In one week, the two major planks of the Republican Party have demonstrated later stages of rot. Even more than its anti-abortion stance, the Republican Party is bound to its anti-tax pledge and pro-gun commitments. And those two political shibboleths are enforced by the organizational and political skills of the two men who are their public personae: Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and LaPierre.
On Thursday, House Republicans walked out on Speaker John Boehner and formally rebuffed his public suggestion that they might be prepared to make a meaningful contribution to the fiscal cliff negotiations. But like the NRA, the House Republicans were unmoved by the urgency of the moment. The anti-tax pledge of the Republican party was formulated a quarter century ago under the premise that denying revenue to government would necessarily result in smaller government. Starve the beast was the mantra, and shrinking the size of government was the objective. But Norquist and his acolytes misjudged the American public and the Republican Party itself. As much as Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, might dislike paying taxes, neither has shown any interest in shrinking the size of government.
Even as Republicans rail away at the evils of debt, they have shown a consistent willingness to drive the nation's borrowing ever upward rather than see any reductions in spending on the military or Medicare, the programs most dear to their constituents. Even the much vaunted Ryan budget approved by the House eschewed any specifics on where future cuts might come from, and if our national politics have shown nothing, it is that to demand reductions in spending without specifics is vacuous hubris.
Then on Friday, Wayne LaPierre's words made a mockery of any serious discussion of school safety. In truth, there was nothing new in the tragedy in Newtown. While MSNBC host and erstwhile presidential candidate Joe Scarborough made an impassioned plea that the Newtown murders change everything, in fact that tragedy simply brought home to white, suburban America the reality of the random and tragic murders of children that have become commonplace across urban America, where 20 children a month die from random gun violence.
For LaPierre to suggest the militarization of schools ignores the metal detectors and guards already commonplace in urban schools. And perhaps that was his point. Perhaps unlike the rest of the nation that has, like Scarborough, seen Newtown as a siren call for change, LaPierre knows well that cities have been fighting a losing battle with guns for decades without the political muster to take him on. LaPierre knows well that there have been six mass shootings since Jared Lee Loughner shot Gabby Giffords two years ago, sparking calls for change. LaPierre will stand his ground, firm in the belief he need give no quarter, that the anger always subsides.
In their embrace of absolute doctrine without regard to the facts on the ground, the anti-tax and pro-gun movements have contributed to the undermining of democratic society. Both stances refuse dialog and disdain compromise. Taxes in America have declined steadily for the decades since Norquist came on the scene, and that is in large measure is doing. But Norquist and his movement utterly failed to wean Americans off of their reliance on and demand for public spending. Over the past decade alone, even as individual income taxes have declined by 25% as a share of GDP, the areas of public spending most dear to the Republican base--military and entitlements--have grown faster than any other, up 56% and 37% as a share of GDP. Rather than shrink the size of government, Norquist has cultivated a world of followers content to give less to even as they demand more from their government. He has essentially turned John Kennedy's notion of public citizenship on its head, and contributed to Americans becoming a meaner and more self-centered electorate.
Which would seem to be an abt description of the contribution that Wayne LaPierre has made. Like Norquist, LaPierre is an absolutist, and absolutism is necessarily destructive of open dialog and compromise in a diverse democratic society. Few in America challenge the basic right of gun ownership in America, it is a reality and distinctive aspect of American culture dating to the nation's founding. Yet the demands of the NRA that even the most moderate limitations on gun sales and ownership be assessed only as part of the slippery slope to "government taking our guns" makes a mockery of the issue. After all, if the slope has been slippery, it is sliding in the wrong direction. Assault weapons. Semi-automatics with high-capacity magazines. Machine guns. Grenade launchers. Rocket propelled grenades. Depleted uranium bullets. These are not the arms envisioned by the founders.
For LaPierre to demand that the federal government fund armed guards in every school rather than simply engage in reasonable discussion of the ease with which any American can arm him or herself like a Navy Seal dropping into Abbottabad defies belief.
On the radio after the LaPierre statement, an NRA member suggested that what we really need is a list of mentally ill people circulated as a "do not sell" list to gun dealers. Really?
Mitt Romney may have lost the Presidency due to a campaign that ignored the evolving diversity of the American electorate. But the Republican Party risks losing its salience as a political party as its members increasingly prove themselves unwilling and unable to demonstrate that they are free thinking adults able to have real discourse on the real challenges that face the country.
The Republican Party has won control of the House of Representatives in large part due to years of paying systematic attention to the decennial redistricting as a path to electoral advantage. But anchored in its absolutist policies, and hearing only the voices of those within their circle, Republican leaders are at risk of mistaking that gerrymandered majority to be evidence of popular support for their leadership on issues. Over the years, in thrall of Norquist and LaPierre and the Tea Party, the GOP has steadily lost its own center. What was once the party of grownups--the party of fiscal prudence and sound judgement--is increasingly slipping down a slope of its own and becoming a party of outliers and extremists. If nothing changes--and this was the point of Scarborough's plea--it will push away many who identify themselves as Republicans, but who increasingly find their party lacking the seriousness of purpose necessary to lead the nation.