Frankly, I haven’t a clue whether David French’s characterization of the Republican Party before Trump is accurate or idiosyncratic. It’s not that I dispute what he has to say, but just don’t know as it was never my party and, aside from its presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain, offered nothing to suggest that I would ever consider supporting it. But David did, and this is what he thought he was supporting.
If you had asked me to describe the Republican Party, I would have answered something like this: At our best, we are a party that possesses a distinct conservative ideology and a commitment to character.
The ideology revolved around the three legs of the Reagan Republican stool: limited government, social conservatism and a strong national defense. The commitment to character was born out of the political conflicts of the Clinton years, in which conservatives were furious that Democrats were willing to overlook or rationalize disgraceful and unlawful behavior by Bill Clinton. No one would claim that every conservative had character — we’ve seen far too many scandals to believe that — but I refused to believe that the G.O.P. would broadly excuse, rationalize or defend a Bill Clinton in our midst.
Was this right? Beats me. I was an unabashed liberal. But here’s the thing. Even when Reagan was president, and I was always of the view that Reagan was just a B-list actor playing a role reading what other people wrote on scripts handed to him, I realized that the thing that prevented the Democrats from going off the rails was the existence of a loyal opposition, a Republican Party that shared a love of America, its traditions, its people, its promise, but disagreed, often vehemently, about how to maintain and protect it.
What the Republicans provided were the limits to what a group of woolly-headed liberals like me might otherwise do without them. Put a bunch of people in a room who agree with each other and there is no one to tell us we’re wrong, we’ve gone too far, we’ve left the reality and gone deep into fantasyland. We need someone to call bullshit. to say no, to stop us from getting high off our own gas. That someone was the Republicans.
We needed them. We still do. And if David is right, and I strongly suspect he is, they are no longer there for us. This has led the Democrats down a very dangerous path of believing whatever pops into their heads is not merely a good idea, but critical to the survival of the universe.
I wasn’t just wrong; I was completely, embarrassingly wrong. The winds were shifting. I could sense it, but I didn’t fully understand it. Not until Trump made it all plain. The salient characteristic of the Republican Party wasn’t ideology or integrity, let alone both. Rather, it was animosity. And nobody models animosity better than Donald Trump.
It was no accident that the Republican Party had no platform in 2020. Remember Trump claiming he had a “beautiful” plan to replace Obamacare when he had no plan? Nothing. Remember infrastructure week that never was? Remember the wall he was going to build and Mexico was going to pay for? Remember how all his appointees were the best when he was appointing them and RINOs and birdbrains as they fled from Rex Tillerson’s “moron”?
And just yesterday, the border crisis compromise that absolutely demanded address was scuttled, together with funding for Ukraine and Israel, at Trump’s demand so as not to let anything positive happen on Biden’s watch. Crisis or not, Trump’s sole concern was Trump being re-elected. No, Texas, he doesn’t really love you.
This isn’t to say that the Republicans can’t choose Trump to be their standard bearer. They are entitled to pick whomever they want, no matter how much they make Bill Clinton appear to be sexually virtuous.
But it is to say that a political party without ideology, without purpose other than to get on one’s knees and fellate a fat orange man, cannot serve the purpose of a loyal opposition, a counterbalance to the excesses of the left and Biden’s own ambition. To the extent American democracy works, it requires two forces of relatively equivalent merit seeking to accomplish the same end, the formation of a more perfect union, even if they disagree how that goal is to be accomplished. Without a loyal opposition, democracy does not work.