Howard Baker died in late June. The former Tennessee senator was one of the last moderate/moderate conservatives in the Republican Party. He is best remembered as the co-chair of the Senate Watergate Committee (1973-74) who asked about his fellow Republican Richard Nixon: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” He became known as the “Great Conciliator” and, as Senate Minority Leader (1977-81), helped Jimmy Carter get ratification of the extremely important Panama Canal treaties. Majority Leader (1981-85), he retired in 1985 before his party finished its purge of people like him who actually believed in public service.
I wish he were equally remembered for helping us get through the last two years of the Reagan administration, which had virtually collapsed during the Iran-Contra Affair (a scandal that appeared to be more constitutionally serious than Watergate). He gave up a possible bid for the presidency to become Reagan’s White House Chief of State and restored order out of criminality and incompetence. He never wrote a tell-all about the mess he inherited and never took personal credit for his actions. He always gave the clueless, but appreciative, Reagan credit for everything.
Because I lived in eastern Arkansas in 1972 and 1978 when Baker was campaigning for re-election to the Senate, much of my television news came from stations in Memphis. I recall a TV ad in which he told a group of senior citizens that as long as he was in Congress they would never have to worry about losing their Social Security or Medicare benefits. Can you imagine any Republican saying that today? It would be a political kiss of death.
In stark contrast to Howard Baker who led a loyal opposition, Eric Cantor rose to power as the House Republican Majority Leader using strictly extreme partisanship. Since 2010, he worked tirelessly to prevent the House of Representatives from ever taking constructive action on anything that might solve any of our numerous problems: high unemployment, low wages, our deteriorating infrastructure, domestic violence, et al. Although extremely influential, he was practically anonymous. A few years ago, he was the answer to a clue on TV’s Jeopardy. The contestants on that show are always knowledgeable people, but not one of the three knew who Cantor was.
Ironically, Cantor was considered to be the TEA Party’s heir apparent to the inept John Boehner as Speaker of the House. But Cantor had the same flaw as Boehner – as perceived by the Fox-TEA Party wing. They each have had moments when they remembered that they really should help govern rather than sabotage the country – like when the debt ceiling needs to be raised to allow the U.S. to pay its debts and prevent our becoming a failed, deadbeat nation. So Cantor wasn’t quite extreme enough and a little-known TEA Party challenger primaried him this summer and defeated him.
Shortly after his defeat, I was vacationing in Colorado at Valley View Hot Springs, near the one-street town of Villa Grove. Whenever I’m out there, I always drive into town for breakfast at its iconic trade store. There is one table in the café section that is always occupied by loud, coffee-drinking locals who discuss the current news together. One morning Cantor’s defeat was the major topic, but their dilemma was that none of them could figure out why he was so important. They were all guessing wrong until I finally had enough and blurted out from two tables over that he was the Republican House Majority Leader.
Poor Cantor – he was hardly known by anyone outside Washington right up to his political end. But it’s not his professional end. He not only quickly resigned his leadership position but, as of August 18, his district seat as well. He’s going to make millions on Wall Street, officially working for those whom he’s been effectively working for all along.
In a dictatorship, there is only one way to do things. The four-year Republican majority in the House has been wasting time scheming to privatize or end the social safety net, voting repeatedly to repeal the newly acquired health insurance for eight million Americans, trying to eliminate all abortion options for women, attacking Hillary Clinton, and shutting down the government. Therefore, little time has remained to deal with much of anything else. Meanwhile, the Republicans in the Senate, while a minority, use the filibuster rule to require a 60 percent vote to move anything along, so nothing’s being done there either. It’s their way or no way.
In a democracy, all the people are supposed to have a voice. But if one of two major parties, like the Fox-Republican-TEA Party, decides to become the Party of No – as it did after Obama’s 2008 election – then we no longer have a democracy. Politics is the art of compromise, and compromise is the only way that democracy works. The former GOP has been taken over by Kamikazes, anarchists, and sociopaths who work solely for themselves and their wealthy donors, like the Koch brothers. Our former democracy has been replaced with a plutocracy.
For our democratic-republic to ever work again, we need a loyal opposition, not saboteurs. Sadly, we aren’t going to see any more Howard Bakers anytime soon. I’m reminded of what one of those guys at the Villa Grove Trade Store said: “The Republican Party won’t be able to properly function again until it gets rid of the TEA Party, like bad case of diarrhea.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published in the August 28, 2014, edition of the Arkansas Times as a letter to the editor and in the August 29, 2014, edition of the El Dorado News-Times as a Guest Column.