Can the Republicans Change?
Amid the global euphoria surrounding Barack Obama’s victory – and the hopeful talk about a new bipartisanship in Washington – the Democrats are forgetting a powerful truth: modern Republicans are tied inextricably to slash-and-burn politics.
Even if some Republicans did want to shift toward a more bipartisan approach – after more than three decades of successfully using "wedge" tactics and armed with a right-wing media infrastructure built to destroy opponents – such a change might be impossible.
The idea of transforming modern Republicanism into some less partisan form might be like trying to train a boa constrictor which fork to use at the dinner table.
In recent years, whenever Republicans have talked about repudiating “partisan rancor” – as John McCain did at the Republican National Convention – it is followed by another binge of partisan rancor, like Sarah Palin’s ugly rhetoric about Obama “palling around with terrorists” or McCain’s own smearing of Obama as a “socialist.”
Think back, too, on George W. Bush’s sweet talk in Campaign 2000 about his "compassionate conservatism” that would respect opponents. That was followed by the bare-knuckled suppression of Florida’s votes and then – despite his tainted victory as a popular-vote loser – Bush’s hard-ball determination to enact a right-wing agenda.
After the 9/11 attacks, when Democrats and many other Americans swore off partisanship in the cause of national unity, Bush seized the moment to arrogate unprecedented powers to himself. Then, in fall 2002, he exploited America’s fear and anger to push through a pre-election Iraq War authorization and still branded the Democrats as soft on terror.
In 2004, Bush and his political guru Karl Rove set their sights on a “permanent Republican majority” that would relegate the Democrats to a cosmetic appendage to what would really be a one-party state, with the Republicans controlling all levers of government power and backed by an intimidating right-wing news media.
For Bush, the notion of bipartisanship became: Do whatever I say. Otherwise, you get billed as unpatriotic and un-American – deserving of abuse and even physical threats, like those meted out to the Dixie Chicks for daring to criticize Bush at a pre-Iraq-invasion concert.
Similarly, anyone who threatened Republican electoral dominance could expect steady doses of smears, like the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism. At Bush’s 2004 convention, some GOP delegates wore Purple Heart Band-Aids to mock the severity of Kerry’s war wounds.
After Election 2004, with Bush gaining a second term and the Republicans again owning both houses of Congress, Rove ally Grover Norquist mused that Democrats should learn to get along in Washington by becoming like castrated pets to their Republican masters.
Fawning Press Corps
It may seem odd today with Bush’s approval ratings in the 20th percentiles, but it’s worth looking back on Bush’s triumphalism after he got that second term.
Not only did the potent right-wing news media gush about his innate brilliance, but so did much of the mainstream press. Pundits were enthralled by Bush’s grandiose Second Inaugural Address – with its repetitious use of the words “freedom” and “liberty” even as Bush was trampling on the Founders’ concepts of “unalienable rights” for all.
Only a series of Bush failures – from his attempts to partially privatize Social Security to the worsening Iraq War to his bungled response to Hurricane Katrina – began to wash away the veneer of Bush’s infallibility.
Small news outlets mostly on the Internet and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” gave voice to a popular awakening about the phoniness of Bush’s tough-guy rhetoric and the obsequiousness of the major news media.
That critical narrative of Bush and the press gained traction through Campaign 2006 as Democrats rediscovered some long-lost courage and Bush sounded increasingly hysterical in his attempts to revive an excessive fear of terrorism. [For details, see our book Neck Deep.]
The result in November 2006 was a surprising electoral drubbing for Republicans, as Democrats erased GOP majorities and gained narrow control of Congress. However, in the wake of their victory, Democrats reverted to form, putting wishful thinking about bipartisanship ahead of hardheaded analysis.
Democrats hoped that Bush finally would take some bipartisan advice, like that from the Iraq Study Group – headed by longtime Bush Family lawyer James Baker – to begin drawing down U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
So, these Democrats widely misinterpreted the meaning of Bush’s day-after-the-election firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the appointment ISG member (and former CIA Director) Robert Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor.
The Democrats wanted to believe that the Rumsfeld-to-Gates shift meant that Bush was taking to heart the ISG’s drawdown recommendations, when the personnel change actually marked the opposite course.
The behind-the-scenes reality was that the arrogant-but-humbled Rumsfeld had evolved into a relative dove on the Iraq War, favoring the position of field commanders Generals George Casey and John Abizaid on keeping the U.S. footprint small and beginning a gradual withdrawal of combat forces.
By contrast, Gates, who had been a controversial figure at the CIA and was banished from the national stage after Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, was eager to reestablish his Washington credentials. Thus, Gates was willing to play the “yes man” to Bush’s more hawkish desires, such as the escalation of U.S. forces in Iraq, the so-called “surge.”
Although much of this reality was known before Gates’s confirmation hearing in December 2006 – the New York Times had obtained and published Rumsfeld’s pre-election drawdown memo on Dec. 3 – the Democrats ignored it during what amounted to a unanimous love-fest at Gates’s hearing on Dec. 5.
As it turned out, the dreamy-eyed Democrats got blindsided. The Bush administration sent 30,000 more combat troops to Iraq and then argued that the “surge” led to a decline in overall violence – even as 1,000 more American soldiers died. Republicans said Democrats advocated “defeat,” “a white flag” and “surrender.”
Even though many U.S. military experts considered the proclaimed “surge success” a myth – crediting the drop in violence to other factors such as the pre-surge Anbar Awakening and new high-tech methods for tracking and killing insurgent leaders – the Republicans continued to beat Democrats over the head with the “surge.”
Now, in the wake of Obama’s solid victory and an expanded Democratic control of Congress, some Republicans are having second thoughts about the wisdom of the GOP’s nasty political style.
Dov. S. Zakheim, a foreign policy adviser to Bush’s 2000 campaign and a Pentagon official during the first term, lamented in a Washington Post opinion article that Bush dropped his “compassionate conservative” mask soon after taking office.
“We came to a bitterly divided Washington and poured salt on partisan wounds, culminating in an ugly divide-and-rule style of politics,” Zakheim acknowledged.
That style continued through Election 2008 with the McCain campaign’s endless references to Obama’s tenuous connection to Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers and Sarah Palin’s attempts to pit “real America” against supposedly less patriotic parts of the country.
Yet, despite the failure of that political approach on Nov. 4, the current question must be whether the Republican Party can change its stripes. With fewer moderate Republicans left in Congress, the residue is even more concentrated with radical right-wingers who know little beyond the “ugly divide-and-rule” politics.
Plus, there is the powerful right-wing media infrastructure that runs on the high-octane fuel of hate and anti-liberal conspiracy theories. This machinery faces a business imperative to find new attack lines that can be used to tear down Obama and build up audience share.
Only two days after the election, right-wing leaders gathered at the Shenandoah Valley country home of liberal-hating media critic Brent Bozell to plot a route back to power.
Meanwhile, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh – who played a key role in rallying Republicans after Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 – declared war on two targets: the “country-club” Republicans and the Obama administration.
"We're going to be taking on two things here [over] the next four years: Obama, and our own party establishment," Limbaugh vowed.
So, while many in the national news media are waiting to see how Obama will live up to his pledge of seeking to end partisan bickering in Washington, the more relevant point of observation might be to watch what the Republicans do.
It might finally be time to suggest that the Republicans go first.
This is the first part of a series on the political reality that will face President Obama next year – and what can be done to fix American media and politics.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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