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The Republican Party Has Failed–And That’s Not Good For Anyone

The Republican party's failure has me thinking of a Seinfeld episode, the one where Kramer is upset about a Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant featuring a bright neon sign that lights up his apartment at night.  Jerry has an old college friend who winds up working as an assistant manager at the restaurant, and when Kramer hangs a banner from his restaurant protesting the chicken establishment, Jerry's friend remarks "that's not going to be good for business."  Jerry responds "that's not going to be good for anyone".

That's how I feel about the intellectually bankrupt, hopelessly divided, and utterly unpopular entity known as today's Republican party.  Some critics of the party see the party's failure as a good thing, but I think it's not going to be good for anyone.  I'd much prefer to see a rational, functioning Republican party than today's embarrassing irrelevancy.

Not surprisingly, media insiders are missing the story.  They are transfixed by gubernatorial elections in 2 states last Tuesday, and are talking up the idea of a Republican resurgence.  They're losing sight of some central facts that are unaffected by Tuesday's elections:

The Republican party has a favorable rating of 23% and an unfavorable rating of 66%.  (Democrats are at 42%-50%).  Republicans in Congress have favorable-unfavorable ratings of 15% and 70% (Democrats are at 40-53).  If this is a resurgent party that has captured the national mood, I'm Herbert Hoover.

It's no coincidence that voters give Republicans such abysmal ratings.  The Republican party stands for absolutely nothing other than the pursuit of power.  For 30 years, the Republicans have claimed to stand for 3 things: (1) small government (2) family values and (3) strong national defense.  They don't actually stand for any of these things, and it's not clear that they ever did. 

The small government myth Reagan and GW Bush loved to talk up their small government bona fides, but each spent like there was no tomorrow, running up unprecedented deficits and debt.  Small government also seemed to get put aside when it came to the bedroom and privacy.  Reagan and Bush both supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion.  Bush also supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage equality for same-sex couples.  Not exactly libertarian positions: in each case, the goal was to use government to enforce specific religiously based prohibitions on private activity.  Bush did Reagan one better when it came to civil liberties.  This champion of small government presided over an era of warrantless wiretapping, torture, and government-sponsored propaganda.  (That last point is not my opinion, it was the conclusion of the Government Accountability Office.)  Republicans cheered on Bush's campaign against civil liberties at every turn, arguing it was necessary to provide security.   And then, when it became painfully clear that only government could save the mismanaged economy from the worst disaster since the Great Depression, Republicans couldn't line up quickly enough behind Bush to support government bailouts of failed corporations.


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Family values-just a slogan Republicans have chattered on about family values for decades,  but elected Republicans who fail to meet these standards often pay no political price.  Mark Sanford, John Ensign, and David Vitter are just a few prominent Republicans who believe family values are only something you gush about when you want to fool voters into thinking that you're an old-time moralist committed to clean living and righteous indignation.  Of course, when it comes to other peoples' families, especially gay and lesbian couples seeking to marry and raise families, it's time for a heavy dose of sanctimony.

Republican bungling of national defense The past three decades are filled with examples of disastrous decisions Republicans made that undermined our security, starting with Reagan's and the right wing's backing of the mujahideen in Afghanistan (they called them "freedom fighters", but it turned out their ranks included some guy named Osama Bin Laden).  Reagan's administration also came up with the nifty idea of trading arms for hostages, which meant selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund another merry band of freedom fighters in the mold of Paul Revere - the murderous contras.  Once again, GW Bush would not be outdone.  In August 2001, he brushed aside a memo warning of Bin Laden's determination to strike the United States.  After the memo proved terribly prescient, Bush proceeded to invade a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, diverting resources from going after the people who actually had attacked us.  A National Intelligence Estimate explained that Bush's misguided decisions had left us less safe, and his administration handed over two unfinished, mismanaged wars to its successor.

If the Republican party does not actually stand for its supposed core principles, what does it stand for?  Essentially, a very focused quest for power and the willingness to use smear tactics, lies, and fear in an effort to achieve that goal.  Whether it's lying about death panels, health care coverage for undocumented immigrants, or President Obama's uncanny resemblance to Adolph Hitler, the Republicans and right wing have set new standards for indecency.  Just as they've broken new ground, they always seem to go further-witness yesterday's anti-health care reform rally where elected Republican officials spoke to a crowd that included someone waving a sign reading "National Socialist Health Care: Dachau, Germany 1945" above a stack of piled corpses from a Nazi death camp.  It might make some people feel better to dismiss this as an isolated example, but the Nazi comparisons are coming fast and furious, and elected Republicans are condoning or even joining in on the "fun".

Some progressives say-good, no problem.  The Republican party is falling apart and rushing to back uninformed extremists who can't win elections--so be it.  I see the logic, and in the short-term, the Sarah Palins and Doug Hoffmans of the world may be electoral losers.  But so was Barry Goldwater in 1964.  16 years later, the Republicans nominated a presidential candidate who would have been too extreme in previous elections but won two easy victories in the 1980s.  He was followed by the even more extreme George W. Bush.  Pushing the envelope makes me nervous.  Extremism starts to seem normal.  We've already seen that with some of the over the top rhetoric-it has become commonplace for right wingers to denounce Obama and the Democrats as Nazis, Marxists, terrorists.

I don't want to take the chance that extremists who take over the Republican party, or perhaps establish a third party, might ultimately see electoral success.  I would much prefer to see the few relative moderates who remain in the Republican party gain control, even if it makes the party more palatable to voters.  Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, and even Olympia Snowe don't scare me.  Mike Huckabee, Michelle Bachmann, Dick Armey, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin do.  The latter group is aiming to make the extreme mainstream.  Some are doing it for ideological reasons, others may be exploiting fears simply because they see a path to victory.  Either way, the lack of a functioning media is allowing these extremists to pass themselves off as mainstream, and that's not good for anyone.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor in American University's School of Public Affairs, Department of Government, where he teaches classes on constitutional law. He's also a lawyer and has published writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Lawyer, Common Dreams,, and Metroland (Albany, NY).

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