Once upon a time, there were two relevant, functioning, political parties. The Democrats were the party of Tip O’Neill, Pabst Blue Ribbon, union guys and the “rainbow coalition.”
Republicans were the party of bosses who drink cognac, and Alex P. Keaton. The parties traded the White House five times between 1960 and 2000, with the four Democrats and five Republicans who won the presidency emerging from mixed geographies: Ronald Reagan was once governor of “liberal” California, Jimmy Carter, of conservative Georgia. There were Rockefeller Republicans across the Northeast, and “Reagan Democrats” in Detroit.
There was nothing particularly disturbing about either party (if you discount Richard Nixon and Iran-Contra,) though both parties had their share of scandals. You knew at the end of the day that Democrats fought poverty and Republicans fought taxes. It was all so simple then.
Today, I’m not sure there are two functioning parties.
Democrats, who dominated Congress for most of the last 60 years, do so again, having survived the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 that created Republican majorities in the House and Senate for the first time since Eisenhower, and gave Republicans total control of the federal government (thanks to the Supreme Court) in 2000. Since then, something has gone terribly wrong with the GOP.
For starters, the party seems completely stumped by a popular president, Barack Obama. Meanwhile, it’s scrambling to both defend and distance itself from the failed presidency of George W. Bush. The economic mugging the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress perpetrated on the country for six years was bad enough; Mr. Bush was simply signing every bill his party put in front of him. As for tax cuts that made about 400,000 very rich Americans even richer, and the total economic collapse on the way out the door? As Dick Cheney would say, stuff happens.
And then there are the Bush-era national security ideas that, while they had the complicity of some weak-kneed Democrats after 9/11, are now Official Property of the GOP. Some of these ideas are so radical, they’re not recognizable as American: the all-powerful “unitary executive,” indefinite detention without trial, “sneak and peek” searches of private homes, pre-emptive war, warrantless wiretapping, and worst of all, torture – specifically, the kind of torture – waterboarding – made infamous by the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge, Maoist China and the Japanese and Gestapo during World War II. Add them to the list of Things Republicans are Defending, while simultaneously declaring a 3-percent tax increase on the rich to be “tyranny.”
Even as they are haunted by the ghost of George W. Bush, Republicans keep scaring up the ghost of Richard
Nixon, as when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a group of Stanford students last week that when the president authorizes waterboarding, it’s not torture. Meanwhile, a raft of memos detailing torture techniques with cold precision are in a sense, Bush’s “Pentagon papers.”
Add to this baggage the outsized importance of the religious right, and carnival barkers like Sean Hannity, Glenn
Beck and “the boss” himself, Rush Limbaugh. The requirement that elected Republicans swear fealty to both has only accelerated the GOP’s transformation into a rump party with narrow appeal and virtually no coherent national message. And with the party’s political talent bench consisting of Sarah Palin, folksy-talkin’ Louisiana
Gov. Bobby Jindal, Britney Spears concert fan Eric Cantor, bumbling RNC chair Michael Steele, and lately, Jeb Bush – whose last name is BUSH, it’s no wonder the religious muckrakers and right-wing shock jocks have the floor.
Demographically, the GOP has all but disappeared from the West Coast and the Northeast, and moderate Republicans are becoming an endangered species.
After Sen. Arlen Specter’s convenient exit, there are exactly two Republican senators from the entire northeastern region – both from Maine. Just one in five Americans calls himself or herself a Republican, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, and the party is practically walled into the South and Appalachia.
Republicans have long since lost black voters, and they’ve also spurned the fastest-growing ethnic group:
Hispanics, due to a strange obsession with erecting a Berlin Wall across the Mexican border. The 219
Republicans in the current Congress include zero blacks, five Hispanics (four of whom are from Florida) and one Jew: Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia.
And what’s the GOP’s answer to this tale of unending woe? Tea parties. Hurray.
As a Democrat, this should all be great news. But any good democracy needs a credible opposition. And right now, America is one party short.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign.