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Fleecing the yokels

Yesterday’s solutions don’t fit today’s problems

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 4:58 a.m. CDT

Political parties rarely vanish altogether, and hardly ever over a single election cycle. So the demise of the Republicans as a national organization is probably exaggerated.

At minimum, its strength across the old Confederacy and what Mencken called the “Cow States” should enable the GOP to keep Congress semi-paralyzed and the shrinking Fox News audience in a state of incipient hysteria even as it fights internal battles of surpassing nastiness.

In that sense, the fight over Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense and Sen. John McCain’s erratic quest to turn the Benghazi tragedy into a huge scandal are symptomatic: all word games, question-begging and make-believe indignation aimed not at governance, but TV appearances.

For all the theatrics, Republican Senators apparently won’t filibuster their former colleague’s nomination indefinitely. I expect most are privately appalled at seeing freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz question Hagel’s loyalty -- something I doubt he’d have the temerity to say anywhere except in front of a TV camera.

On “Meet the Press,” David Gregory asked McCain to stipulate what he thinks the Obama administration’s hiding about the Benghazi incident.

“A cover-up of what?”

“Of the information concerning the deaths of four brave Americans,” McCain sputtered.

What else could he say? The idea that the White House refused to call the assault on the U.S. Consulate a terror attack has been a media put-up job driven by the dark arts of selective quotation and malicious paraphrase. People who really care have long since figured that out; those who haven’t probably can’t.

Beyond mischief-making, however, there are signs that conservative thinkers are beginning to challenge moribund Republican orthodoxy. The water is moving under the ice. Heterodox opinions once limited to former GOP operatives like David Frum and Bruce Bartlett have started appearing all over.

Consider this shocking passage about tax rates by National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru in the New York Times:

“When Reagan cut rates for everyone, the top tax rate was 70 percent and the income tax was the biggest tax most people paid. Now neither of those things is true: For most of the last decade the top rate has been 35 percent, and the payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people. Yet Republicans have treated the income tax as the same impediment to economic growth and middle-class millstone that it was in Reagan’s day.”

Ponnuru adds that GOP “tight-money” fundamentalism and scare talk about runaway inflation make absolutely no sense after five years of near-nonexistent inflation. When it comes to fiscal matters, in short, Republicans are confronting today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions, substituting dogma for problem-solving, and excommunicating heretics instead of encouraging independent thought. If Ponnuru can’t quite bring himself to agree with President Obama about the need for economic stimulus, at least he doesn’t sound like a parrot.

Far less polite is former GOP congressional staffer Michael S. Lofgren, who delivers himself of a veritable jeremiad in the Huffington Post.

“As with many religions,” Lofgren writes, “political parties have a tendency to start as a movement, transform into a business, and finally degenerate into a racket designed to fleece the yokels. One organization which has gone out of its way to illustrate this evolution is the Republican Party.”

If that doesn’t clear your sinuses, Lofgren’s title might do it: “Scientology for Rednecks: What the GOP Has Become.” Now as a matter of principle, I dislike the term “redneck,” an offensive ethnic insult like any other. A writer is on shaky ground objecting to racially coded attacks upon President Obama while using a term like it to characterize Republican voters.

Lofgren’s larger point, however, is well taken. “Compared to the current crop of congressional GOP freshmen and sophomores, even George W. Bush looks like Henry Cabot Lodge.” Republicans have allowed themselves to become the anti-science party, indebted to tycoon-funded “think tanks” and in thrall to paranoid talk-radio ravers who encourage its dwindling voter base to see themselves as a “martyr-like ... persecuted remnant of Real Americans.”

In consequence, GOP True Believers have rendered themselves incapable of noticing “the complete failure during the last 30 years of tax cuts for the wealthy to increase revenue, kick-start economic growth, or help the middle class.” They’re getting screwed, and blaming the wrong people.

Writing in The New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus launches an even more fundamental critique. “Conservatism Is Dead,” he writes, replaced by “inverse Marxists” preaching backward-looking utopianism that promises a return to an America that never existed.

In a companion piece entitled “Original Sin,” he laments that “the party of Lincoln — of the Gettysburg Address, with its reiteration of the Declaration’s assertion of equality and its vision of a ‘new birth of freedom’ — has found sustenance in Lincoln’s principal intellectual and moral antagonist. It has become the party of (John C.) Calhoun.”

That is to say, of “nullification” and the Confederate States of America.

(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.)

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