Posted by: David Offutt | August 13, 2009

What has become of the Loyal Opposition?

President Barack Obama seems determined to resolve our multiple crises in a bipartisan manner. In a democratic-republic such as ours, politics is the art of compromise. No one party ever represents all of the people. The concerns of the loyal opposition must be taken into consideration, and rarely should the majority party get most of what it wants without giving up something.

However, at some point, Mr. Obama is going to have to face the reality that the Republican Party simply doesn’t believe in bipartisanship or compromise. If they do compromise, their purpose is to sabotage a bill so that it won’t be as effective as it should be. Once they’ve emasculated the bill, they still won’t vote for it. A potential one million jobs was cut from the Recovery Act to gain Republican support, but then only three Republicans supported it. One of them, Arlen Specter, was essentially driven from the party.

Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan and a Republican Senate majority in 1980, the Republicans have moved increasingly farther to the right and have rejected moderation on virtually every issue. The purge of the moderates from the party that began in 1980 resulted in the Republicans having only five moderates by the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. The only Republicans who voted not guilty were Arlen Specter, Jim Jeffords, Lincoln Chaffee, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins. The rest of the Senate Republicans voted in lockstep with the party’s political agenda to weaken the president. Now that they recently got rid of Specter, only Snowe and Collins remain.

The party still consists of many conservatives, but it’s the radical-reactionaries who call the shots (like House Minority Leader John Boehner). They are radical (extreme left) because they believe that any Republican president should have no restrictions and that any Democratic president should be subject to parliamentary approval. But, they are mostly reactionary (extreme right) because of their desire to return the country to the “Gilded Age” of the 1880s and 1890s.

George Washington opposed the formation of political parties because he feared they would be factions designed to divide the people. From time to time, throughout our history, he has appeared to have been correct. Had he been around the last thirty years or so, he would certainly have been in a position to say “I told you so.”

Former Sen. Barry Goldwater, a  conservative Republican from Arizona (presidential candidate in 1964)

Former Sen. Barry Goldwater, a conservative Republican from Arizona (presidential candidate in 1964)

For the Election of 1988, George H. W. Bush turned his campaign over to two dirty tricksters, Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes (now running Fox “News”), to lie and distort Democratic nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis’s record and positions. The idea was to drive up Dukakis’s negative poll ratings so the public would perceive Bush as the lesser of two evils. The Republicans used that same tactic before the recent Election of 2008 – but unsuccessfully. However, they are still continuing, and it is now beginning to have some effect on Obama’s popularity.

One evening during the 1988 campaign, two guests appeared on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS to discuss the campaign: former liberal Democratic senator from South Dakota George McGovern and former conservative Republican senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater. As I recall, the conversation went something like this: McGovern said, “Barry and I don’t disagree over what the country needs; we just disagree over how to go about doing it.” Goldwater added, “George, you and I need to run again to show these people today how a campaign should be run and what it should be about.” They understood what it meant to be the “loyal opposition.”

The Republican Party has a long history of having contempt for the concept of the “loyal opposition.” After the Civil War ended in 1865 and until the War of 1898, the Republicans labeled the Democratic Party as the party of rebellion and guilty of treason. After World War II ended in 1945 and until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Republicans demonized the Democrats for being “soft on communism.” In 1952, Sen. Joe McCarthy said the Democrats had been guilty of “twenty years of treason.”


Former Sen. George McGovern, a liberal Democrat from South Dakota (presidential nominee in 1972)

Former Sen. George McGovern, a liberal Democrat from South Dakota (presidential nominee in 1972)

The Republican Party reached another low after the Elections of 1994 when, for the first time in 40 years (since the McCarthy Era), it gained control of both houses of Congress. This was the Gingrich Revolution, named after Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, who suddenly became the speaker of the house in 1995. His methods had already earned him his moniker of “Gingrich Khan,” after the ruthless Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. “Politics as usual” was dead. Bipartisanship and compromise were over. As he said, “The president is irrelevant.”

Although they failed, Gingrich and his followers did everything they could to keep Bill Clinton from being an effective president. They even had a partisan Republican appointed as a special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who was personally dedicated to finding some reason to impeach him.

The Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 appointment of George W. Bush as president in 2000 moved the party even farther to the right by turning the country over to the neoconservatives. Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, hoped to permanently divide the nation between blue and red states by using emotional, cultural issues. The plan was to achieve a permanent, although small, Republican majority so they could rule indefinitely without compromise.

Right now, the Republican Party’s court jesters seem to be the principle voices of the party: Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck. None of them hide their desire to see the Obama administration fail in handling all the crises it inherited. If their outrageous madness isn’t bad enough, Newt Gingrich has reemerged as a frequent guest on interview shows as a representative of his party’s positions and is a threat to run for president. If you throw in former Vice President Dick Cheney, you have a scary lot as the faces of the party. Cheney is reasonably perceived as hoping that another 9/11-type attack will occur so that he can claim vindication for all the illegalities committed by his and George W. Bush’s co-presidency.

Currently, the closest thing we have to a loyal opposition is within the Democratic Party itself. The Blue-Dog Coalition, those who claim to be fiscal conservatives, is playing the role that is expected of a second party. They are challenging some of the proposals of the moderates and liberals who represent the majority of the Democratic Party. As long as they seek compromises due to the unique needs of their constituents, they may serve a valuable purpose. However, if they seek to undermine vital reforms and then vote with the Republican Party – which has become known as the party of “No” – they may do as much harm to the country and the planet as the Republicans already have.

by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published August 12, 2009, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.

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