Vichy Republicans and Lessons for 2016
Lost amid the exaggerated romance of the French Resistance lies the truth of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II: Thousands of French people resisted the invaders; many paid with their lives. Yet it’s also true that of all the Nazi-occupied countries, only Vichy France was allowed self-rule. And five French divisions marched with the Germans against the Allies.
The modern Republican Party can also be divided between the principled political warriors and those who prefer accommodation. These two factions have little in common culturally or ideologically. The main factor holding them together is a shared aversion to President Obama. But he will soon leave the stage, and it is questionable whether Hillary Clinton—or any other Democrat—will try so hard to earn the ire of Republicans.
While the impact of the divisions in the Republican Party has been explored ad infinitum, what hasn’t been explored is why there is a division, especially since the GOP was united as recently as January 1989, when President Reagan left office with a 68 percent approval rating and a political environment in which voters under 30 years of age identified more closely with the GOP than with the Democratic Party. The Republicans seemed poised to own the future.
Breaking historical precedent, Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, won what was widely perceived as a third Reagan term. Bush was the first veep to win following a two-term presidency since Martin Van Buren, who followed the popular Andrew Jackson. Tellingly, Van Buren was defeated for re-election, having failed to live up to Jackson’s legacy, just as Bush also failed to live up to Reagan’s legacy.
Bush’s “kinder and gentler” twaddle, raising taxes after pledging not to, expanding the scope of government, and unleashing Desert Storm—all these measures planted the seeds for future divisions within the party. It was symbolic, but telling, that Bush 41 agreed to increases in federal taxes on beer and cigarettes—but not on wine. Patrick J. Buchanan ran in the primaries and for a time scared the bejesus out of Bush.
Newt Gingrich reunified the GOP in 1993 and 1994 with not just opposition to Bill Clinton, but also with an explosion of new ideas to reform government and Capitol Hill, most of which the 104th Congress put into action. Gingrich himself called the 1994 elections a referendum on Reaganism.
George W. Bush ran in 2000 while calling for tax cuts—but without identifying specific cuts in any federal spending or the elimination of any federal programs. “Compassionate conservatism” took on a whole new meaning. No bureaucrat or lobbyist was left behind.
Bush lost the 2000 popular vote, but won it in 2004 as a wartime president. But 9/11 only papered over the deep differences inside the party. Proof that “compassionate conservatism” could be used a smoke screen for policies that were neither came in many forms. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Greek government kindly offered the use of luxury ships for some displaced residents of New Orleans. For free. The Bush Administration said thanks, but no thanks—and promptly awarded a $300 million contract to Carnival Cruise Lines, who conveniently had a Republican lobbyist.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration purchased thousands of trailers for other homeless city residents until it was discovered that the company had used formaldehyde in the manufacturing process—a carcinogenic—so they could not be occupied. Rather than forcing the manufacturer to purchase back the faulty trailers, the government stuck them in a huge empty lot in Arkansas, where they remain rotting to this day. Again, the trailer manufacturer had a handy Republican operative.
Currently, a culture war skirmish is taking place at George Washington University over mandatory attendance for student leaders at gay rights-promulgated sensitivity classes. The conservative Young America’s Foundation is resisting—and risking losing its funding—while the accommodationist College Republicans support it. The explanation for this capitulation was provided to the school newspaper by College Republicans chapter President Alex Pollock.
“Regardless of your views on LGBT people, LGBT people exist,” he said. “It should be mandatory from a sensitivity perspective.”
This is wrong on two levels. True conservatives already know that “LGBT people” exist and have no problem with them. What they have a problem with are left-wing university thought police who try to brainwash and bully their students, particularly young conservatives. As the
Weekly Standard noted puckishly, “When the revolution comes, Comrade Pollack can take some small measure of comfort in the fact that he is less likely to be first up against the wall.”
Meanwhile, a group of Jeb Bush-affiliated insiders have declared jihad against Rand Paul because he has the temerity to question how we conduct war, when we should be questioning which defense contractors these access sellers represent. These GOP operatives have no ideology and only bow down to money, access and celebrity.
This fight is not new. In November of 1975, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan announced he would challenge the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in the GOP primaries. Reagan was taking on more than Ford; he was taking on the culture of Washington.
“In my opinion, the root of these problems lies right here in Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a buddy system that functions for its own benefit—increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker who supports it with his taxes,” Reagan said. “Today, it is difficult to find leaders who are independent of the forces that brought us our problems—the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists, big business and big labor. If America is to survive and go forward, this must change.”
Reagan didn’t win that year, but neither did Ford. The GOP did win in 1980, 1984, and 1988. Traditionally, the party wins when it runs outsiders to the Washington Buddy System. Dwight Eisenhower was an authentic outsider; Richard Nixon didn’t win the nomination until he left Washington and ran as a critic of the place. Reagan, of course, was the quintessential outsider. If the GOP stays true to form and runs an insider as it did with John McCain and Mitt Romney, I predict it will lose and that millions of principled conservatives will walk—wanting nothing to do with the unprincipled money changers of the modern Republican Party.
On issue after issue, from abortion to trade to the Ex-Im Bank to Obamacare, the insiders invariably argue for “compromise.” They offer various explanations for why pragmatism is necessary “this time,” promising they will stand and fight “next time.” Next time never comes, though, except for the insiders’ corporate paymasters. They always pay on time.