If you’re old enough to recall how the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson over the hapless Barry Goldwater supposedly spelled the end of the Republican Party, or how Ronald Reagan’s election amounted to a revolution that put the Democratic party on the mat until — more or less — the end of time, then you will understand my caution in saying that while the Republican Party may well survive its recent difficulty, Republicanism itself is dead. I think.
The recent difficulties consist of taking the wrong side in the great health-care debate, not only opposing what came to be called Obamacare, but also refusing to produce an alternative. People are worried about their health, and the party comes up with buffoons such as Sarah Palin who invents death panels and trivializes the whole debate. Obamacare is not only the law of the land, but it is also the inevitable next step toward universal health care — just like many countries have, even the poorer ones.
The party’s other recent difficulty is being on the wrong side of just about every social issue you can think of. The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the land, and Republican after Republican stepped forward to denounce the decision and prattle on about what God intended — as if any of them know.
Some, such as Chris Christie, reached for that hoary cliche about unelected men in black robes. Christie is hardly the first person to discover the awesome power of the American judiciary and, when you Google the matter, he turns out to be using similar language as school desegregation opponents did in 1954. Then, too, an alleged and simply horrible dictatorship of the judiciary was denounced — but the nation moved on.
Opposition to social change is but one pillar of contemporary Republicanism. The other was best articulated by one of the many Bushes in American life, George H.W., who vowed at the 1988 GOP national convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” This was a clear — if extorted — articulation of the First Principle of Republican Life as received, possibly in fire and other Cecil B. DeMille effects, by Grover Norquist.
The no-new-taxes mantra has now been applied in several states and found wanting. In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback has taken a weed whacker to the tax code, lowering rates and waiting for the promised economic miracle to occur. It didn’t, and now he’s working on raising some revenue — through the sales tax, for instance — because there’s a hole in the budget.
Something similar has happened in Louisiana. There the governor, Bobby Jindal, is the personification of contemporary Republicanism. He’s opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion rights, the teaching of evolution in the schools and, of course, a reasonable fiscal program. His state is about $1.6 billion in the red, his popularity has plummeted, and in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, he scored a zero as a presidential candidate. Perhaps he can carry Louisiana, where polls suggest most voters would like to see him somewhere else.
Not all Republicans are so doctrinaire in the application of the anti-government, anti-tax dogma. But the notion that government should be as small as possible and do as little as possible is generally accepted as undebatable. It persists even though America is in desperate need of repairing or replacing its sagging infrastructure. The country has Third World airports, highways and bridges as well as a groaning electrical grid that strains if too many people toast their English muffins at the same time.
The cost of revamping, repairing, restoring and just plain creating a 21st-century infrastructure is staggering — an estimated $3.6 trillion by 2020. But huge construction projects would put huge numbers of people to work and would, in the long run, result in savings. It costs money for a truck to sit idle in traffic. We do an awful lot of idling in this country.
Size can be a problem. Large government is inevitably inefficient, but so, too, is large private enterprise. (See the GM bankruptcy.) Much worse than the unavoidable inefficiencies of large government is the failure to fund the government we need. Private enterprise cannot rebuild the nation’s infrastructure or keep our research institutions vibrant. Government must do what only it can do. Only a semi-mystical Republicanism, deluded by its own dogma, cannot see the future. That’s why it may not have one.
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