“The trouble with our times,” Paul Valéry said, “is that the future is not what it used to be.”
This glum aperçu has been much with me as we move into the home stretch of the 2006 mid-term elections and shimmy into the starting gates of the 2008 presidential campaign. With heavy heart, as a once-proud—indeed, staunch— Republican, I here admit, behind enemy lines, to the guilty hope that my party loses; on both occasions.
I voted for George W. Bush in 2000. In 2004, I could not bring myself to pull the same lever again. Neither could I bring myself to vote for John Kerry, who, for all his strengths, credentials, and talent, seems very much less than the sum of his parts. So, I wrote in a vote for George Herbert Walker Bush, for whom I worked as a speechwriter from 1981 to ’83. I wish he’d won.
Bob Woodward asked Bush 43 if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq. The son replied that he had consulted “a higher father.” That frisson you feel going up your spine is the realization that he meant it. And apparently the higher father said, “Go for it!” There are those of us who wish he had consulted his terrestrial one; or, if he couldn’t get him on the line, Brent Scowcroft. Or Jim Baker. Or Henry Kissinger. Or, for that matter, anyone who has read a book about the British experience in Iraq. (18,000 dead.)
Anyone who has even a passing personal acquaintance of Bush 41 knows him to be, roughly speaking, the most decent, considerate, humble, and cautious man on the planet. Also, the most loving parent on earth. What a wrench it must be for him to pick up his paper every morning and read the now-daily debate about whether his son is officially the worst president in U.S. history. (That chuckling you hear is the ghost of James Buchanan.) To paraphrase another president, I feel 41’s pain. Does 43 feel 41’s? Does he, I wonder, feel ours?
There were some of us who scratched our heads in 2000 when we first heard the phrase “compassionate conservative.” It had a cobbled-together, tautological, dare I say, Rovian aroma to it. But OK, we thought, let’s give it a chance. It sounded more fun than Gore’s “Prosperity for America’s Families.” (Bo-ring.)
Six years later, the White House uses the phrase about as much as it does “Mission Accomplished.” Six years of record deficits and profligate expansion of entitlement programs. Incompetent expansion, at that: The actual cost of the President’s Medicare drug benefit turned out, within months of being enacted, to be roughly one-third more than the stated price. Weren’t Republicans supposed to be the ones who were good at accounting? All those years on Wall Street calculating CEO compensation....
Who knew, in 2000, that “compassionate conservatism” meant bigger government, unrestricted government spending, government intrusion in personal matters, government ineptitude, and cronyism in disaster relief? Who knew, in 2000, that the only bill the president would veto, six years later, would be one on funding stem-cell research?
A more accurate term for Mr. Bush’s political philosophy might be incontinent conservatism.
On Capitol Hill, a Republican Senate and House are now distinguished by—or perhaps even synonymous with—earmarks, the K Street Project, Randy Cunningham (bandit, 12 o’clock high!), Sen. Ted Stevens’s $250-million Bridge to Nowhere, Jack Abramoff (Who? Never heard of him), and a Senate Majority Leader who declared, after conducting his own medical evaluation via videotape, that he knew every bit as much about the medical condition of Terri Schiavo as her own doctors and husband. Who knew that conservatism means barging into someone’s hospital room like Dr. Frankenstein with defibrillator paddles? In what chapter of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is that principle enunciated?
The Republican Party I grew up into—Dwight D. Eisenhower, William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon (sigh), Ronald Reagan—stood for certain things. It did not always live up to its ideals. Au contraire, as we Republicans said in the pre-Dominique de Villepin era—often, it fell flat on its face. A self-proclaimed “conservative,” Nixon kept the Great Society entitlement beast fat and happy and brought in wage and price controls. Reagan funked Social Security reform in 1983 and raised (lesser) taxes three times. He vowed to balance the budget, and drove the deficit to historic highs by failing to rein in government spending. Someone called it “Voodoo economics.” You could Google it.
There were foreign misadventures, terrible ones: Vietnam (the ’69-’75 chapters), Beirut, Iran-Contra, the Saddam Hussein tilt. But there were compensating triumphs: Eisenhower’s refusal to bail out France in Indochina in 1954, Nixon’s China opening, the Cold War victory.
Despite the failures, one had the sense that the party at least knew in its heart of hearts that these were failures, either of principle or execution. Today one has no sense, aside from a slight lowering of the swagger-mometer, that the president or the Republican Congress is in the least bit chastened by their debacles.
George Tenet’s WMD “slam-dunk,” Vice President Cheney’s “we will be greeted as liberators,” Don Rumsfeld’s avidity to promulgate a minimalist military doctrine, together with the tidy theories of a group who call themselves “neo-conservative” (not one of whom, to my knowledge, has ever worn a military uniform), have thus far: de-stabilized the Middle East; alienated the world community from the United States; empowered North Korea, Iran, and Syria; unleashed sectarian carnage in Iraq among tribes who have been cutting each others’ throats for over a thousand years; cost the lives of 2,600 Americans, and the limbs, eyes, organs, spinal cords of another 15,000—with no end in sight. But not to worry: Democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Just ask Hamas. And the neocons—bright people, all—are now clamoring, “On to Tehran!”
What have they done to my party? Where does one go to get it back?
One place comes to mind: the back benches. It’s time for a time-out. Time to hand over this sorry enchilada to Hillary and Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden and Charlie Rangel and Harry Reid, who has the gift of being able to induce sleep in 30 seconds. Or, with any luck, to Mark Warner or, what the heck, Al Gore. I’m not much into polar bears, but this heat wave has me thinking the man might be on to something.
My fellow Republicans, it is time, as Madison said in Federalist 76, to “Hand over the tiller of governance, that others may fuck things up for a change.”
(Or was it Federalist 78?)
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Christopher Buckley’s new novel Boomsday will be published in April 2007 by Warner Twelve.