A number of my posts have emphasized the ways in which today’s GOP is dramatically different from the party I used to belong to. (To echo a number of other defectors, I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.)
Bruce Bartlett is one of the more prominent of those defectors. He was a domestic policy advisor to Ronald Reagan, and a Treasury official during the tenure of George H.W. Bush– in other words, a professional Republican. In recent years, he has consistently pointed to the radicalization of the party he served for so many years, and recently, he wrote a scathing article on that subject for Politico.
Bartlett began by admitting that–even though he’d chronicled the rightward lurch of the party–he was astounded and disheartened when Trump won, and even more appalled since.
Trump has turned out to be far, far worse than I imagined. He has instituted policies so right wing they make Ronald Reagan, for whom I worked, look like a liberal Democrat. He has appointed staff people far to the right of the Republican mainstream in many positions, and they are instituting policies that are frighteningly extreme. Environmental Protection Administration Administrator Scott Pruitt proudly denies the existence of climate change, and is doing his best to implement every item Big Oil has had on its wish list since the agency was established by Richard Nixon. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is actively hostile to the very concept of public education and is doing her best to abolish it. Every day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions institutes some new policy to take incarceration and law enforcement back to the Dark Ages. Trump’s proposed budget would eviscerate the social safety net for the sole purpose of giving huge tax cuts to the ultrawealthy.
Bartlett points to additional positions Trump has taken that should be anathema to genuine conservatives, and then underlines a point that so many ex-Republicans have made:
And yet as surprising as this all has been, it’s also the natural outgrowth of 30 years of Republican pandering to the lowest common denominator in American politics. Trump is what happens when a political party abandons ideas, demonizes intellectuals, degrades politics and simply pursues power for the sake of power.
Bartlett’s article–which I encourage you to read in its entirety–then goes on to catalogue the party history to which he alludes, from Goldwater through Reagan.
When I became active in the Republican Party in the mid-1970s, it was the party of thoughtful men and women who were transforming America’s domestic policies while strengthening its moral leadership on the global stage. As Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a July 1980 New York Times article, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”
And then, everything began to change.
Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 after nationalizing the election into broad themes and catchphrases. Newt Gingrich, the marshal of these efforts, even released a list of words Republican candidates should use to glorify themselves (common sense, prosperity, empower) and hammer their opponents (liberal, pathetic, traitors); soon, every Republican in Congress spoke the same language, using words carefully run through focus groups by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Budgets for House committees were cut, bleeding away policy experts, and GOP committee chairs were selected based on loyalty to the party and how much money they could raise. Gone were the days when members were incentivized to speak with nuance, or hone a policy expertise (especially as committee chairs could now serve for only six years). In power, Republicans decided they didn’t need any more research or analysis; they had their agenda, and just needed to get it enacted. ..
In the 14 years since then, I have watched from the sidelines as Republican policy analysis and research have virtually disappeared altogether, replaced with sound bites and talking points.
Bartlett concludes that America needs a responsible, adult GOP, and that won’t happen without what he calls a “crushing Republican defeat—Goldwater plus Watergate rolled into one. A defeat so massive there can be no doubt about the message it sends.”
What Bartlett and others have described is the devolution of a once-respectable political party into a cult built on seething anti-intellectualism and racial resentment. The loss of one of America’s two major political parties has had grave consequences for the nation–and those consequences go well beyond the election of a dangerous and totally unfit President.
These are perilous times.