• U.S.

ELEPHANTS RUN AMUCK

4 minute read
Charles Krauthammer

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HAS LOST ITS MIND. TO win elections, a party needs votes, obviously, and constituencies. First, however, it needs ideas. In 1994-95, the Republican Party had after long struggle advanced a coherent, compelling set of political ideas expressed in a specific legislative agenda. The political story of 1996 is that this same party, within the space of six weeks, then became totally, shockingly intellectually deranged.

Think back. The singular achievement of the ’94 Gingrich revolution was that it swept into power united behind one comprehensive ideological goal: dismantling the welfare state. Just about everything in the Contract with America and the legislative agenda of the 104th Congress is a mere subheading: welfare reform, tax cuts, entitlement reform, returning power to the states, the balanced budget (a supremely powerful means for keeping the growth of government in check).

The central Republican idea was that the individual, the family, the church, the schools–civil society–were being systematically usurped and strangled by the federal behemoth. Republicans were riding into Washington to slay it.

With this idea they met Clinton head on in late 1995. And although they were tactically bested–the government shutdown proved a disaster for Republicans–they won philosophically. Clinton conceded all their principles. He finally embraced their seven-year balanced budget. Then, in a State of the Union speech that might have been delivered by a moderate Republican, he declared, “The era of Big Government is over,” the dominant theme of the Gingrich revolution.

It seems so long ago. Because then, astonishingly, on the very morrow of their philosophical victory, just as the Republicans prepared to carry these ideas into battle in November, came cannon fire from the rear.

The first Republican renegade to cry “Wrong!” and charge was Steve Forbes. With his free-lunch, tax-cutting flat tax, he declared the balanced budget, the centerpiece of the Republican revolution, misguided and unnecessary. Then, no sooner had the Forbes mutiny been put down than Pat Buchanan declared a general insurrection. He too declared war on the party’s central ideology–in the name not of supply-side theory but (the unkindest cut of all) of class warfare, the Democratic weapon of choice against Republicanism.

The enemy, according to Buchanan, is not the welfare state. It is that conservative icon, capitalism, with its ruthless captains of industry, greedy financiers and political elites (Republicans included, of course). All three groups collaborate to let foreigners–immigrants, traders, parasitic foreign-aid loafers–destroy the good life of the ordinary American worker.

Buchananism holds that what is killing the little guy is the big guy, not Big Government. It blames not an overreaching government that tries to insulate citizens from life’s buffeting to the point where it creates deeply destructive dependency, but an uncaring government that does not protect its victim-people enough from that buffeting. Buchanan would protect and wield a mighty government apparatus to do so, a government that builds trade walls and immigrant-repelling fences, that imposes punitive taxes on imports, that polices the hiring and firing practices of business with the arrogance of the most zealous affirmative-action enforcer.

This is Reaganism stood on its head.

Republicans have focused too much on the mere tactical dangers posed by this assault. Yes, it gives ammunition to the Democrats. Yes, it puts the eventual nominee through a bruising campaign and delivers him tarnished and drained into the ring against Bill Clinton.

But the real danger is philosophical, not tactical. It is axioms, not just policies, that are under fire. The Republican idea of smaller government is being ground to dust–by Republicans. In the middle of an election year, when they should be honing their themes against Democratic liberalism, Buchanan’s rise is forcing a pointless rearguard battle against a philosophical corpse, the obsolete paleoconservatism–a mix of nativism, protectionism and isolationism–of the 1930s.

As the candidates’ debate in Arizona last week showed, the entire primary campaign will be fought on Buchanan’s grounds, fending off his Smoot-Hawley-Franco populism. And then what? After the convention, what does the nominee do? Try to resurrect the anti-welfare state themes of the historically successful ’94 congressional campaign?

Well, yes, but with a terrible loss of energy and focus–and support. Buchanan’s constituency, by then convinced by their leader that the working man’s issues have been pushed aside, may simply walk on Election Day or, even worse, defect to the Democrats. After all, Democrats do class war very well.

Political parties can survive bruising primary battles. They cannot survive ideological meltdown. Dole and Buchanan say they are fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. Heart and soul, however, will get you nowhere when you’ve lost your way–and your mind.

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