Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Here are twenty things Congressional Republicans could actually accomplish

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 23, 2013 16:37 UTC

The Senate filibuster deal was a good start. It showed both sides can work together if they are threatened with the prospect of a chamber frozen in impotence. But compromise remains a dirty word among many conservatives and libertarians in Congress who would rather accomplish nothing than find a way to achieve something. They are not only wasting their own time and our money, they are standing in the way of conservative or libertarian achievements.

House Republicans have spent 15 percent of their time, that is 89 hours, and run up  $55 million voting more than 40 times to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, even though it is the law of the land, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of repeal would be $1.3 trillion over the next nine years. So much for demanding “consistently, a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility.”

R.A. Butler, three-time acting prime minister of Britain, described politics as “the art of the possible.” Congressmen and senators who entered politics to achieve something — yet find themselves kicking their heels, because their Tea Party colleagues prefer to pass nothing to demonstrate their dislike of government in general — might take Butler’s definition to heart. There are many conservative policies that could be put into effect if they were only to pick the right ones and be prepared, as are the Gang of Eight in the Senate, to work across the aisle.

One thing Washington is not short of is well-funded and luxuriously appointed conservative think tanks manned by researchers handsomely paid by rich donors. They sometimes turn out interesting, original, and thought-provoking papers and it seems churlish if not downright rude for Republican lawmakers to ignore their labors. To save them time, and in a genuine spirit of cooperation and helpfulness, here is a far from exhaustive list of 20 measures proposed by conservative thinkers that might easily find allies among fiscally conservative Democrats or libertarian-minded liberal Democrats and thus a majority in Congress.

I agree with some parts of some of these ideas; I disagree with others. They are not my notions, nor have I tested the claims made by their advocates. I have picked them because they provide a political middle ground where compromises and deals might be made. To discover more about how these policies might be put into practice, I have linked to the respective policy papers.

It’s not Watergate, it’s Whitewater

Nicholas Wapshott
May 21, 2013 16:31 UTC

The trifecta of scandals — Benghazi, the IRS and snooping on journalists — that has broken upon the heads of the Obama administration is as bad as Watergate. No it isn’t, says Bob Woodward, whose reputation was made by doggedly pursuing the source of a burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel. No it isn’t, says Carl Bernstein, who shares the bragging rights for toppling President Richard Nixon. Oh yes it is, says Peggy Noonan, the Republicans’ mother superior, writing, “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.”

Really? How about the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 that besmirched the honesty of President Ronald Reagan, for whom Noonan used to write speeches? Perhaps she penned Reagan’s first denial, “We did not — repeat — did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we,” or maybe his amnesiac mea culpa four months later, “I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Strange the tricks age plays on the memory. And I am not talking about Reagan.

If you were a precocious five-year-old at the time, you would have to be 32 to recall the Iran-Contra scandal, in which, with or without Reagan’s say-so, administration officials, in defiance of Congress’s clearly stated wishes, secretly sold weapons to America’s perennial enemy, the terrorist state of Iran, then passed the proceeds to Nicaraguan insurgents. Even if you were the smartest kid you would have to be over 41 to remember Watergate and, in President Gerald Ford’s words, the “long national nightmare” that led to Nixon’s resignation ahead of certain impeachment.

Benghazi and the Republican abandonment of the center

Nicholas Wapshott
May 10, 2013 16:24 UTC

In World War Two, the Libyan port of Benghazi was hard fought over, changing hands five times between Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the Allied forces. Seventy years on, the city has again become the focus of a fierce battle, this time between Republicans and Democrats over the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.

This week’s House committee resumed the fight, with GOP members eager to show the Obama administration at fault. Because Hillary Clinton has already emerged as the 2016 Democratic frontrunner, determining what exactly happened in Benghazi that day has become the first scuffle in the next presidential election.

In the weeks running up to President Barack Obama’s reelection, conservative commentators thought that in the Benghazi deaths they had found an explosive issue that would shock the nation. Despite their best efforts, which elicited an admission of responsibility from the secretary of state, the Benghazi campaign did not move the pollsters’ needle. The campaign to implicate the president andClinton was long on innuendo and short on facts. There was no smoking gun. As a result, voters did not grasp what they were being urged to be indignant about.

