Every Sunday I look forward to reading Frank Rich's column in the New York Times. He's one of the few commentators the Times has who can both write and think. Last Sunday he offered a lament of sorts about the current state of the Republican Party. "We need more than one functioning party," he writes, "not just to ensure checks and balances and pitch ideas at a time of crisis, but to temper this president's sporadic bursts of overconfidence and triumphalist stagecraft." Rich digs deep to unearth signs of "sporadic bursts of overconfidence" citing three superficial examples from the last presidential campaign. His point got me thinking about whether or not we should be concerned, as many journalists seem to be, about the fate of the GOP. This argument would have more weight if we were discussing policy differences between Ike Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. But the modern Republican Party has been largely in power since 1981 and during the brief periods when it found itself in "opposition" it behaved so miserably it does not deserve our sympathy and regrets.
Back in the 1990s, when the GOP was in the role of "loyal opposition" it was anything but "constructive." Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his Majority Leader Tom DeLay shut down the federal government because President Bill Clinton was balking at their attempt to gut Medicare and Medicaid. Gingrich and DeLay teamed up with crooked lobbyists like Jack Abramoff and Steven Griles to create the "K Street Project" that functioned as a corrupt conveyor belt for campaign cash in exchange for government patronage. They staged investigation after investigation of every department of the Clinton Administration. Not since Joe McCarthy's days on the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee had the Congress's investigatory powers been so abused for partisan gain. They blocked most of Clinton's judicial appointments. And then they impeached him based on the flimsiest of pretexts stemming from his ancillary testimony in a sexual harassment case that originated when he was governor of Arkansas in the 1980s. All of these hyper-partisan and obstructionist tactics, which took place while Al Qaeda was plotting the 9-11 attacks, were brought to us by the "tempering" judgment of the Grand Old Party.
What's more, the Gingrich-DeLay GOP went after President Clinton with a vengeance even though on nearly all the big issues Clinton was never anything more than a Center-Right moderate. In his first year in office he spent a lot of political capital by siding with the Republicans to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also ushered in the World Trade Organization (WTO). He was pro-death penalty and school uniforms. He sided with the Republicans to "end welfare as we know it" by eliminating Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and imposing draconian "workfare" requirements on poor families who received federal aid. He signed the Republican-sponsored Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed Rupert Murdoch to increase his holdings and launch FOX News. He signed the monumentally disastrous Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (or the "Financial Services Modernization Act"), which repealed the hallmark New Deal banking regulations of Glass-Steagall and created the "too big to fail" institutions that led to the economic catastrophe of 2008. And he signed the "Commodity Futures Modernization Act" that blocked any federal regulations on the new derivatives markets. During the last two years of his presidency he was even toying with privatizing Social Security. Bill Clinton was the best thing that ever happened to the Republicans.
So even in a time when a Blue Dog Southern president, a guy at home with faith healers and Hooters, was giving the Republicans almost everything they wanted they still went after him as if he were the Anti-Christ. In opposition, the GOP showed that even a Democratic president's near total capitulation to their demands in a period of relative peace and prosperity could not satiate their partisan rancor. And from January 2003 to January 2007, when the Republicans controlled the Whole Enchilada, they did everything in their power to pound the Democrats into the dust leading Karl Rove to boast about a "permanent Republican majority." During this partisan pogrom the corporate media constantly urged the Democrats to "move to the center," which after the Clinton years essentially meant disbanding the Democratic Party.
And now we're supposed to shed crocodile tears over the current political isolation of the Grand Old Party?
I don't get it.
The modern GOP has become nothing but an institutional manifestation of a purely corporate agenda. And like many corporations it has become sociopathic. Why else would the John Boehners and the Eric Cantors and Mitch McConnells, amidst the most serious economic crisis we've faced since the Great Depression, dedicate themselves to tearing apart Barack Obama even before he was inaugurated? Why else would they oppose health care when 64 percent of us have been saying for years it is what we want and 47 million Americans have no health insurance? Why else would they run up record deficits spent on wars and corporate welfare only to turn around and denounce deficits at a time when the Obama Administration is responding to a dire economic emergency of their creation? And why else would they continue to exploit for partisan advantage the nation's emotional trauma associated with 9-11 through constantly spreading fear and insecurity? They've even lost the ability to understand the meaning of the word "empathy."
The leaders of the Republican Party -- including Gingrich, DeLay, Rove, and George W. Bush -- are the ones who demanded ideological purity among their ranks. They're the ones who kicked out the moderates and the secularists. They're the ones who Southernized their party. They're the ones who ran campaigns on wedge issues and smears. They're the ones who dismissed all opposition no matter how mild. They're the ones who so recklessly governed the country they brought it to its knees. And they're the ones who should "man up" and take responsibility for their past abuses.
But they refuse to do so.
A loyal opposition would be a great thing; an opposition that added constructive ideas to the nation's political debate. But that's not where the GOP is today. And given its recent history and its current leadership there's no reason to believe it will ever again fulfill that vital role.