Gilchrest Unloads on Know-Nothing Pols and the Rest of Us

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Wayne Gilchrest, the nine-term Republican congressman who represents Maryland's Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel County, has had it, and he's ready to talk.

He's had it with his own party, which he says "has become more narrow, more self-serving, more centered around 'I want, I want, I want.' " He's finished with his party's presidential candidate, John McCain, who Gilchrest says "recites memorized pieces of information in a narrow way, whereas Barack Obama is constantly evaluating information, using his judgment. One guy just recites what's in front of him, and the other has initiative and reason and prudence and wisdom."

Gilchrest, a moderate who was defeated by a conservative challenger in February's primary, hit the boiling point after Monday's House vote rejecting the big financial bailout package. After much struggle and study, Gilchrest voted for the bailout; what appalls him about his many colleagues who went the other way was that they appeared to do so based neither on a close examination of the issues nor on principle, but rather with a finger to the wind and an eye on the e-mail inbox.

The congressman, whose strongly Republican district stretches from the Pennsylvania line to the border with Virginia, tells me that he's had it with colleagues who "don't understand the issues, who not only don't read the Financial Times, they have never heard of the Financial Times."

Gilchrest isn't done. "We're in this bad place as a country because of the evangelicals, the neocons, the nasty, bitter and mean . . . very clever ideological groups that use money, technology, fear and bigotry to lead people around," he says. "Voting according to your knowledge and experience -- that's out the window. Competence and prudence? Forget it."

Before you start cheering on the congressman who finally let loose, his frustration has one more target: Us.

"We've become a country that sits down in front of the boob tube and listens to people shouting about freedom, but now people equate freedom not with the acquisition of knowledge but with comfort," Gilchrest says. " 'Give me my flat-screen TV, the gas-guzzling car, the goods made in China.' The whole concept of freedom has become the idea of comfort, with a complete lack of responsibility."

So, yes, Gilchrest argues, the Wall Street fat cats and greed heads brought us this economic crisis, but their flimsy financial structures grew out of our collective hunger for stuff we cannot afford. "Maybe living in luxury diminishes the intellect," he says.

Still cheering?

I am. To be sure, Gilchrest's outburst might not meet the definition of a profile in courage. After all, Gilchrest didn't talk like this while he still had a chance to win reelection. And his endorsement of Democrat Frank Kratovil in the race to succeed him could be perceived as less than purely disinterested. But his straight talk is no mere spewing of post-defeat bitterness.

Gilchrest, who was wounded in combat in Vietnam, where he served as a Marine, voted for the Iraq war but came to believe that the Bush administration had bungled it. Gilchrest favors abortion rights and pushed for faster action on climate change, positions that led conservative Republicans to target him this year.

Gilchrest is on his way out, but the Republican Party, long in decline in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia, is now in free fall in this region.

Long-serving members of Congress and the state legislatures are not only leaving office but also blasting their party on the way out. Just a few years after running his party's national congressional campaign effort, Rep. Tom Davis of Fairfax County is leaving Congress embittered by the Republicans' hard-right positions and frustrated that there appears to be no home for moderates who might appeal to suburban voters.

Virginia's GOP "gave me the middle finger," Davis said after party leaders maneuvered to hand its nomination for the retiring John Warner's U.S. Senate seat to former governor Jim Gilmore, rather than allow a primary between the hard-right Gilmore and the moderate Davis. "Anybody who compromises, you go back to your party base and you're an apostate. You're squishy. You're weak."

Two of Virginia's longest-serving GOP leaders, Sen. John Chichester of Stafford County and Del. Vince Callahan of Fairfax, left the legislature this year with harsh words for their party -- and both have endorsed Democrat Mark Warner in this fall's Senate race.

"I'm extremely distressed by the path it's taking," Callahan told me of the GOP in Virginia. "It could end up being a minority debating society. We can't be a party about immigrant-bashing or gay-bashing or any other bashing. We should be a party of fiscal responsibility, which is how I got into it."

This is more than the usual bitterness of politicians who have lost a race for office or been displaced by a new generation. This is a collective cry for help.

"I haven't stepped away from my party," Gilchrest says. "The party has stepped away from Eisenhower and Goldwater and Nixon and Ford and even Ronald Reagan. It's been driven away by this anti-government combination of Milton Friedman and Jerry Falwell."

In a republic, leaders must occasionally tell the people that they are wrong, just as the people sometimes have to throw the bums out. Last week, we watched as two presidential candidates danced away from any serious discussion about pain or responsibility in this financial crisis. We have no Lincoln, no FDR. But at least we have a few smaller voices on their way out the door, liberated to tell some truths.

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