David Stockman’s economic Neverland

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 5, 2013 20:55 UTC

David Stockman makes a good Cassandra. His The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America is a popular account of why all economic policy since Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover has been wrongheaded. It is a contrarian’s delight. The New Deal “did not end the Great Depression or save capitalism from the alleged shortcomings which led to the [1929] crash.” Richard Nixon’s decision to unharness the dollar from the gold standard was “a sin graver than Watergate.” Milton Friedman, once a conservative saint but recast by Stockman as “a supposed hero,” is dismissed as “foolish.” He assaults Paul Ryan’s budget as “another front in the GOP’s war against the 99 percent.” He even accuses his old boss Ronald Reagan, a conservative paragon, of being fatally mistaken about slashing personal taxes and about encouraging “the highest peacetime spending share of GDP.”

In brief, Stockman believes Keynesian economics is pernicious and has seduced America away from the true path of capitalism. His tract is long on abuse (he scathingly assaults Republicans as well as Democrats, and gives a pass only to Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy) and short on economic analysis. The theoretical roots of his thinking are missing. The laissez-faire absolutist Ayn Rand is mentioned only in passing to goad those, like Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan, who brushed up against her. Ludwig von Mises gets a single name-check for his work on the credit boom cycle in 1911. Friedrich Hayek, the inspiration for most of today’s anti-Keynesians, does not even warrant a footnote. Stockman’s failure to anchor his instinctive aversion to deficits, public spending and government borrowing in a cogent intellectual framework undermines his case. His faith-based economics reflects, perhaps, the fact that he became Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget armed only with what he had learned at Harvard Divinity School.

Stockman has, however, found a ready audience for his take on the past 80 years of economic policy because he is a rare bird: a conservative purist prepared to argue that when the financial markets froze in 2008 we should have let the market rip and lived with the consequences. When the stock market began to wobble five years ago, then crashed, tripping a wholesale financial disaster that slowed economic activity, caused businesses to fail and threw millions out of work, it was hard to find an economist of standing to defend the alternative to federal intervention: letting the banks and AIG go bust and allowing the market to find its own level.

The return of isolationism

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 29, 2013 13:07 UTC

Isolationism is back in the news. The big thinkers of the Tea Party, in their pursuit of slashing taxes, lowering public spending, and severely shrinking the size and power of the federal government, have revived an idea that has not been respectable among senior Republicans for more than 70 years. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky believes that, to encourage more young people to vote for the GOP, the party should stop chasing divisive social issues, like incarcerating people for petty drug offenses, and take up civil liberties issues, like protecting American suspected terrorists on American soil from being summarily executed by American drones.

But that is just a start. According to a recent speech in Cincinnati, Paul thinks that, for the GOP to win younger voters, “even bigger to me than the social issues is the idea of war.” “If we didn’t have to be everywhere all the time, if maybe we tried to reserve it for when our national interests were impacted or a vital interest of ours was . . . [he left the thought unfinished] — and if Republicans didn’t seem so eager to go to war — I think we’d attract more young people.” He would prefer it “if we had a less bellicose approach, if we were for a strong defense but a little bit less aggressive defense around the world.” Paul is not suggesting pacifism. What he means by “a less aggressive foreign policy” is that he wishes America would stop taking its international responsibilities so seriously because it costs taxpayers a lot of money.

This is an extraordinary about-face for a leader of a party that in the post-war world has always proudly defended America’s right to intervene with force when and wherever it wishes. The GOP has always been the natural home for isolationists. The “Irreconcilables” that kept America out of the League of Nations were overwhelmingly Republican and it was largely Republican isolationists who advocated the neutrality laws in the Twenties and Thirties. Robert Taft nudged the party towards isolationism in his many failed bids to become the Republican presidential candidate through the Forties and Fifties. And rogue isolationist Patrick Buchanan gave the GOP establishment a scare when in both 1992 and 1996 he prospered in early primaries.

