What a difference a few years makes. Suddenly the Republican Party that dominated Congress and the White House for so long finds itself torn asunder from within as ultraconservative neocons like former Vice President Dick Cheney do battle with moderates such as Colin Powell for the future, if there is one, of their formerly Grand Old Party.
Here in Montana, the demise of the Republican Party has not been particularly evident. After all, the Republicans managed to capture a majority in the Senate and a 50-50 split in the House of Representatives last election cycle, while the rest of the country was going to Democrats big time. And while it’s true they lost every statewide race except Denny Rehberg’s congressional seat, they managed to keep the state from going to Barack Obama despite his tremendous campaign effort here and his multiple appearances throughout the state.
But even though they held on in the tough times, the same problems that afflict the national GOP have been evident here for some time. Take the disastrous 2007 Legislature, for instance. As most Montanans will recall, the session gridlocked after a tremendous battle between Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the thin Republican majority in the House. That standoff ended when, after the 90-day session had expired, Schweitzer sent political operatives out to wheedle a few moderate Republicans into voting for his budget. He then immediately called a special session and, with the handful of Republican votes he needed, got his budget approved.
What happened afterward, however, was telling. Those few Republicans who broke ranks to vote with Schweitzer were dubbed the “Log Cabin Republicans” because they held their secret meeting with the governor’s operatives in a log cabin on a ranch owned by former Rep. John Ward. Truth be told, Ward and his moderate pals were doomed from the moment the plot was revealed, and they each became targets for retribution from hard-core Republicans.
In last fall’s election, most of the Republican legislators that voted with Schweitzer faced primary opponents and, in the end, many of them, including Ward, didn’t come back to Helena in ’09. The Republican trend toward extremism continued without them, however, as we saw in the myriad party-line votes. Most notably, the extremely popular initiative to expand Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) coverage to more children was held hostage—despite the overwhelming approval by 70 percent of Montanans at the polls.
Did the Republican leadership really think it was a smart idea to ignore the vote of the people on CHIP? Do they really think it’s a good idea to gut our environmental laws in favor of wide-open industrial energy development? Did they really think citizens should take second place to industry when it comes to gravel pits, coal and hard rock mines, oil and gas wells, and the pollution such activities commonly produce? Apparently they did, because that’s how they voted en masse.
Now we turn to the national stage, where the ever-scowling Cheney decides it’s time to take on President Obama with the worn-out tactic of eternal fear that worked so well during the disastrous Bush administration. Torture? Not a problem. Transparency? No how, no way. Admit errors, lies and the enormous tactical blunders of two un-winnable and unconscionable wars? Not even on the table.
The nation and world, however, appear to have moved on—even if hard-core radicals like Cheney and Rush Limbaugh have not. In a recently released survey by the Pew Research Center, the reality of the damage the party has done to itself through the leadership of extreme right-wingers is evident. Only 22 percent of Americans now call themselves Republicans. Just to put that in perspective, that’s about four points higher than the approval rating once garnered by former Republican Gov. Judy Martz toward the end of her single term in office and it’s three points higher than the approval rating George W. Bush had in February 2008.
What that means is that the same people who thought Bush was doing a wonderful job while he was trashing the environment, ruining the economy, spying on our own citizens without warrants and spending billions every week on foreign wars, are about what’s left of the Republican Party. Sad but true.
Powell, meanwhile, once seen as a national hero for his leadership during the first Iraq War under President George H.W. Bush, is now on the stump trying desperately to turn his party back toward the middle. While Powell’s image and words are a breath of fresh air compared to the drivel being spewed by the Republican fringe-dwellers, his credibility isn’t what it used to be. Remember, it was Powell, in his position as Secretary of State and in coordination with then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, who played a key role in pushing the country into the Iraq War by disseminating blatantly inaccurate information in nationally broadcast speeches. He eventually paid for that mistake by resigning from the Bush administration in 2004, but a far higher price has been paid by those who lost their lives or came home with grievous injuries from that senseless war, to say nothing of the continuing drain of billions of dollars a week.
From all appearances, Powell is going to lose this battle, too. If all that’s left of those who call themselves Republicans is the minority who think Limbaugh, Bush, Cheney and Rice were heroes, you’re basically down to nothing but the far, far right and their radical views on everything from marriage to global warming to religion. Fortunately, there simply aren’t enough of them to keep the party viable for much longer.
Unfortunately, the Republican march to extinction is unlikely to be good for this country. Too many times we have had stunning examples of terrible policy errors spawned by one party control of the state and nation. On the other hand, given the extremities to which the dwindling Republicans continue to cling, America may well be better off without the GOP.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org