An Extinct Species Desperately Missed: Rockefeller Republicans
When historians and experts in politics discuss the ten best presidents, the usual suspects make the cut (Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt) along with those who are debatable (Polk, Wilson, Kennedy). I would argue that Eisenhower could make that list, and despite his short tenure, Gerald Ford deserves consideration for that top 10 group, too. Why the half-termer Ford? With his firm decision to pardon Richard Nixon a month after he took office in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, our 38th president sacrificed his political future and avoided any messy and traumatic trial of his predecessor for the good of the country. Unfortunately, long-term thinking is missing in our politics, and one huge factor is because of the demise of moderates, once known as “Rockefeller Republicans,” within the Grand Old Party. The party of Lincoln can boast plenty of august statesmen. True, Herbert Hoover was overwhelmed by the Great Depression, but FDR’s refusal to work with him during the 1932-1933 lame duck session sabotaged Hoover’s legacy. Nevertheless, during his career Hoover proved to be a humanitarian, twice having a role in avoiding starvation across post-war Europe. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (pictured, click to expand) understood infrastructure, education, and environmental stewardship were necessary for the Empire State’s future. Everett Dirksen of Illinois was conservative on economic issues, but worked across the aisle to help pass civil rights legislation in the 1960s. “Unemployed” Mitt Romney’s father, George, also was a vocal advocate for civil rights and expanded the scope of Michigan’s government so that it work work for its citizens. George Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, once called for taxes at whatever level necessary to balance the government’s books. For several decades many Republicans were pragmatic and often far more progressive in their thinking than Democrats, who until the 1960s were dominated by the southern wing of their party. The rest is history. Right-wing, evangelical, and tea-partier Republicans have moved the GOP sharply to the right since 1980. We know the story--the vast majority of the national debt was racked up by Prescott Bush’s grandson, and the Obama administration’s health care plan was a Nixonian scheme that Newt Gingrich had once promoted--but nevertheless the tea party’s hatred of Obama has contributed to the current Republican leadership’s determination to halt any initiative with the Obama administration’s fingerprints on it. Our country definitely has its challenges. Medicare and Medicaid appeared logical and compassionate at the time they became law, but are now impractical. Why? It makes no fiscal sense to insure only the old and poor--the prudent step to take would be to spread the risk across the entire population, but any talk of a national plan, even the Republican plan that Obama signed into law that Republicans (including its father, Mitt Romney) oppose, is shouted down as “socialist.” In addition, Social Security, defense, and two wars abroad have forced us to make excruciating decisions. As for budget hawks, let us remember that with all of the bellyaching over government waste, one stubborn fact persists: with less than 20% of the federal budget available for discretionary spending, we can axe all of it tomorrow but still have light years to go before we can tackle the national debt. Confronting tough decisions begs for compromise, but with the tea party’s threats of fratricidal warfare during next year’s elections, Republicans refuse to entertain any ideas that may be unpopular, but necessary. Not to excuse the Democrats. They are beholden to teachers’ unions and trial lawyers, alliances that impart an unseemliness at best, and at worst get in the way of rebuilding our country’s future. One group is full of tenured folks with guaranteed lifetime employment who refuse to change their ways or do what is best for children. The other band is more of an annoyance, but our litigious society often mars the image, fairly or not, of Democrats because our affinity for lawsuits often impedes innovation--and innovation spurs our economy. Plenty of Democrats are beholden to the energy or finance sectors, so the cries of “socialist” or “marxist” Democrats are laughable when we consider that for the past generation, Democrats have tried to out-Republican the Republicans in social, economic, and foreign policy. What really displays the sad state of the GOP, however, is their hollering over the Obama administration’s choice to be the next commerce secretary. John Bryson was head of Edison International, and is on the Board of Directors of corporations like Disney and Boeing. Bryson is hardly a radical, but Senate Republicans object to his push for a green agenda and his co-founding of the National Resources Defense Council, a non-profit that works with companies to solve some of the most vexing sustainability-related problems of our time. For Republicans like Darrel Issa and James Inhofe to shriek about Bryson’s radical agenda is like Goliath complaining that David went into a fight with a sling shot. Wherever your politics may stand, Bryson’s work on environmental and clean energy issues do not compare with the record he built over the years as a business executive. So while businesses make their moves to transform their business models, a dogmatic Republican party stands in the way of tough decisions that have got to be made to ensure our nation’s long-term fiscal and environmental future. Despite the oft-repeated cliche, history does not repeat itself. Despite the gains made in last year’s midterm elections, however, Republicans may want to learn from the Democratic Party’s experience from 1952 to 1988, a time at which its presidential nominee lost seven of ten elections, six of them (1968 the lone cliffhanger) by a landslide. The Republicans’ hard turn to the right could drive them to years of frustration as they lose elections, not out of voters’ love for Democrats, but out of the electorates’ loathing for a party that accomplishes little except for screaming and shouting. The party of the aggrieved and resentful is no longer the Democrats, but oddly enough, the Republicans. The GOP would be better off if it would tolerate some debate within its ranks instead of insisting on ideological conformity.