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Party Like It's 1964

Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain at a presidential campaign rally in Virginia Beach on Oct. 13.
Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain at a presidential campaign rally in Virginia Beach on Oct. 13. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A column, like a good movie, should have an arc -- start here, end there and somehow connect the two points. So this column will begin with the speech Condi Rice made to the Republican National Convention in 2000 in praise of George W. Bush and end with Colin Powell's appearance Sunday on "Meet the Press" in praise of Barack Obama. Between the first and the second lie the ruins of the GOP, a party gone very, very wrong.

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It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bush and now John McCain have constructed a mean, grumpy, exclusive, narrow-minded and altogether retrograde Republican Party. It has the sharp scent of the old Barry Goldwater GOP -- the angry one of 1964 and not the one perfumed by nostalgia -- that is home, by design or mere dumb luck, to those who think that Obama is "The Madrassian Candidate." Karl Rove, take a bow.

It is worth remembering that both Rice and Powell spoke at that Philadelphia convention. And it is worth recalling, too, that Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative" and had compiled a record as Texas governor to warrant the hope, if not the belief, that he was indeed a different sort of Republican. When he ran for reelection as governor in 1998, he went from 15 percent of the black vote to 27 percent, and from 28 percent of the Hispanic vote to an astounding 49 percent. Here was a coalition-builder of considerable achievement.

Now, all this is rubble. It is not merely that Barack Obama was always going to garner the vast majority of the black vote. It is also that the GOP, under Rove and his disciples in the McCain campaign, has not only driven out ethnic and racial minorities but a vast bloc of voters who, quite bluntly, want nothing to do with Sarah Palin. For moderates everywhere, she remains the single best reason to vote against McCain.

But the GOP's tropism toward its furiously angry base, its tolerance and currying of anti-immigrant sentiment, its flattering of the ignorant on matters of undisputed scientific consensus -- evolution, for instance -- and, from the mouth of Palin, its celebration of drab provincialism, have sharpened the division between red and blue. Red is the color of yesterday.

Ah, I know, the blues are not all virtuous. They are supine before self-serving unions, particularly in education, and they are knee-jerk opponents of offshore drilling, mostly, it seems, because they don't like Big Oil. They cannot face the challenge of the Third World within us -- the ghetto with its appalling social and cultural ills -- lest realism be called racism. Sometimes, too, they seem to criticize American foreign policy simply because it is American.

Still, a Democrat can remain a Democrat -- or at least vote as one -- without compromising basic intellectual or cultural values. That, though, is not what Colin Powell was saying Sunday about his own party. "I have some concerns about the direction that the party has taken in recent years," Powell said. "It has moved more to the right than I would like." He cited McCain's harping on that "washed-out terrorist" Bill Ayers as an effort to exploit fears that Obama is a Muslim (so what if he were? Powell rightly asked) and mentioned how Palin's presence on the ticket raised grave questions about McCain's judgment. In effect -- and at least for the time being -- Powell was out of the GOP. S'long, guys.

Those of us who traveled with Bush in the 2000 campaign could tell that when he spoke of education, of the "soft bigotry of low expectations," he meant it. Education, along with racial and ethnic reconciliation, was going to be his legacy. Then came Sept. 11, Afghanistan and finally the misbegotten war in Iraq. After that, nothing else really mattered. But just as Bush could not manage the wars, he could not manage his own party. His legacy is not merely in tatters. It does not even exist.

In the end, Powell was determined not to be one of the GOP's useful idiots. Those moderates willing to overlook the choice of Palin, those capable of staying in a party where, soon enough, she could be an important or dominant force, retain the intellectual nimbleness that enabled them to persist in championing a war fought for duplicitous reasons and extol cultural values they do not for a minute share. Powell walked away from that, and others will follow -- the second time that a senator from Arizona has led the GOP into the political wilderness.

cohenr@washpost.com


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