I sometimes think we underestimate the Republicans’ contribution to our political lives. Just when things were getting a little slow—you can’t give the president of the United States a Nobel Prize every Friday—up popped Rush Limbaugh wanting to buy the St. Louis Rams. A controversial move, since this is the same Rush Limbaugh who commented in 2007 that “the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” Suddenly, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were on the scene, the commissioner of the NFL was besieged with angry protests, and a nice race-relations storm was brewing. Despite the fact that the scandal ended almost as quickly as it began (Limbaugh was dropped as a potential bidder) here’s a cheer for the modern Republican Party: never a moment of dullness when they’re around!
On the other hand, the very lack of tedium is starting to get tedious. The GOP’s multiple and increasing absurdities—bellowing “liar!” at the president of the United States as he addresses Congress and encouraging protesters to bring guns to town hall meetings— are actually becoming part of the status quo; the Republicans are reactionary, emotional, angry … yawn.
What’s odd about this characterization is that, four or five years ago, much of the same could have been said about the Democrats, though in a different way. They were shrill, out of touch, and reduced to mocking George W. Bush for his inability to form coherent sentences rather than for his policies. John Kerry was the Democrats’ presidential candidate, and Kerry was neither inspiring nor trust-inspiring. He was a good debater and decently intelligent, and, beyond that, he seemed cold, elitist, indecisive, and hyper-opportunistic. Whereas Bush, though still unable to navigate the tricky terrain of syntax, seemed to know at least what he stood for and was resolutely anti-elitist. Americans—or at least a sizeable majority of those that voted—appreciated this honesty and clarity of purpose. All of this, of course, was before the conventional wisdom about the second Bush White House changed from “they’re firm and effective” to “they’re heavy-handed, incompetent, and out-of-touch.”
Looking at the GOP today is looking at the work of George W. Bush, the party’s president for eight years. Actually, I think the party is shaped more by W. than Republicans either realize or admit. Then, too, his effect is hard to quantify because, unlike influential presidents before him, Bush really didn’t seem to have had much of a philosophy governing his actions.
He certainly wasn’t a conservative. American conservatism in the past fifty years has come to mean faith in free-markets, small government, and pragmatic but strong foreign policy. It also means having a healthy distrust for human nature and therefore an even deeper distrust of utopian aspirations. This inherent skepticism makes conservatives strong supporters of constitutionalism and laws, which they sanctify as more reliable than transient human passions.
On Bush’s watch, the deficit sky-rocketed, and the bureaucracy ballooned in both numbers and corruption. Having invaded two nations, Bush came to embrace fully a utopian vision of spreading democracy worldwide, which is about the moment he started losing the support of his truly conservative base. As for the laws, they were thrown by the wayside, not thoughtfully and selectively which may have been justified in the name of keeping Americans safe, but instead en masse, in the early days after 9/11.
What did the Republicans and the country get in exchange? We all got drama, emotion, and—in a less appreciated but deeper and more destructive way—lack of discipline. Of all the criticisms about the 43rd president, one never hears “undisciplined.” That moniker is Bill Clinton’s. Yet Bush was less stupid than intellectually undisciplined; he hadn’t formed or wrought a political philosophy, and he didn’t actually think one was necessary. How wrong he was. But the tragedy of his error is that he has bequeathed to the Republican Party a generation of leaders who share his implicit disdain for meaningful political thought. Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are, of course, the most apparent in this trend toward populism sans meaning, but there is also Joe Wilson (who shouted “liar” at President Obama), Texas Governor Rick Perry (who told Texans it was okay for them to secede from the United States), and others without philosophy but full of angry, unrestrained, and undisciplined passions.
Really, this new generation is worse than its predecessor. Bush was sentimental about abstract concepts (freedom, democracy) without actually grounding them in circumstance or disciplined thought. Sarah Palin and her ilk are passionate about “concepts” that are not concepts at all, but mere catch-phrases: “real America,” “family values” “anti-socialism.” There is no meaning behind their words; these leaders simply emote in hopes of lighting a spark among their listeners.
Does any of this help the Republicans? No, because it makes them seem foolish and deeply irresponsible. Does any of this help the country? No, and it actually hurts the nation, because President Obama and the Democrats could use decent, meaningful opposition to their policies. Compromise is not romantic, but it isn’t always bad. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich sat down at the bargaining table out of necessity, and we got a balanced budget and welfare reform.
Needless to say, not all conservative ideas or applications of those ideas are correct or even wise; but then again, big, intrusive government is not always helpful, and diplomacy without safeguards is not always wise either. Either way, the liberal side of the spectrum is currently well represented while philosophical, idea-based conservatism remains depressingly fallow. This is George W. Bush’s work, and until the Right can disentangle itself from its last president’s failed legacy, mainstream American conservatism will remain nothing more than a sounding board for the crazies.