Sarah Palin and the rejection of scientific method

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

The most recent episode in the long-running Punch and Judy show between Sarah Palin and Karl Rove is shedding light on the schism between old-school Republicans and the Tea Party insurgents who are steadily pushing them aside. It appears it is not merely Palin’s personal antipathy to Rove that drives her spleen but a contempt for the dark arts he employs.

It is no surprise, perhaps, that the anti-intellectualism that underpins many of the Tea Party’s most absurd and offensive stances – the insistence that evidence of global warming is invented; the notion that women who are raped do not conceive; the belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution is contradicted by the Bible; the failure to understand that all economics is Keynesian; and so on – also informs Palin’s assault on the science practiced by Rove and every other established political strategist around the world.

In a zinger directed at Rove, Palin blamed Mitt Romney’s defeat on the “top-down political process” directed by a “permanent political class” in “permanent political mode” in Washington that is “busy worrying about their own political future.” “Now is the time to furlough the consultants, and tune-out the pollsters, send the focus groups home and throw out the political scripts, because if we truly know what we believe, we don’t need professionals to tell us,” she declared.

Can Republicans tell the truth to themselves?

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 29, 2013 20:14 UTC

To understand how far the republic founded by the famously truthful George Washington has become a mendacious nation, you need look only as far as the Weather Channel. According to a report, the meteorologists there deliberately and routinely tell untruths about the prospect of rain so that when it turns out to be sunny the network’s viewers feel unexpectedly happy. The practice, it seems, is widespread among weather forecasters. Joe Sobel, a meteorologist for Accuweather, tells his audience it will rain when he knows the likelihood is small because “when the forecast is for good weather and it’s bad, I certainly will get more grief than if the forecast is for bad weather and it’s good.”

When the accuracy of even weather forecasting, a once factual, rigorous, scientifically determined service relied upon by everyone from farmers to sailors, is compromised for fear of causing offense, America has reached a state of quotidian deceit even George Orwell did not reckon on. Lying over the weather is not the compulsive lying of Richard Nixon: “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” Or the visceral lying of Lance Armstrong, who even lied when he confessed to Oprah Winfrey, using the lying words, “I can’t lie to you …” and “I’m not going to lie to you or to the public …” Nor is it even the crooked lies of the price-fixing bankers who misled the markets and cost us all a pretty penny when they concocted the Libor lending rate to suit themselves.

Lying about the weather to please the masses is not so much lying as pandering on a prodigious scale. Bowing down before the voters has become so commonplace in Washington that when someone says something from the heart that is likely to provoke contemplation or discussion, they are dismissed as foolhardy. The president’s second inaugural address was full of soaring language and high ideals that reflected his ambitions for the nation. But Barack Obama was so liberal in his vision that the speech was derided by opponents as un-presidentially divisive and absurdly idealistic. The same charge was made against Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address from the Democratic side. How dare the president say what he believes and where he is heading? Tell us what we like to hear, or at the least say something that will not offer hostages to fortune. Please pander more and stop talking like a leader.

Immigration reform could tear GOP apart

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 25, 2013 17:06 UTC

Immigration reform is being discussed again on Capitol Hill. At his inauguration, President Barack Obama declared, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.” Senior Republicans, too, seem ready to make a deal. They sorely need to do so, because Mitt Romney’s damaging policy of self-deportation ensured that Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and demographic changes mean unless the party changes tack fast it will keep losing. But there is an enormous gulf between what the Republicans need to do and what the base will go along with. What is at stake is whether the GOP remains a party of government or becomes a mere protest movement.

Although he does not have a majority in the House, the president appears in no mood to compromise. He wants to help create a more tolerant America and believes he has the country behind him. Recent polling confirms that his views on gay marriage, gun control, abortion, immigration and other social issues all chime with a majority of the electorate, and he is determined to press his case. His inauguration speech spelled out the direction he is heading in, and his Feb. 12 State of the Union address is expected to chart the course. He appears to be relishing the chance to embarrass the Republicans if they stand in the way of progress. Catching Obama’s new sense of purpose, House Speaker John Boehner has become convinced the president wants “to annihilate the Republican Party” and “shove [it] into the dustbin of history.”

