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'Why the Right Went Wrong' parses the frustration of today's GOP

Dionne bases his premise on the rightward shift of conservatism since the Goldwater years of the 1960s.

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    Why the Right Went Wrong
    By E.J. Dionne Jr.
    Simon & Schuster
    501 pp.
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Talk about perfect timing. Just as an unusually unpredictable primary season kicks off, and as the current Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz frustrate and scare members of their own party with anti-establishment rhetoric, here comes liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. with an account of the GOP’s internal tension.

The publishing gods, or at least serendipity, are smiling upon the author and Simon & Schuster.

Dionne bases his premise on the rightward shift of conservatism since the Goldwater years of the 1960s – a chronic condition he attributes to Republicans demanding smaller and smaller government even as presidents from within their party have proved again and again that it is all but politically impossible to end programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

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For any of his fellow Democrats who might celebrate this Republican dilemma, Dionne advises them to consider this long-term forecast.

“Our current political system is most likely to produce Democratic presidents and Republican congresses,” he writes. “The increasingly conservative character of the Republican Party makes fierce opposition to a Democratic executive inevitable.”

Put another way, the resignation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner last fall, along with President Obama’s late-term strategy of ignoring Congress, are more likely harbingers of the future rather than anomalies. So we have that to look forward to.

Dionne is, mostly, out of central casting in his political perspective. He was born in Boston, earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard and was also a Rhodes Scholar. Before he became a columnist at the Post, Dionne wrote for The New York Times. When it comes to progressive checklists, Dionne fits the bill in every way short of having the surname Kennedy.

Except, that is, for one interesting biographical detail mentioned early in his book: Dionne calls himself an “unapologetic liberal” but points out that he “grew up as a conservative in a conservative family.”

Granted, this is unlikely to make any difference to Republicans who may read Dionne’s book, but it is interesting to hear him profess “a respect for conservative tradition.” Or, to add, as he describes his concerns about what he believes is a Republican party far too rigid in its ethos, “I continue to believe that a healthy democratic order needs conservatism’s skepticism about the grand plans we progressives sometimes offer.”

He just doesn’t want the current incarnation of conservatism. The premise of Dionne’s book is to explain how and why Republicans have been disappointed and frustrated since US Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona lost to LBJ in the 1964 election while running on a platform much more conservative than the party’s Eisenhower wing.

Presidents Nixon and Reagan both realized Republican ambitions, but also frustrated them.

Nixon famously went to China and the Soviet Union while Reagan proclaimed big government and deficits to be devastating even as his two terms resulted in still-bigger government and larger deficits. Though Nixon and Reagan hewed to GOP orthodoxy in many other instances, these deviations, especially in Nixon’s case, caused consternation among conservatives. Reagan did, in fact, cut social services and other government programs loathed by the right. But, he more than offset those cuts by ramping up military spending.

“The very theory the supply-siders rejected came to Reagan’s rescue and was immensely helpful to his political standing,” Dionne writes, using words capable of stirring strong opinion among conservatives and progressives alike. From Dionne’s perspective, “no politician has made the case for smaller government and lower taxes more effectively than Reagan did. That is why his ideological legacy endures. Yet a smaller government is precisely what he did not deliver. That is why conservatives remain frustrated.”

Dionne reasonably argues that Reagan’s popular but enigmatic tenure left his successor, George H.W. Bush, to endure the backlash of frustrated conservatives. The elder Bush, whom Dionne views as the last hope for moderate conservatism, angered many Republican voters by breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, a decision that proved politically devastating.

“As on so many matters, Reagan himself was not dogmatic on taxes,” he writes. “It was the ritual political punishment of George H.W. Bush on the tax issue by conservatives that established there could be no heresy of any kind on the question.”

That philosophical pivot led to Pat Buchanan challenging Bush in the 1992 campaign, motivated Ross Perot to jump in as an independent, and allowed a self-proclaimed New Democrat named Bill Clinton to make Bush a one-term president.

From there, the divide widened. Dionne details the up-and-down Clinton years, the Republican revolution in 1994 by Congressman Newt Gingrich and that majority’s subsequent overreach in response to the president’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. Along with talk radio and the ascendancy of the right-leaning Fox News cable network, conservatism grew “more aggressive,” the author writes.

Gingrich’s rise from House back-bencher to Speaker in the span of a few years stands, in Dionne’s view, as “the most durable of all the GOP’s breakthroughs.” He notes Democrats, until then, “controlled the House for 58 of the 62 years since FDR’s 1932 victory.”

