George Will, one of the great deans of conservative thought, summarized the potboiler of this week for ABC:
ABC’s George Will told me Sunday on “This Week” that GOP leaders have steered clear of harshly denouncing Limbaugh’s comments because “Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh.”
“[House Speaker John] Boehner comes out and says Rush’s language was inappropriate. Using the salad fork for your entrée, that’s inappropriate. Not this stuff,” Will said. “And it was depressing because what it indicates is that the Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. They want to bomb Iran, but they’re afraid of Rush Limbaugh.”
George Will is correct. That is depressing. But this week's events are only one symptom of a greater disease. Just as John Dean once warned Nixon that "there is a cancer on the presidency," conservative pundits and politicians are now openly warning that there is a cancer on the Republican party.
It's the cancer of small minds filled with ugly ideas.
In the furor over Limbaugh's taunts, most people have forgotten that he was just one more voice in an ongoing discussion. Long before he opened his mouth, Republicans had already opened- or, shall I say, reopened- a discussion about the moral hazards of the Pill.
What originally began as an objection to forcing religious organizations to include birth control in their health care coverage (something about which reasonable people can disagree) quickly degenerated into enthusiastic, Republican-led mudslinging.
Now some people are saying that it's hypocritical to criticize only Limbaugh for his choice of words. They're right. Take a look at the comment thread beneath any article on the subject of birth control in the days prior to Limbaugh's remarks, and you'll see nearly identical wording. The Republican ground troops obediently lined up and got to work deploying word-bombs long before Limbaugh ever went on the air.
But this is only the latest metastasis of the cancer. During this primary season Republican candidates have suggested that poor schoolchildren be forced to work, that pregnancies resulting from rape were "a gift of human life," and that HPV vaccines would cause young girls to become promiscuous.
The abrupt shift from principled disagreement to mean-spirited stupidity has been dismaying to longtime Republican insiders.
Consider the comments of ex-First Lady Barbara Bush on the primary race:
“I think it’s been the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said. “I hate that people think compromise is a dirty word. It’s not a dirty word.”
And here's Jeff Bell:
“Compared to 2008, all the candidates are way to the right of John McCain,” says longtime conservative activist Jeff Bell. “The fact that Romney is running with basically the same views as then but is seen as too moderate tells you that the base has moved rightward and doesn’t simply want a conservative candidate—it wants a very conservative one.” [my emphasis]
And Ed Rollins:
“Six months before this thing got going, every Republican I know was saying, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna beat Obama,’ ” says former Reagan strategist Ed Rollins. “Now even those who’ve endorsed Romney say, ‘My God, what a fucking mess.’ ”
The 'mess' Rollins decries could also be called the political wilderness. Not only has the Republican party decided to wander there, it's made up it's mind to pitch tents and build a fort.
It wasn't always this way. During an interview with Fox News, former presidential candidate Jon Hunstman mourned the death of productive conservative thought:
“Gone are the days,” he added, “where the Republican party used to put forward big, bold visionary stuff.”
The entire clip is worth watching (warning: there is a brief sound drop-out in the middle):
Among the bold ideas Mr. Huntsman mentions is President Eisenhower's vision of a nationwide interstate road system. In a recent column, George Will reminds us of another visionary stance by Eisenhower:
In 1957, he sent the 101st Airborne to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. In 1958, he told the Red Cross to ignore a Louisiana law requiring that blood from black and white donors be segregated. This was in character: In 1942, when Australia desperately sought U.S. troops but said a law prohibited blacks from entering the country, Gen. Eisenhower said, “All right. No troops.” Australia quickly saw the light.
In the current climate, when Republican front-runners call any government influence in schools "anachronistic", any candidate proposing a new national infrastructure program such as the national highway system would be damned as a decadent socialist.
And so Republican thinking remains stunted.
This is tragic not just for Republicans, but for the nation. Our country faces big crises that require big thinking. We need bold, creative thinking from all angles and all parties, not petty blame-and-shame tactics and cheap sermonizing. We aren't getting that from the current administration.
So now where do we look? Our list of alternatives is thin.