Dude, where’s my party?

The real story of the Republican convention is the disorientation of America's ruling party.

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

Last week’s Republican Convention was supposed to be a massive show of political force, and at first blush it appears to have worked. Unlike Democratic nominee John Kerry, president George W Bush has received the much-coveted post-convention bounce in the polls, having risen more than 10 points over the weekend (1).

Bush’s improvement has been attributed to the convention’s ability to cast the president as a leader of firm resolve, and to cast Kerry as an indecisive opportunist. In part the accusation stuck because it is true – Kerry is more or less how Republicans presented him, military service 30 years ago in an unjust war notwithstanding. However, having pursued a number of reactive, ill-thought out wars, one feels that Bush’s ‘resolve’ is more akin to Thoreau’s foolish consistency of small minds, rather than a quality of real political leadership.

The real story of the convention is not Bush’s schoolyard posturing, but the light it sheds on the problems within the Republican Party. What was overlooked was the degree to which the Bush administration relied on party mavericks and outsiders to craft an attractive political image. This was only the latest in a series of efforts by the Republicans to maintain the coherence of a party that has seriously fragmented over the past few years.

The main speakers’ list at last week’s convention gave the initial impression of a strong showing for the Republicans. Former mayor of New York City, Rudi Giuliani, widely popular since 9/11, tag-teamed with the similarly popular Arizona Senator John McCain to kick off the convention. Both known for their general ‘toughness’ and initiative, they were invaluable initial speakers at a convention dominated by the predictable theme of security.

The following day, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the star-cum-governor of California, captured prime time and was succeeded, the day after, by renegade Democrat Zell Miller, senator from Georgia. Strength and leadership were the virtues for these ‘uncertain times’, economic girly-men and partisanship the vices. After Miller’s heated speech, the devastation seemed complete – even a Democrat thought Bush was a better candidate. All that was left was for vice president Dick Cheney and President Bush to walk on and remind everyone that they were the actual candidates, and hope everyone forgets that Bush’s daughters also had been on stage at some point.

Yet this lineup was a curious one. Giuliani, McCain, and Schwarzenegger are all party outsiders, and each holds unorthodox, liberal political opinions on issues like gay rights and abortion at odds with the highly conservative Republican Party platform. Add Zell Miller, who gave a speech at Bill Clinton’s nomination in 1992, and some less noted speakers, like Mitt Romney, the liberal Republican governor of Massachussetts, and one hardly has a representative sample of Republican party views.

It was somewhat startling to see Bush and Cheney, the ostensible champions of conservative and neo-conservative views, capping off this hodge-podge lineup. One was left with the feel that the Republicans are somewhat embarrassed and defensive about their ‘real’ views, and feel the need for outside help. Lacking the confidence unflinchingly to reassert the culture wars, they seem to have fallen back on organized paranoia and a shabby, militarised crisis politics. They have substituted fear for an assertive party program, and any popular politician they can get for a show of party unity.

The lack of party unity has plagued the Republicans for a number of years, but become pronounced since the Bush administration took office. Over the past years there have been major defections of significant Republican constituencies. Pat Buchanan and the traditional, nativist conservatism he represents left the Republicans and joined the Reform Party in 1999, breathing new life into it by becoming its 2000 presidential candidate. Buchanan’s magazine The American Conservative was launched in direct response to the rise of neo-conservatism, and has been one of the most persistent critics of the ‘new American Empire’ (2).

Another traditionally Republican constituency, libertarians, has also grown increasingly disenchanted with Bush’s anti-libertarian domestic security program as well as his military adventurism. Reason magazine, arguably the most significant libertarian publication, was highly critical of the war, as were various members of the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank. Jacob Hornberger, James Bovard, and other members of the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation, have inveighed against the administration, declaiming its ‘betrayal’ of former party ideals. Some have noted that ‘in their treatment of the Bush administration, Attorney General John Aschroft, the Iraq war, and the Republican leadership, the libertarian magazines…read much more like the Nation than conservative outlets like the Weekly Standard‘ (3). There are suggestions that libertarians are voting with their feet, unwilling to vote for Bush in 2004.

