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Reagan's Second Act 

by Sidney Blumenthal & r & There is no one left to rescue the Republican Party from George W. Bush. He is home alone. The Republican-establishment wise men whose words were once quiet commands are shouting unheeded warnings. The Republican leaders of Congress are distracted and obsessed with their own crises of corruption.


On Aug. 7, 1974, three Republican leaders of Congress made a fateful journey down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Sen. Barry Goldwater, tribune of the conservative movement; Sen. Hugh Scott, the stalwart minority leader from Pennsylvania; and Rep. John Rhodes, the minority leader in the House, informed President Richard Nixon that as a result of the Watergate scandals he must resign the presidency in the interest of the country and the Republican Party. Two days later, Nixon quit.


On Nov. 25, 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese announced at a White House press conference that tens of millions of dollars from illegal sales of weapons to Iran had been siphoned to Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua by a far-flung conspiracy centered in the National Security Council. National Security Advisor John Poindexter immediately resigned and NSC military aide Oliver North was fired. Within the next month, President Reagan's popularity rating had collapsed from 67 to 46 percent; it did not recover until a year and a half later, in May 1988, when he negotiated an arms control treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and traveled to Moscow to declare the Cold War over. After the revelation of the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan purged his administration of right-wingers and neoconservatives in particular. The Republican establishment in all its aspects took control.


The storm enveloping President Bush is a consequence of his adoption of the vicious smear tactics of the Nixon political operation, learned there by Karl Rove, who was called as a witness to testify about them before the Watergate inquiry, and of Bush's elevation to power of the neoconservatives removed by Reagan and excluded from office by Bush's father. Bush is haunted by the history he insisted on defying.


The elements of the Republican establishment that Bush brought into his first administration as a sort of symbolic tribute were gone by his second. By their nature, these people are discreet, measured and private. Their sweeping and emotional jeremiads against what Bush has wrought are extraordinary, not only in their substance but in having been made at all. They stand for another Republican Party that has been supplanted by Bush's version.


They include Paul O'Neill, Bush's first secretary of the Treasury; Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey; John Danforth, who served briefly before resigning as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations; Lawrence Wilkerson, the former head of the Marine War College who had served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell; and, most recently, Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor to the elder Bush and among his closest friends.


George W. Bush's highhanded treatment of the few Republican moderates of his first term all but eviscerated what was left of the establishment that once controlled the party. The story of the old party's fall from grace and Bush's part in it is a well-known bildungsroman, a family saga that begins with the father.


The son of Prescott Bush, a patrician moderate Republican senator from Connecticut and a Wall Street investment banker, George H.W. Bush traveled to Texas to make his fortune in the wildcat oil industry. He was hardly a roaring success, but he took up his father's line of work, getting elected to the House from suburban Houston. It was then that he opened the negotiations of his Faustian bargain. His father had been the head of the United Negro College Fund; he and his wife were prominent members of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood. But George Bush Sr., seeking political advantage in Texas, declared his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bush spent the next decade advancing himself as a consummate Republican loyalist in positions ranging from chairman of the Republican National Committee under Nixon to Gerald Ford's CIA director and United Nations ambassador. After losing the Republican presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he swallowed his criticism of Reagan's supply-side nostrums as "voodoo economics" when he became his running mate.


The Faustian negotiations deepened. In 1988, he ran for president as Reagan's anointed successor. Faltering on his own, with unenthusiastic backing from Reagan's evangelical supporters, he ran a series of racially charged attacks on his Democratic opponent. Bush won that election with the right-wing Republican base voting for him but still doubtful of his authenticity. As president his compromises on taxation and realism in foreign policy led to their open disillusionment.


His son George lost his first campaign for the House from Texas, tainted by association with his father, who was tarnished by the right as a member of the Trilateral Commission international conspiracy. From then on, Bush was never outmaneuvered on his right flank. His political field marshal, Karl Rove, managed the right wing for his benefit. The Faustian bargain of the father became business as usual for the son.


The Republican Party after Bush, minus its traditional establishment, threatens to become the party of its irreducible base, the party of the old Confederacy and the sparsely populated Rocky Mountain states. But this base, however loyal, does not offer statesmen to step in to handle his shaken White House.


A sharp reversal of policy and turnover in personnel are the only actions that may enable Bush to salvage the shipwreck of his presidency, as they did for Reagan. But bringing in the elders, even if they could be summoned, would be psychologically devastating to Bush, a humiliating admission that his long history of recklessness and failure, from the Texas Air National Guard to Harken Energy, with rescue only through the intervention of his father and his father's friends, has reached its culmination.





A longer version of this column first appeared on & lt;a href="http://www.salon.com " & Salon & lt;/a & .

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