Friday, April 01, 2005

It's too late, Jack

John Danforth is no ordinary Republican. The former United Nations Ambassador and three-term Senator from Missouri is old school. For years the only ordained minister in Congress, Danforth did not wear his faith on his sleeve, because you just did not do that. Son of Donald Danforth, the co-founder of Ralston Purina, Danforth came from St. Louis, a town where five large companies dominated the economy and politics for decades, and where he and his brother Bill Danforth, physician and long-time chairman of Washington University learned that to lead is to serve.

Writing in the New York Times this week, Danforth went public with his view of the nature of politics and the direction of his party. Stopping just short of suggesting a vast right wing conspiracy—he used the word “agenda” instead––Danforth decried the usurpation of the traditional values of the Republican Party by the Christian conservatives in their midst. Gone, he suggested, were the days when the Republicans stood for limited government, low taxes, limited regulation, a strong private economy, fiscal prudence and vibrant internationalism. “As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around.”

For twenty years, the Republican Party has sought to live with the “Big Tent” vision of Lee Atwater, as a party where fiscal and social conservatives could co-exist in the name of success and power. Having felt the heel of the Democratic boot since the failure of the Goldwater and Watergate years, leaders of the Party from across the political spectrum were willing to subordinate their differences for the good of the whole. This formula worked well for years, with some notable outbreaks of discord, such as candidate George Bush attacking the supply-siders’ Voodoo Economics, and Arlen Specter’s aborted threats to block pro-life judges,

Now, the ascendancy of the social conservatives within the party, and their increasing determination to assert their will on their less faithful brethren is testing the coherence of the party. Last year Pete Peterson, former Cabinet Secretary and Party insider, launched a scathing attack on his party’s contribution to the bankrupting of the country through the continuing pursuit of tax cuts with no regard for mounting deficits. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill contributed his view of a government run by ideologues, while this year Christine Todd Whitman, herself the scion of a powerful Republican family, moved one step further by issuing her own call to reverse the right wing putsch that has taken over the party that was once hers.

Well, the toothpaste is out of the tube, as Bob Haldeman was wont to say, and it will be very tough to put it back. The Christian conservatives play for keeps, and there is not a whole lot of give in their view of the world. Plus, God is on their side. Not the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Ishmael, not the God of Job or the God of Isaiah, but their God, the God of Jerry Falwell, the God of Pat Robertson and the God of Randall Terry.

There is some irony in all of this, as the moderates in the Republican Party conspired along the path to the coming political Armageddon. George Bush the Elder, a Connecticut patrician Republican who knew better, disavowed his own roots and embraced voodoo economics. Jack Danforth was mute in his writing on the event for which his is most remembered, his championing of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation as Supreme Court Justice. Each step along the way, traditionalists within the Party acquiesced to candidates and policies that were anathema, but which were seen as necessary to Party unity. Fiscal conservatives remained quiet while deficits soared. Social liberals remained silent as libertarian values were cast aside. Internationalists murmured and then fell silent as the righteous brayed and the march to war gained speed. It turned out that the warmth inside the Big Tent came from the books that were being burned.

So what now? Books are being written? OK, but so what? The social conservatives and radicals within the party do not care. As Rush Limbaugh likes to say, people in the middle of the road get run over. The leadership of the Party does not care about Pete Peterson, Paul O’Neill or Christy Whitman. They do not care about Jack Danforth and his brand of upper class, elite Republicanism. They might be on Danforth’s radar screen, but he is not on theirs. The battle Christy Whitman cares about is already over. Tom DeLay is moving on to the next war. The war against judicial tyranny.

Stay tuned, for next front in the culture wars is about to be joined. The Party that reached the apogee of power through a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court is going after the judiciary. As Tom DeLay proclaimed yesterday, the next assault will be against "an arrogant, out-of-control judiciary that thumbed its nose at Congress... The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

But this war has gone inside, and it is the Republican Party, not the nation, that will be tested. If the Party does not stand for a nation of laws, it stands for nothing. But one thing is certain, the big tent has collapsed and it only remains to be seen who will survive.

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