidents—without violating a federal statute. Because those were the first such proceedings invoked against a sitting President in over a century, both sides took them, and themselves, seriously. But, as befits a nation of laws, the disputes were over the law and facts; the institutions themselves and the appropriateness of the remedy were never called into question. If the evidence showed that Richard Nixon had conspired to abuse his office in violation of his constitutional oath, he would be impeached and tried in the Senate. It did; six of the committee’s 17 Republicans joined all 21 Democrats in voting to send Article I to the House Floor, and no member was pleased, let alone gleeful. Charlie Wiggins, a saturnine member from West Covina who was rumored at the staff level to be mostly likely to serve as Nixon’s counsel at trial in the upper body, was forced to face the press in tears when the infamous 18-1/2 minute gap was revealed. Watching him, my sense of the depth of his betrayal was heart-wrenching. The House never debated the two Articles, and there was no trial because better Republican voices persuaded Nixon to resign. Jerry Ford sacrificed his own career and any lingering advantage for his party in the next election by putting the matter to rest with a pardon. (Dick Cheney was his Chief of Staff at the time; let’s not go there, now.)
Through all that and the rest of the five-plus years I spent on House and Senate staff, what I remember and treasure most is the collegiality and respect among both Members and my peers of both parties. Our shared roles as stewards of the process of governing were never subjected to question. The overarching goal was to leave them better than we found them; any disagreement was in the details of how best to get that done. The politics and propriety of any given issue or result were omnipresent and always factored in, of course, but they took care of themselves. Their debate and judgment were left to and by the voters in the next election, where they belonged. We were all hired to govern, and we did it as best we could. Hell—between 1970 and 1974 Richard Nixon negotiated amendments to extend the Clean Air Act, proposed health care reform more progressive than the Affordable Care Act, and imposed wage and price controls to rein in “raging” inflation of 4-6%.
The point? Talking politics with my friends across the aisle used to be spirited, and fun, because it was always tacitly accepted that we were all in it together, and making things better for our greatest number was a duty beyond question. Purpose trumped ideology and not to govern at all was unthinkable as an option, let alone a resolute political strategy. Now, as we stumble into the season of the hyperextended and obscenely expensive celebrity cage match our national election campaign has become, it’s become an empty politburo exercise of accusation and denial. Marshal your talking points in service to one objective: winning—devil take the hindmost after Inauguration Day.
Among my Republican peers, I sense that they are as uncomfortable and frustrated in this orthodoxy as Mike Lofgren was, and I am; surely they, too, long for the bygone days when they were equal partners in writing and enforcing the social contract. Here’s my proposal:
To all my fellow Democrats—and especially you, whiny Progressives and salon liberals:
- Seek out and engage your Republican brethren/sistren of good will;
- Endure with equanimity and humor the spittle and invective their loyalty to their distant Church commands of them;
- Embrace and comfort them with words of assurance;
- Recount all that you and they have in common and at stake; and
- Ask them to abandon their bilious messages in favor of reclaiming our media and our elections from the infidels.
Civil discourse has to start somewhere.
*Fallows published Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy in 1997. Every concerned citizen should read it—because we are now living in the epilogue to his findings and dire predictions.