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The Republican Party Spirals Down

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By Harold Meyerson
Friday, May 22, 2009

The dizzying downward spiral of the Republican Party continues apace. Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that the percentage of Americans who answer to the name Republican is down to 22 percent -- about as low as a party can go in a two-party system.

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Also yesterday, former vice president Dick Cheney delivered a prolonged defense of "enhanced interrogation techniques" even as President Obama, speaking alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution at the National Archives, repudiated torture and spelled out the toll that the torture tactics used by the Bush-Cheney administration inflicted on America's standing in the world.

Cheney has become the GOP's Banquo's ghost -- a constant reminder (and, unlike poor Banquo, defender) of past crimes who just won't leave the dinner party.

But even when Republicans speak of the future these days, they sound like the voice of the past. They turn for new ideas to Newt Gingrich, whose biggest idea was to close down the federal government to force Bill Clinton to slash Medicare payments. They turn to Cheney for guidance on national defense and to Rush Limbaugh to set the standards for party orthodoxy.

They hold anti-tax rallies to protest an administration that has cut taxes for the vast majority of Americans. They see a bill that would rein in credit card companies as an opportunity to slip in an amendment that would allow Americans to bring concealed and loaded guns into national parks. Their national committee considers a resolution expressing the sense of the body that the Democrats should rename themselves the "Democrat Socialist Party."

They offer no solutions for the nation's problems but are chock-full of solutions for issues (such as the lack of concealed weapons in Yellowstone) that aren't problems. They play with renaming the Democrats while they're the ones with the identity crisis.

But there's a reason they enumerate old themes and gravitate to the most peripheral ones imaginable -- a reason that's neither old nor peripheral. The economic crisis has plunged their worldview into crisis, if not negated it altogether. What's more, several leading conservative economists and thinkers have acknowledged as much, though none has really suggested a plausible alternative course.

Some of this rethinking has taken the form of mea culpas from key economic figures of the Reagan age. Alan Greenspan confessed to a congressional committee late last year that his basic assumptions about the self-corrective tendencies and fundamental rationality of both the economic system and its leading players (the banks) were wrong. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, whose elevation of shareholder value over other corporate goals has been hugely influential since he began preaching that gospel in the early 1980s, has now said that shareholder value is just one of many goals that a business should pursue.

The most comprehensive repudiation by a conservative thinker of the tenets of laissez-faire has come from federal judge (and prolific off-bench author) Richard Posner, who has been a seminal influence on the conservative law-and-economics movement that has moved judges to consider economic efficiency in their rulings. In his new book, "A Failure of Capitalism," Posner argues that the current downturn, unlike any since the Great Depression, reveals that capitalism is not self-correcting, that market forces cannot in themselves produce a recovery for a crisis this systemic, and that what we are experiencing is, well, a failure of capitalism.

All this leaves Posner in a bit of a bind, since he remains hesitant to recommend the full range of governmental activism that, by his own lights, is all that's left to rebuild the economy because the markets cannot do it themselves. His writing, like that of other conservative intellectuals such as the New York Times' David Brooks, has a kind of Emily Litella "never mind" quality to it now: repudiating many of the conservative verities that they themselves advanced over the past several decades while refraining from actually embracing the kinds of remedies that the Obama administration is advancing.

Since the end of World War II, American conservatism defined itself above all by its anti-communism and, since the late '70s, by its support of a radical, laissez-faire capitalism. Win one, lose one, but the cumulative consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and, in more attenuated fashion, of the Wall Street banks is that the Republican Party isn't left with much of a defining doctrine. Packing heat in Yosemite and waterboarding in Guantanamo are not only stunningly dumb ideas, they're also no way to build a party.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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