Finally, the Swaggering Republicans Are Afraid
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This Right-Wing Machine showed off its value during the 1980s and early 1990s when President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush were caught up in the Iran-Contra national security scandal but succeeded in skating away with only minimal political damage. Instead of Reagan and Bush being held accountable for their crimes, far worse damage was inflicted on the careers of investigators, journalists and witnesses who tried to expose the wrongdoing.
Within this political/media framework, when Democrats did win elections, Republicans immediately demeaned them as illegitimate interlopers. For instance, Bill Clinton’s electoral victory in 1992 was an opportunity for the Right-Wing Machine to demonstrate that it could play offense as well as defense, tying up Clinton’s presidency endlessly in trivial “scandals” and setting the stage for the GOP congressional comeback in 1994.
Over those decades, the Republicans behaved as if national power was their birthright. In Election 2000, they saw nothing wrong with aggressively disrupting the recount in Florida, both with rioters on the ground and partisan justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. It didn’t matter that Vice President Al Gore had won the nation’s popular vote and would have carried Florida if all legal ballots were counted. What mattered was putting a Republican in the White House by whatever means necessary. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
The Republican Apex
After the 9/11 attacks, even as Democrats set aside partisan concerns to support President George W. Bush’s response to the crisis, Bush and the Republicans painted the Democrats as “soft on terror” and unpatriotic. The GOP did whatever it took to expand and solidify power.
In 2004, the Republicans and the Right went so far as to portray Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry as a fake Vietnam War hero. GOP activists even mocked his war wounds by passing out “Purple Heart Band-Aids” at the Republican National Convention.
Then, after Bush rode his post-9/11 reputation as a “war president” to a second term, Republican operatives like Rove and Norquist saw their moment for making their political power permanent, in effect turning the United States into a one-party state with the Democrats kept around for the necessary cosmetics of a “democracy.” The GOP would use its money, its media and its control of the judicial process to make successful electoral challenges unthinkable.
But 2005 instead turned out to be the GOP’s high-water mark, a time of premature celebration, the last moment of sunlight before the arrival of darkening clouds, or in this case, the American people’s realization that the Right’s anti-government extremism – mixed with the neocons’ imperialist wars – was a recipe for disaster.
Bush’s inept handling of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that it inflicted along the Gulf of Mexico showed the downside of a hollowed-out federal government. And the bloody stalemate in Iraq revealed the dangers of ill-conceived military adventures.
Bush’s tax-cutting and deregulation produced other harmful consequences, including soaring federal deficits, rising income inequality, an eroding middle class and an unstable “bubble” economy that finally burst in 2008. The electorate’s recognition of Bush’s failures led to Democratic victories, including Obama’s election as President.
Yet, despite the extraordinary national crisis that Bush left behind – millions of Americans losing their jobs and their homes as well as two unfinished wars – the Republicans refused to play the role of “loyal opposition.” They pulled out their successful playbook from the early Clinton years and confronted Obama with unrelenting hostility.
Once again, the obstructionist strategy worked at least in a narrow political sense. By mid-2009, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and other loud voices from the muscular Right-Wing Machine had whipped up a passionate Tea Party opposition to Obama, including crypto-racist allegations that the President was born in Kenya, despite the evidence of birth records in Hawaii.