Finger-pointing has accompanied secession. Here are some of the notable dissensions over the past few years:

— Significant members of the first Bush administration, including former national security advisor Brent Scrowcroft and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, protest against the war on Iraq. Eagleburger later says Bush should be impeached if he tries to invade Syria (4);

— Representatives Bob Barr and Dick Armey criticise the USA Patriot Act and the war on terrorism (5);

— Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill and chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey are forced to resign after making comments that, among other things, cast doubt on the wisdom of Iraq (6);

— Neo-conservative Max Boot calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation after Abu Ghraib (7);

— – Significant conservative commentators, George F Will, Robert Novak, and William F Buckley Jr, and Tucker Carlson, come out against the Iraq war once reconstruction turns into a messy, unplanned occupation;

— Counterterrorism official Richard Clarke resigns from the administration and accuses Bush of ignoring the threat of al-Qaeda while obsessing about Iraq. Reports emerge that the State Department was shut out of post-invasion planning, in spite of superior expertise on the issue (8);

— Republican Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, proposed his own intelligence reform, including abolition of the CIA, in contrast to Bush’s proposals;

— Neo-conservative editor of the Weekly Standard William Kristol replies to criticisms of the war by telling the New York Times that he and his magazine have more in common with liberal hawks than many Republicans (9). Fellow traveler, David Frum, one-time speechwriter for Bush, accuses noted traditionalists like Pat Buchanan and Bob Novak of being ‘unpatriotic conservatives’ (10);

— A retiring congressman recently joined the chorus of Republican dissenters, calling the war ‘a dangerous, costly mess’ (11). Likewise, Francis Fukuyama, a sometime neo-conservative and member of president’s council on bioethics, last week dubbed the Iraq war ‘a harebrained scheme’ and said the administration has betrayed ‘true’ neo-conservative principles (12).

— The Financial Times also reported that ‘Wall Street’s enthusiasm for Bush ‘appears to have cooled’ due to concerns ‘about a unilateralist foreign policy and fiscal deficits’. ‘Some leading fundraisers of Mr Bush’s re-election bid have stopped active campaigning and others privately voice reservations.’ (13)

— The Cold Warrior and recently retired Republican Senator from North Carolina Jesse Helms is reported saying he would not have voted for the tax cuts given the deficits they created (14).

The picture this paints is clear. As the conservative columnist David Brooks noted in a piece entitled ‘How To Reinvent the GOP’ written for the New York Times Magazine just before the convention, ‘inside [the Republican Party] there are, beneath the cheering and the resolve, waves of anxiety, uncertainty and disagreement’ (15). Earlier this year, Scott McConnell, the executive editor of The American Conservative, wrote ‘There is a full-scale ideological war in the ranks of those who think of themselves as conservative’ (16).

In a perceptive article written for the liberal American Prospect in July, Danny Postel observed that ‘conservative intellectuals, strategists, and insiders’ all worry about a ‘widening schism’ and a rupturing ‘of the conservative coalition that came together around Ronald Reagan’ (17). Indeed, the most noticeable feature of the weeklong memorial for Reagan earlier this year was the intense nostalgia, as Bush and the Republicans celebrated a lost time of party unity and purpose.

The Bush administration’s response to 9/11, far from bringing the party together, actually seems to have exacerbated its fragmentation. Civil liberties concerns energised libertarian criticism, the war upset the isolationist conservatives, the floundering postwar reconstruction drove recriminations within and among various pundits and administration officials, and the conclusions of various intelligence and security commissions (especially the 9/11 commission) motivated party infighting. Postel noted in July 2004 that while libertarians and traditionalists were the first of the administration’s critics, dissent has ‘spread well beyond that circle, into the ranks of Republicans who supported the war but have either changed their minds or grown increasingly weary of the occupation – and who are concerned that it could cost Bush the election’ (18). There are a number of reports that, should Bush lose this election, the Republican Party will fall on itself and attempt to purge the elements it feels are most responsible for the loss (19).

Republicans have posed this post-9/11 fragmentation in the language of betrayal, complaining that ‘their’ party has been ‘hijacked’. In this way they curiously echo those outside critics of the Republican Party, such as the anti-war protestors and anybody but Bush campaign, all of which have adopted varieties of neo-conservative conspiracy theories to explain the administration’s policies. In a commentary entitled ‘The hijacking of the Republican Party’ for the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation, Jim Muhm wrote ‘The traditional principles of the Republican Party have in the past several years been subordinated to a more intrusive domestic policy and an imperialistic foreign policy’ (20). Echoing the libertarians, the Conservative Caucus has inveighed against ‘How the Republican congressional majority is betraying conservatives’ (21).

