Something has gone seriously haywire with the Republican Party. Once it was the party of pragmatic Main Street businessmen in steel-rimmed spectacles who decried profligacy and waste, were devoted to their communities and supported the sort of prosperity that raises all ships. They were good-hearted people who vanquished the gnarlier elements of their party, the paranoid Roosevelt-haters, the Earthers and Prohibitionists, the antipapist antiforeigner element. The genial Eisenhower was their man, a genuine American hero of D-Day, who made it OK for reasonable people to vote Republican. He brought the Korean War to a stalemate, produced the Interstate Highway System, declined to rescue the French colonial army in Vietnam, and gave us a period of peace and prosperity, in which (oddly) American arts and letters flourished and higher education burgeoned--and there was a degree of plain decency in the country. Fifties Republicans were giants compared to today's. Richard Nixon was the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward the poor.
In the years between Nixon and Newt Gingrich, the party migrated southward down the Twisting Trail of Rhetoric and sneered at the idea of public service and became the Scourge of Liberalism, the Great Crusade Against the Sixties, the Death Star of Government, a gang of pirates that diverted and fascinated the media by their sheer chutzpah, such as the misty-eyed flag-waving of Ronald Reagan who, while George McGovern flew bombers in World War II, took a pass and made training films in Long Beach.
The Nixon moderate vanished like the passenger pigeon, purged by a legion of angry white men who rose to power on pure punk politics. "Bipartisanship is another term of date rape," says Grover Norquist, the Sid Vicious of the GOP. "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
(From We're not in Lake Woebegon anymore -- Garrison Keillor, 2004 -- an adapted excerpt from "Homegrown Democrat.")
When that piece was written, eight years ago (No, really, eight years ago. I know, not much has changed. Believe me, I know), Grover Norquist, a private citizen who has never, ever held public office nor has ever, ever even served as a cabinet or staff member to any elected public official, had, since the tight-ass days of Reagan the Great, been entrenched as the go-to guy for educating elected Republicans on the mandatoriness of No New Taxes.
So last week in the Here and Now, teetering as we are on the edge of that Fiscal Cliff (or sidewalk curb, depending on how you look at it), it was all Grover all the time again, and more than a few of us resumed the old familiar scratching of heads over how this can keep happening.
As Claire McKaskill so deliciously brought it into the real world last week, "I feel almost sorry for John Boehner. There is incredible pressure on him from a base of his party that is unreasonable about this. And he’s got to decide, is his speakership more important or is the country more important. And in some ways, he has got to deal with this base of the Republican Party who Grover Norquist represents, and, you know, everybody’s elevated Grover-- I mean, I met him for the first time this morning. Nice to meet him. But, you know, who is he? Why is he this guy that is--has--has captured so much attention in this?"
Well, exactly. Haven't we all been asking that same question? Who is this guy anyway? Even a good read of his bio doesn't really explain why the Republican electeds have to go so often to this guy for support and sustenance. Can't they figure these things out for themselves? There's something more than a little creepy about him--besides being Newt Gingrich's first base coach during the government shutdown of the 90s, it's no secret Grover worked with Ollie North during the Iran-Contra mess and has had his name (and his emails) linked with the likes of Jack Abramoff. In the words of Lynn Cheney (who had to gall to say this about John Kerry) "He's not a nice man."
Steve Kornacki over at Salon suggested Norquist is just a figurehead and really doesn't speak for the party on tax issues. He's a handy vehicle for the electeds who really, really want what Grover tells them they're absolutely required to want. But when 95% of the House Republicans and all but one of the 2012 presidential candidates have signed Grover's own baby, the unauthorized "Taxpayer Protection Pledge", and when Grover is in the news and making appearances on all the news shows last week (except MSNBC and Current, of course--they only just talked about him), he is the figurehead in charge. (Yes, I know it's unprecedented, but so is the idea of a Grover Norquist. In a representative democracy, anyway.)
But last week Ezra Klein said Grover is winning. He puts it this way:
You might think that Grover Norquist would be in hiding right now. Republicans are parading before the cameras, one after the other, to proclaim their intention of breaking his anti-tax pledge. And yet Norquist is everywhere. He’s doing television shows and talking with reporters. Wednesday, he was the headline guest at Politico’s Playbook Breakfast.Alrighty then. Whatever.
Amidst the liberal glee over the demise of Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, it’s worth being clear about something: Norquist is winning. Big time. It’s this moment, the death of his pledge’s mostly unblemished record, that he’s been working toward all these years.
Don’t take Norquist’s pledge at face value. It’s an absurdity. From a budgetary standpoint, it’s an obscenity. And everyone — Norquist included, because he is very, very smart — knew it would eventually fall. It’s how it falls that matters. And right now, it’s falling exactly according to plan.
I've been trying to think of a person who might ever have been the Democratic version of a Grover Norquist and I'm coming up blank. (If any of you can think of one, now would be a good time to share it. Anybody?)
I can think of someone on the outside the Democrats should be listening to. Not that I want to see any of our electeds signing pledges--that would be crazy--but if ever the Democratic leaders needed someone to be giving them some Big Picture, outside-the-Beltway clarification to what needs to be done, it's right now, right this minute. And I believe Robert Reich is just the guy to do it.
If there's one problem with my current hero, however, it's that he's too polite. He's a hard-fact guy who engages in wishful thinking, instead of talking about bathtub drownings or the commitments of Peter King's wife. (Woo hoo, Peter! I've never liked you, for obvious reasons, but good answer! "My wife would knock off Grover Norquist's head.")
But back to our guy. It's true--no histrionics with Professor Reich--but man, can he relate:
What worries me most about the tactical maneuvers over the "fiscal cliff" and "grand bargain" is that official Washington seems to be losing sight of the larger picture: We still have a huge number of unemployed, and many of those who have jobs continue to lose ground. If we were a sane society, we'd raise taxes on the rich in order to afford a first-rate system of public education for all our people, starting with early-childhood and extending through four-year college or technical; we'd borrow at historically-low rates (the yield on the ten-year Treasury is still below 1.4 percent) to put millions to work upgrading our crumbling infrastructure; and we'd turn our extraordinarily inefficient and costly healthcare system -- the single biggest driver of future budget deficits -- into a single-payer system focused on prevention and on healthy outcomes. Instead, we're locked into a game of chicken over the budget deficit, and preparing to cut public investments and safety nets.
And the best part of Robert Reich? Besides the fact that he gets it and knows how we should deal with it? He served under Presidents Ford and Carter and was Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. He actually served in our government and understands how it's supposed to operate. Someone like Robert Reich should be our go-to guy, but even if he isn't, at least we can't be accused of looking to someone like Grover Norquist to lead us.
That's something, anyway.