Republican Cage Match

Paul McLeary

Dur­ing Pres­i­dent Bush’s first term, most fis­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans remained mum as the admin­is­tra­tion gorged itself on a pro­tract­ed spend­ing spree that would have hor­ri­fied pre­vi­ous Repub­li­can gen­er­a­tions. But now that any con­cerns about his elec­tabil­i­ty have been suc­cess­ful­ly dis­patched, some of those same con­ser­v­a­tives — includ­ing the dimin­ished ranks of con­gres­sion­al mod­er­ates con­cerned about their own incum­ben­cies in 2006 — are begin­ning to push back.

But what’s a move­ment with­out a leader? Chris­tine Todd Whit­man, fresh off her humil­i­at­ing stint as EPA chief, looks to be mak­ing a run for this posi­tion with her new book, It’s My Par­ty Too: The Bat­tle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of Amer­i­ca. Whit­man pens a scathing indict­ment against the social fun­da­men­tal­ists” and extreme right” fac­tions that have hijacked the par­ty in recent years. Mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans who have strayed from [the administration’s] hard-line ortho­doxy have been tar­get­ed by activists seek­ing to purge them from the par­ty,” she writes. Whit­man would like to see a return to a more tra­di­tion­al con­ser­vatism that sup­ports fis­cal restraint, rea­son­able and open dis­cus­sion of social issues … and a for­eign pol­i­cy which is engaged with the rest of the world.”

Whit­man warns the par­ty that if they keep dri­ving mod­er­ates out, they’ll have a hard time hold­ing on to their con­gres­sion­al major­i­ty when the next elec­tion cycle comes around. But how much weight does Whitman’s threat car­ry? As this past elec­tion proved, Repub­li­cans don’t seem to have much of a prob­lem with the far right’s agen­da, or at least how this agen­da has been pack­aged in vague notions of heart­land val­ues,” secu­ri­ty” and free­dom.”

But along with Whit­man, those out­num­bered hold­outs in Con­gress have been mak­ing a bit of noise, too. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R‑Maine) worked hard to cap the president’s most recent tax cut at $350 bil­lion and has pub­licly sup­port­ed the U.S. sale of inex­pen­sive import­ed drugs. Mean­while, the grow­ing fight over Social Secu­ri­ty has sparked a full-fledged revolt against the president’s over­reach­ing pol­i­cy goals. Rep. Jack Kingston (R‑Ga.), a mem­ber of the GOP lead­er­ship, recent­ly told the Wash­ing­ton Post that 15 to 20 House Repub­li­cans are dead set against the pro­pos­al, and oth­ers esti­mate the num­ber to be clos­er to 40. In addi­tion, Sen. Arlen Specter (R‑Pa.), a promi­nent mod­er­ate who was almost knocked off by a far-right pri­ma­ry rival this past spring, is on record as strong­ly oppos­ing the president’s plan, as is long­time Sen. Lin­coln Chafee (R‑R.I.).

Even giv­en this grow­ing oppo­si­tion — and the best efforts of those like Whit­man — mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans remain a minor­i­ty in Con­gress, out­num­bered 37 to 12 in the Sen­ate and 178 to 53 in the House. As if this endan­gered species of con­ser­v­a­tive didn’t have enough oppo­si­tion, into the fray wades our old friend Newt Gin­grich to deliv­er the death blow. His new book, Win­ning the Future, billed as a 21st Cen­tu­ry Con­tract With Amer­i­ca,” is the coun­ter­weight to any hope pro­gres­sives may have had for the imme­di­ate future of the Repub­li­can Par­ty. Bor­row­ing heav­i­ly from the far-right’s play­book, he laments the absence of God in pub­lic life and the loss of the Orwellian-sound­ing patri­ot­ic edu­ca­tion” in our schools, all while try­ing to sell the president’s own­er­ship soci­ety” as some­thing oth­er than the pri­va­ti­za­tion of all pub­lic goods and services.

While the orig­i­nal Con­tract With Amer­i­ca was a broad, eth­i­cal­ly based pol­i­cy ini­tia­tive, Gingrich’s new tome reads like a col­lec­tion of soft-head­ed par­ti­san agit­prop that relies heav­i­ly on the faith and fam­i­ly” meme. Most of it is typ­i­cal­ly groan-induc­ing, but when he clos­es the book with a 20-page Walk­ing Tour of God in D.C.” — in which he cat­a­logs every men­tion of reli­gion etched on the capital’s mon­u­ments — he offi­cial­ly jumps the shark. Cloak­ing his argu­ments in the angry rhetoric of the far right, Gin­grich proves Whit­man cor­rect about the bank­rupt state of the Repub­li­can Par­ty while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly push­ing her ilk fur­ther to the par­ty establishment’s margins.

Fis­cal or social mod­er­ates have not been com­plete­ly shut out of the Repub­li­can Par­ty — the fight over Social Secu­ri­ty might invig­o­rate this debate — but as of now, their rhetoric of rea­son is being drowned out by the shriller voic­es of the far right.

Paul McLeary reg­u­lar­ly reviews books for In These Times. For more go to his his Web site.
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