The real problem, though, is not that the Republican Party was hijacked but that it has suffered from a lack of clear purpose since the end of the Cold War. The crumbling of the left produced an ideological vacuum that Republicans could not fill. Newt Gingrich’s anti-government Republican Revolution was a fitful flash in the pan, winning power in 1994 only to fall short and retreat after Bob Dole’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1996. Various attempts at pursuing the Culture Wars led nowhere, and the party eventually pushed out Gingrich, both for being too ideological and, paradoxically, too willing to compromise with Clinton (22).

It was in this climate that the neo-conservatives were able to ‘hijack’ the Republican Party. The neo-conservatives were originally Democrats and radicals who became disenchanted with the left’s position on the Cold War as well as its culturalist turn in the 1970s. Irving Kristol famously said a neo-conservative was ‘a liberal who has been mugged by reality’. Seeing the New Left as degenerate, and the Democratic Party as weak, they tracked right in the 1980s. Ideologically committed to the welfare state, social liberalism, national strength, and a ‘freedom and democracy’ foreign policy, they hoped they might find a place for such views in the Republican Party. Intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz became important theorists of the Reagan Revolution, and others, like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, became members of the Reagan administration.

In the 1990s, neoconservatives saw their influence grow as the Republican Party floundered around for a new ideological purchase. Their ascendance within the Bush administration had as much to do with the political weakness of other segments of the party, as their own political strength. Danny Postel notes: ‘”the neocons ‘got to’ Bush after 9-11″, a senior Republican strategist says, because “they were the only guys with a plan.”‘ (23). Indeed, neo-cons like William Kristol had originally supported John McCain against Bush in the 2000 Republican primary because they believed McCain to be more interventionist, and McCain’s defeat was seen as a defeat of the neo-cons. But the party’s weakness gave organised and ideologically committed neo-cons a new lease of life.

Though the hold of specific neo-conservatives on the party may be weakening, their replacements are placeholders for a party increasingly unable to maintain a consistent set of political views and to hold together its disparate elements.

Senator John McCain last week said that after 9/11 ‘the pendulum of history swung toward a new era’. Only a party gripped by drift rather than mastery could believe that the apocalyptic violence of a few shadowy conspirators marked a significant change in the course of human history. It speaks volumes that the party went looking for purpose in a reactive response to external events rather than in any pro-active attempt to shape society.

It is Bush’s good luck that the Democrats have also been struck dumb by the debilitating force of our post-political age. Unable to come up with anything better than Bush’s lowest common denominator, they might just hand the Republicans another four years, after which this convention might be heralded as a masterful maneuver of grand strategy. But the Republicans have no real remedies for their political meanderings, of which the convention was the latest instance. The more they speak of strength and unity, the more hollow these homilies sound.

Read on:

spiked-issue: US election 2004

(1) Newsweek, 4 September 2004

(2) The Retreat of Empire, American Conservative, 13 September 2004

(3) Conservative Crack-Up, American Conservative, 17 November 2003

(4) Lawrence Eagleburger: Bush Should be Impeached if He Attacks Syria, Mirror 14 April 2004

(5) Rock-ribbed Republican – and anti-Bush, Salon, 13 December 2002

(6) 2nd year of ‘long hard slog’, Portland Independent Media Centre

(7) Rumsfeld must resign, Kenosha News Focus

(8) U.S. study foresaw pitfalls in Iraq, IHT, 20 October 2003

(9) ‘Lack of Resolution in Iraq Finds Conservatives Divided’, David D Kirkpatrick, The New York Times, 19 April 2004

(10) Exit neocons, stage left, Brainwash, 22 August 2004

(11) Retiring GOP Rep.: Iraq War Unjustified, Guardian, 18 August 2004

(12) Comments made in a speech at the American Political Science Association
conference, 3 September 2004

(13) Wall Street Republicans Grow Cool on Bush’s Campaign, FT

(14) ‘How To Reinvent the GOP’, David Brooks, The New York Times, 29 August 2004

(15) ‘How To Reinvent the GOP’, David Brooks, The New York Times, 29 August 2004

(16) Among the Neocons, American Conservative, 21 April 2003

(17) Look who’s feuding, American Prospect, 1 July 2004

(18) Look who’s feuding, American Prospect, 1 July 2004

(19) ‘How To Reinvent the GOP’, David Brooks, The New York Times, 29 August 2004; Look who’s feuding, American Prospect, 1 July 2004

(20) The Hijacking of the Republican Party, Future of Freedom Foundation, 27 August 2004

(21) Is it time to bring back gridlock?,, 27 August 2004

(22) Republican Party – 1884-present

(23) Look who’s feuding, American Prospect, 1 July 2004

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Topics Politics


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