Senior Republicans appear to be aware that they are out of step with America and need to make significant changes to policies and their public image if they are to stand a chance of winning the midterm elections in 2014 or the White House in 2016. Former Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice believes “the Republican Party certainly has to stop turning off large segments of the population” and urges it to face “the big issue,” immigration reform. Says Senator Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.): “We’re in a death spiral with Hispanic voters because of rhetoric around immigration.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who burned his fingers pushing for immigration reform in 2006-07, thinks “we have to do immigration reform … There is no doubt whatsoever that the demographics are not on our side.” Conservative commentator Seth Mandel suggests it may be too late: “When they arrived here with nothing but the clothes on their back, desperate for a chance at a better life for themselves and their children, one party said, ‘Come on in,’ and the other said, ‘Turn around and go back.’”

How the NRA hijacked the Republican Party

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 18, 2013 15:38 UTC

There are few better ways of grasping how far the Republicans have abandoned the middle ground, where they used to win elections, than the way their leaders have become agents of the gun industry. Conservatives used to consider themselves law-abiding citizens who put great store by the permanence of institutions, by the rule of law, and by the traditional caution and common sense of the sensible majority. Such devotion to stability, continuation, and moderation explains why so many conservatives were alarmed when the social revolution of the Sixties erupted. Suddenly, it seemed, everything was on the move. Children no longer believed in the wisdom of their elders, nor obeyed the unwritten rules that had guided every previous generation. The days of everyone knowing their place and remaining in it were overthrown and it appeared that anarchy had broken out in America.

Nowhere was this more evident to traditional conservatives than in the way African-Americans responded to the civil rights legislation enacted by Lyndon Johnson. Instead of being grateful for the overdue democratic changes wrested from reluctant Southern lawmakers, a significant number of African-Americans demanded more profound change. There were riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other major cities which were met by calls from conservatives for tighter gun controls. The Black Panthers, dressed as soldiers and carrying guns, as was their right under the Second Amendment, demanded that African-Americans be allowed to live in a separate self-governing state. In May 1967, 30 Panthers took loaded rifles, shotguns, and pistols into the California State Capitol to protest against new gun control laws. The California governor, Ronald Reagan, declared: “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

After John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Johnson joined with conservatives to pass the federal Gun Control Act that stipulated a minimum age for gun buyers, restricted traffic across state lines to federally registered gun dealers, limited the sale of certain destructive bullets, required guns to carry serial numbers, and added drug addicts and the insane to those, like felons, who were already forbidden to own guns. When it transpired that Lee Harvey Oswald had bought the rifle that killed the president mail order from the pages of the National Rifle Association magazine, the NRA Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth backed an end to mail-order sales. “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States,” he said.

After Newtown, guns are one more rift in the GOP

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 19, 2012 18:02 UTC

When political parties lose after a bitterly fought electoral battle, they prefer to lick their wounds in private. The glare of publicity is not helpful in exploring what went wrong and charting a fresh course. The Republicans, however, find their election postmortem taking place in the full public gaze. When it comes to the most urgent issue confronting the nation, the fiscal cliff, they face an invidious choice. They must decide by Dec. 31 whether to persist in the stance they adopted at the election, saving the ultra-rich from higher taxation, or to raise taxes on all Americans. If they hold firm, they will be blamed for levying $1,200 a year on every middle-class family. That is not good news for the party of low taxation.

If their fiscal cliff dilemma were not bad enough, since the slaughter of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, Republicans are set to defend a challenge to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Concerned, angry Americans are asking why lawmakers have failed to protect them and their children from arbitrary execution. The Republican leadership must now choose whether to join the president in finding a way to avoid similar massacres or face the electoral consequences. If they get that pivotal decision wrong, they risk being cast as coldhearted villains, out of touch with the moderate voters they need to win back the White House and the Senate.

Little wonder that Republicans backed by the National Rifle Association have made themselves scarce. Finding a Republican legislator to appear on camera to defend the status quo is as hard as finding someone to argue that hard drug dealers perform a valuable public service. NBC’s Meet the Press contacted all 31 NRA-backed senators for comment, and every last one kept his head below the barricade.

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