The Gingrichites were a bunch of high school kids who got hooked on Ayn Rand and then forgot to grow out of it. They had obsessive personalities but no serious experience of the world, and this toxic combination led to a genuine, sincere, completely delusional belief that Atlas Shrugged wasn’t a monomaniacal flight of fancy, but a blueprint for society that could actually be put into practice. They were the guys who rant from soapboxes in Hyde Park, but with nice suits and silk ties. ~Kevin Drum

It is fascinating to peer into the mind of someone like Kevin Drum to see what he thinks Gingrich and DeLay represented.  They were apparently all libertarian teenage geeks caught in a time warp.  Unbeknownst to us, Dick Armey, an evangelical who would have made Ayn Rand spit blood with his references to God, was apparently John Galt.  This despite Newt Gingrich’s first speech as Speaker of the House (which is when he “lost” me, if he ever had me in the first place) where he praised the genius of FDR.  This despite the reality that the late ’90s saw small government conservatism in retreat–with the leadership being among those running away from it with the greatest haste.  Of the three, arguably only Dick Armey was ever really that serious about shrinking government and deregulation.  He was also the only who left Congress willingly when he finally saw clearly that he and his ideas were not getting any traction. 

I’ll grant you that Gingrich, DeLay and Armey are all rather odd characters, with Armey perhaps being the most normal of the three.  Meyer, whom Drum cites, makes a perfectly reasonable observation that none of the three was a big success in the private sector and none of them had ever served in the military.  In spite of their lack of extensive personal experience in these areas, they were even more enthusiastic for the rhetoric of The Market–not that they ever really put it into practice–and were very hawkish about anything and everything (Gingrich is, of course, still at it with his WWIII talk).  Again, Armey was probably the most principled libertarian-minded conservative of the three, and also the one least likely to buy into militaristic hoo-haw about how we have to fight to keep Kyrgyzstan American. 

While there is a certain unseemliness to the unrestrained enthusiasm for military conflict among those who have never served in the military, a lack of military experience and a generally hawkish attitude together do not therefore  necessarily make someone a hypocrite or fraud.  It may very well make them very bad judges of whether military action is required, and it may make them cavalier about the costs of war, because to them it is an abstract problem of “appeasement” and “resolve,” and the actual human costs of their policy preferences can be obscured by grand theoretical ideas of the Global Struggle Against (place name of the new Hitler here).  In point of fact, the foreign policy judgements of these three individuals have been routinely poor (I will note that, to his credit, Armey was the only one of the three to raise any objections about Iraq, but then to his everlasting discredit he sat down and shut up when he was told to), but this is not something that a stint in the Army would have fixed. 

Bob Dole was a genuine war hero, but this experience never provided him with any reason not to want to intervene on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims (indeed, the whole myth of stopping “genocide in Europe” probably evoked strong passions in those politicians who had served in WWII); Bush the Elder was also a WWII veteran, which did not help stop him from making what we see now to be a calamitous and fateful decision to intervene in the Gulf in 1990-91, nor did it make him reluctant to put American soldiers in harm’s way in Panama and Somalia for dubious or outrageously unjustifiable causes.  Again, the problem with these men was not their military service but the warped and misguided foreign policy ideas about projecting American power that they had absorbed during the Cold War and particularly the post-Vietnam era.        

I have no idea where Drum is coming up with all of these Randian references.  To the best of my knowledge, no post-’94 Republican or conservative has ever said an encouraging word about Ayn Rand or her books, much less taken those books as their blueprint for society.  Ayn Rand is the sort of ludicrous person we conservatives like to trot out every once in a while when we’re making fun of libertarians.  None of this is to say much on behalf of these Republican leaders.  Certainly, they can be faulted for many things, but excessive zeal for deregulation and government reduction cannot really be considered one of their flaws. 

To think of Tom DeLay, the gladhanding friend to corporations everywhere (and the man who said of the federal government ”we’ve pretty much pared it down to the bone” after Katrina!), as someone particularly concerned with freeing up market forces is to reveal yourself as a person who is satisfied with cheap stereotypes and the easy prejudices about your political opponents.  (It would be as if I said that Nancy Pelosi should put down her copy of Das Kapital, stop worshipping the Moon Goddess and start paying attention to reality.)  When many libertarians and small government conservatives talk about The Market and deregulation, they actually are thinking about encouraging a wide range of economic activity and encouraging “growth” (a view that has its own problems, but that is not my point here); when someone like DeLay talks about it, he means very simply making life easier for large corporations.  (Likewise, that is what being “pro-market” means among the New Democrats.)  If the Republican leaders of the last 12 years have had a fictional economic model in mind as they go about their business, it has looked a lot more like the world of Shadowrun than that of Atlas Shrugged.