What Happened to the Traditionally Conservative Republican Party?
To fully comprehend the sad spectacle that has become American politics since the 1980s, you need not peruse the politics section of major periodicals. Or the opinion, news or business pages of illustrious publications.
No, lately you’d be best served by heading on over to the obituary section.
For example, this past week, a legislative giant from an earlier and more evolved Republican Party - that is to say, one in which dazzling audiences with tales of cantering saddleback on the family T-Rex was not considered “reaching out to the base” - former Senator Charles Percy, passed away. This sad news has come not long after the passing of another Republican legend, former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield.
These men were both of the Rockefeller, or old Establishment wing of the Republican Party, a robust and scientifically literate (hint) group that followed in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight D Eisenhower. Therefore, the importance and symbolism of their passing, for so many reasons, cannot be overstated.
It is the disappearance of their perspective and purpose that is one of the major reasons why our politics is where it is today - somewhere on the spectrum between corporate performance art and collective shame. Namely, the Bachmannization of the GOP, its influence in wrecking Washington culture and corrupting the current Republican Establishment, and its overall deleterious effect on the American middle class since the early 1980s.
This history of accomplishment by these moderate to liberal Republicans and their now near-complete extinction also leads the more naivete among the Democratic Party - see 1600 Pennsvlvania Avenue - to believe there are still deals to be made with this current crop of Koch-infected androids, a group which considers George W. Bush to be a near-Maoist for having supported pro-business immigration reform, appointing Ben Bernanke to the Fed and wanting to ban those on terror watch lists from buying assault weapons.
Essentially, the face of the GOP has gone from Mark Hatfield and Charles Percy to David Vitter and Tom Coburn, which would explain why a once-respected profession has lately morphed into something more closely resembling the oldest one.
It may be hard for those who either were not alive (which includes me) or have not studied what the times were like to understand how different our legislating process and political culture was when men like Percy strode the halls of the Capitol like a colossus.
It was a time when there were scores of Republicans who were more progressive on civil rights, war & peace and even social programmes than some Democrats. Percy supported legislation to stimulate the production of low-cost housing for the poor. He joined Senator Hubert Humphrey in creating an "Alliance To Save Energy" because of the OPEC oil embargo.
Hatfield, meanwhile, one of the first military servicemen to enter Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, opposed Vietnam and the first Gulf War and offered his view of national security thusly:
"Every president other than Eisenhower has been seduced by the military concept that that is our sole measurement of our national security and the more bombs we build, the more secure we are."
He would be branded a peacenik today. Concurrently, there is about as much chance of that coming out of the mouth of any Republican legislator today (and most Democrats) as the numerical value for pi - or even an understanding you can't eat it.
But that is where the Rockefeller Republicans earned their paychecks. As Democrats still had many segregationists in their ranks - those who would later be seduced by the Republican Southern Strategy - or just didn't have the numbers to pass good bills now and again, men and women like Margaret Chase Smith, Jacob Javitz and George Aiken were essential to getting this done and helping main street just a bit more that other street with the big bronze bull and habit of playing taxpayer-insured roulette.
These Republicans of conscience, who held real sway in the party, as its congressional leaders and even presidential candidates, played a pivotal role in deals made by Democratic presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson, who needed their numbers to pass The Civil Rights Act (over 80% of the Republican Senate Caucus ultimately sided with Johnson and civil rights).
In fact, their disappearance from our politics has led not only the Republican Party to resemble a Darth conference at the Hilton. But it has taken our entire political culture to a point just to the right of not working, such that President Obama is more conservative than was Percy, even if one were to compare their records as Senators from Illinois alone.
Meanwhile, as the President has searched in vain for good-faith partners among the few Republicans left with more marbles than Mariah Carey, all the while being ignored, insulted and squandering his popularity on a pipe dream. He doesn't seem to grasp that Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe are only moderate when compared to a Know-Nothing Party, and would have been considered mainstream conservatives in the old GOP. Meanwhile, Obama's current policies in Afghanistan, on the environment and in slashing social programs in service of his dreams of a world without government debt, would have been blocked from the left in the not-too-distant past - by these very Republicans
Perhaps our resulting situation is best described by progressive polymath and top-rated talk radio host Thom Hartmann, in his analysis of 20-year old David Lewis' challenge to Speaker of the House John Boehner in a primary, because Boehner is a "Socialist" who has failed to eliminate Social Security.
Yeah, I didn't make that up.
Hartmann reminded those who have forgotten, that: "Just like Jason Bourne doesn't remember his earlier life - David Lewis doesn't remember America's earlier life - under the New Deal years of the 1940s, fifties, sixties, seventies, and early eighties - when the middle class thrived - and our social safety nets allowed more and more Americans to pursue the American Dream. Without that memory - Lewis believes in a fantasy - a fantasy about the power of this magical thing called the "free-market" - a fantasy that societies can function just fine without a government - a fantasy that if we all act selfishly, then we'll all prosper. It's a fantasy, because it's never, ever worked in the history of the world..."
The Rockefeller Republicans made that "American Dream" happen, by working with Democrats on landmark legislation to move our country forward. But they are now gone, and we have been left with David Lewis and his brethren, and it's hard to see how things will change in the near future.
It almost makes me want to join Rick Perry in a public prayer dance.
Follow me on Twitter @cliffschecter
This piece was first published at Al Jazeera English