Politics & Policy

Bland Old Party

Bipartisan move to the center.

Behold: We have entered the Age When Dinos and Rinos Rule the Earth. See them battle each other for absolute dominion!

Though this might sound like a cool monster mash of the “Mechagodzilla versus Godzilla” variety, it’s a good deal less exciting and more depressing, like a taste test between 2% milk and soy milk. What we are witnessing is the dawn of the boring phase of the Great Republican Realignment, and it promises to have liberals and conservatives alike going bonkers.

I should back up. Dinos, of course, are “Democrats in Name Only.” Rinos are their GOP counterparts. Nobody actually ever admits to being a Republican in name only. Rather, these are epithets used to describe politicians of insufficient ideological purity or partisan backbone. Think David Gergen without the smoldering sexual intensity. Or, if you can’t, think moderates, squishes, apostates, New York Times-pleasing “mavericks,” centrists, and all the others who want to “get beyond labels” or get a standing ovation from the Brookings Institution.

Galloping toward the center is nothing new in American politics. The parties have always regressed to the mean. The center of gravity is in the, uh, center. What’s changed is that the center has–finally–been moving an eensy bit to the right.

But not too much. People forget now, but President Bush’s compassionate conservatism was never intended to be radical, it was meant to be the Republican version of feel-your-pain Clintonism. If Bush’s domestic spending were a Broadway musical, reviewers would call it “Lavish!” and “Spectacular!” His big first-term domestic initiatives–aside from tax cuts–were an education bill cosponsored by Ted Kennedy, campaign finance “reform” favored by the sensible-shoes types and the biggest expansion in entitlements (prescription drug benefits) since the Great Society.

Now, you wouldn’t know any of this from listening to Democrats and vast swaths of the mainstream media. If you went by this crowd, you might imagine George W. Bush and Dick Cheney swaddled in ermine robes, drinking blood-red wine from golden goblets as they pored over maps of the world plotting new conquests and singling out whistle-blowing CIA agents for the lash and the gibbet.

And the congressional GOP, we’ve been told, is little better than a horde of Cotton Mathers determined to burn down the nation under the twin banners of Terri Schiavo and creationism.

This anti-Bush huffing and puffing has been caused in part by an overreaction to the Iraq war and liberal terror over losing the courts. But much of the rage can also be traced to an overcompensating bitterness over small differences. In much the same way the Marxist English professor is suddenly deeply troubled by the slightly less Marxist ideology of the colleague who unfairly got a better office, many liberals are more angered by the fact Republicans are running the government than they are about Republican policy. It just seems wrong! Republicans don’t even like government!

This isn’t to say there haven’t been some big victories for the conservative wing of the GOP over the last five years. Tax cuts, judges, John Bolton, the blocking of the Kyoto Protocol and watching Dan Rather dismantle himself like a robot ordered to put himself back in the box: good times, good times.

But you know, when tectonic plates smash into each other, there are earthquakes and, after that, it’s slow inexorable grinding, with little chunks breaking off of one side and then the other now and then. That’s where conservatives are now: the slow, grinding phase.

If you average out the spikes in the political Richter scale, the trends have been obvious for more than a decade: The Democrats are becoming a minority party. The 1990s saw them hemorrhage power in the House, Senate, state legislatures, etc., even as Bill Clinton moved his party to the right on many of its core issues. Even this month’s Democratic election victories are at best preservations of the status quo. In Virginia, the winner of the governor’s race was a nominally pro-life Dino replacing another Dino. These centrist Democrats understand that listening to the base of their party would be electoral suicide. Not exactly champagne wishes and caviar dreams for the crowd at the Nation.

And we aren’t drinking out of slippers here on the right either. Bush is a lame duck, Social Security reform is dead, the dreams of the revolution come up only when we gather around the campfire to sigh about what might have been. The Rinos are in charge now. Drilling in ANWR was pulled from the House appropriations budget, tax-cut extensions in the Senate were crushed in deference to the fearsome clout of … Olympia Snowe. Even on judges, the power players are the Gang of 14 centrists and Rinos like Arlen Specter. It was Specter, not Kennedy, who gave John G. Roberts Jr. the toughest questions during his hearings.

The most depressing prospect is that this will be the status quo for years to come. Liberals will shriek about GOP radicalism and conservatives will whine about the lack of it. And we’ll all have to make do with 2% milk.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


The Latest