Gingrich alienated voters in 1995 by backing a government shutdown in a budget standoff that left Clinton with renewed leverage and public support. And, when Gingrich and the GOP Congress compromised with the Clinton administration, harder-line conservatives balked and forced him out as speaker.

Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections after losing five of the previous six. With that in mind, along with cultural and legal shifts on gay marriage and universal health care, Dionne quotes conservative pundit Bill Kristol, who says, “The Reagan gains are pretty evanescent from a certain point of view.”

Population trends, all pointing toward continuing gains among minorities, bode ill for Republicans’ chances in presidential races, when more voters cast ballots. Mid-term races are an entirely different matter because of lower voter turnout and greater participation by older, more conservative voters.

Mounting pressure and resentment have only increased since the second Bush presidency, Dionne believes.

He notes the shift in policy expectations between George H.W. Bush’s era and that of his son a decade later. “No matter what was happening with the economy, it was always time for a tax cut.”

Saddled with what became unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and further hurt by issues such as going against the Republican dictum of states’ rights in the 2005 end-of-life health-care controversy involving a Florida woman named Terri Schiavo, the second Bush presidency came unraveled.

Struggles to adequately rescue and help victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast crushed Bush’s approval ratings while his bipartisan response to the 2008 financial crash – symbolized by the $700 billion bailout known as TARP – convinced many that yet another Republican president had wound up being too moderate.

Dionne includes a scathing summary of the three Republican congressmen who dubbed themselves “Young Guns” and published a book of the same name in 2010.

“What’s remarkable is that the book contained no second thoughts about policies and actions that had plainly hurt the Republicans in 2006 and 2008: the Iraq War, the Schiavo case, the handling of Hurricane Katrina, the tax cuts and the other economic policies that ended in the Great Recession.”

“Why the Right Went Wrong” is particularly interesting in its assessment of the past decade. Dionne dismisses many commentators’ equivocation of left-right populist anger when considering the Occupy Wall Street movement and that of the tea party. The former sprang up from grassroots frustration and anger with both parties while the latter resulted from organized campaigns by overwhelmingly conservative, highly partisan Republicans. One of the most visible early rallying cries came from CNBC’s Rick Santelli during a segment in February 2009 that aired from the Chicago Board of Trade.

Santelli ripped federal mortgage-relief programs and said that President Obama’s month-old administration had set out to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages.” Then, he called on the investors who make up the majority of CNBC’s audience to join him in what he billed as a Chicago Tea Party.

“Inciting oppressed capitalists to the barricades was not the normal way of starting a revolution,” Dionne writes.

He has some qualms with Obama and the Democrats, starting with the president’s foolhardy propensity for early concessions when negotiating with Congress.

And, Dionne, as many others have noted, finds fault with Obama’s extended bouts of disinterest. The president too often turns his full attention, and rhetorical gifts, to a cause only after falling far behind in public opinion.

When he engages, as he did after losing the first debate of 2012 to Mitt Romney, or as he did in 2015 on health care, gay marriage, the environment, a nuclear treaty with Iran, and free trade, Obama can be very effective, notes Dionne. At other times, such as with his reactions and policies in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Obama and his advisers have failed to find the right solutions. In other cases, particularly with the economic disaster he inherited and the programs he supported to stop the bleeding (but not, apparently, the political bleating), Obama failed to hammer home what and why he did often enough, allowing Republicans to shift the conversation from Wall Street’s malfeasance and middle-class struggles to arguments over deficits and debt ceilings.

The book is up to the moment, including more than a few references to the unexpected rise of Donald Trump in the current campaign.

Dionne illustrates both parties’ weaknesses. Republicans, he writes, continue to lack any traction with non-white voters. Think of Romney’s infamous self-deportation remark in 2012 killing off what was left of the GOP Latino vote and, in recent months, Trump, and Calgary-born rival Ted Cruz, calling for much harsher actions. Democrats face the opposite problem: working-class white voters have shown little to no interest in the party despite liberals’ near-constant emphasis on education and income-equality.

And, since we still must live with the Carvillian pronouncement of, “It’s the economy, stupid,” that is the crux of what no one on the left or on the right has been able to solve: How can four-plus decades of stagnant wages and diminished opportunity for most Americans be reversed? Whoever figures out how to right that wrong, predicts Dionne, stands to tower over his or her peers for many years to come.

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