The Question That Needs Asking

I only caught a little of the GOP debate last night, but I came away with two thoughts: first, the distinct impression that New Gingrich’s “it’s-so-crazy-it-just-might-work” strategy for this race is looking a little less crazy with every debate.  He’s clearly the most able figure in the field, and if Herman Cain fades as I expect he will (I like Cain, but c’mon—that Gitmo answer was pure amateur hour), then suddenly Newt might well emerge as the real alternative to Romney.  (In the half of the debate I saw, Perry continued to unimpress.)

My second thought is that no one has yet asked the simple, key question that would instantly decide who the best candidate is.  And that question is: if elected, which president’s portrait would you put up in the Cabinet room?  Ronald Reagan famously put Calvin Coolidge’s portrait in the Cabinet room, to near-universal jeers from the Washington establishment.  But it was a sign that Reagan really meant what he said about wanting to limit government.  Coolidge is the right answer, though Warren Harding would also be a great answer.

By contrast, recall that one of the Presidents Bush—I forget which one now—put Eisenhower’s portrait up in the Cabinet room.  Ike was a great man, a steady and decent president, but by no means any kind of principled conservative.  To the contrary, he expanded New Deal programs (gave us the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, for example), and was only weakly partisan on behalf of the Republican Party.  And the less said about his Supreme Court picks the better.  Putting Ike’s portrait up in the Cabinet room was a sure sign that we couldn’t expect much of a fight against Washington from that administration.

If you asked this question of the field, of course they’ll all trip over themselves to say Ronald Reagan.  So they’ll have to be asked to name two.  This is where it would get interesting.  I’m guessing Romney would say something stupid like Teddy Roosevelt, or even name a Democrat like Harry Truman just to pander to the center.  Perry would be very unlikely to name Lincoln, for all of the usual reasons of being a former southern Democrat.  Cain might well name Lincoln, which would be fine if predictably safe.  Bachmann will be the most interesting, as I’ll bet she’d name a founding-era figure like Jefferson or Madison (who was actually a rather poor president) or even Adams.  Newt, as usual, will be the wild card.  Will he go with Teddy Roosevelt, with whom he feels some affinity, and thereby blow his little bit of momentum?  Might he do something interesting like Grover Cleveland, the conservative Democrat with a slightly colorful personal life?  (Though it wouldn’t surprise me if Cleveland was Ron Paul’s choice.)

Some of this comes to mind after reading Jeffery Lord’s blistering attack on the Beltway Republican establishment in the American Spectator, “Clark Clifford Republicans.” I recall two axioms attributed to my first mentor in DC, the great M. Stanton Evans, who first remarked back in the Nixon era, “Why is it that whenever one of us gets into a position of power, he’s no longer one of us?”  This was a simple reflection on the problem of people “going native” when they get in government.  (Again, recall the famous remark from a Bush I person who disdained the ideological fervor of their Reaganite predecessors: “We don’t have ideologies; we have mortgages.”  And resumes to pad, it should be added.)  The second axiom, which Stan may or may not have originated, is that too many conservatives come to Washington determined to clean out the swamp—only to discover that it’s a comfortable hot tub.

The main point of Lord’s article is that too many Washington Republicans are just as comfortable with ever-bigger government as liberal Democrats.  In my Age of Reagan volume 2, I explained this problem as a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome—Washington Republicans had been in the minority so long they had come to absorb the premises of big government liberalism, which is one reason why the Washington GOP establishment didn’t favor Reagan and didn’t support much of his agenda.  The problem may actually be worse than that.  The Beltway GOP has simply surrendered not to weakmindedness but to pure professional interest.

Here’s a fragment of Lord’s jeremiad:

“Clark Clifford Republicans” defined as those who really don’t believe in the Reagan/Coolidge view — the conservative view and once upon a time the Republican view — of the world at all. Even if they give good lip service to the idea in public, it is clear from this piece that in the quiet corners of this or that Washington bistro they are muttering their equivalent derogations for Tea Partiers that match in some fashion Clifford’s “amiable dunce” derisive. Although, it appears, they have dropped the “amiable.”

It’s not simply that they have a Thomas E. Dewey/Nelson Rockefeller view of the world or, to use Barry Goldwater’s pithy description, they favor a “dime store New Deal.”

The real problem here is that all of Clark Clifford’s friends across the decades have so rooted Big Government in the psychology of Washington that “Republican Elites” have elected to accept the whole premise — and for reasons having to do with self-preservation simply cannot bring themselves to get seriously Reaganesque or Coolidge-like because to do so gnaws at their own economic vitals and capacity for influence. Both now hopelessly entangled with the concrete boxes of bureaucracy that literally litter the Washington landscape. . .

There is something decidedly off-kilter when the party elite for a party whose core premise is limited government is itself addicted to Big Government. So addicted that the very idea of eliminating program X (much less Department Y) is viewed with alarm as an expression of Outside the Mainstreamness or, more viscerally, “paranoia.” Creating in turn the impression to a growing number of alarmed Americans that the Party of Reagan has become the Party of Jabba the Hutt — the slug-like villain from the third Star Wars film Return of the Jedi. The Jabba described by movie critic Roger Ebert as a cross between a toad and a Cheshire cat. Flicking a tongue to catch its prey — and smiling leisurely afterwards, leaving only the smile for visible evidence it was even there at all.

The question here is: is the GOP elite serious about limited government? Or not?

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