Home/Daniel Larison/Derailed


For the last year, Republicans have worked, assiduously and effectively, to derail the Democrats’ legislative agenda. This, in fact, was a constant in Axelrod’s remarks. “They made a decision they were going to sit it out and hope that we failed, that the country failed.” It’s been an inarguable success for the Republican Party. Health-care reform is on life support. Republicans just won a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Election experts are beginning to talk about a potential Republican takeover in November. There is no case to be made that the GOP is in a worse position than a year ago. ~Ezra Klein

It occurs to me that the arguments for recent GOP successes are rather like Republican arguments concerning our wars abroad. Bear with me. What I mean is that Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning. This is how many Republican hawks have approached problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially in Iraq, the strategy has always been unclear, unrealistic or even non-existent, so there is great emphasis on finding tactics that “work” to make a basically incoherent policy seem successful on the surface.

The Republican glorification of the “surge” is a case in point. A change in tactics was widely hailed on the right not only as a “new strategy,” which showed that the people saying this did not understand what strategy was, but most Republicans took it to be a vindication of the entire war. Tactical success later matters more to them than the strategic folly they committed earlier. It is almost as if resisting Obama tooth and nail counts for more to them than the utter failure of their time in government, and they fully expect to be rewarded with a new chance at governing on account of their blocking maneuvers. As time goes on, however, the limits of this approach become clear. Having no understanding of strategy and no definition of the long-term goals to be achieved, they are ultimately not going to succeed in any remotely enduring way. Tactical victories simply delay the final reckoning and prevent the recognition that the policy or agenda is bankrupt and useless.

So Klein is right that as far as short-term, tactical success is concerned the last few months have been very good for the GOP. However, nothing could be worse for the GOP than the illusion of success under present circumstances. Worse than learning nothing from the last two elections, the GOP has learned the wrong things. Republicans made up a self-serving story that the public turned against them because of excessive spending. This permitted them to ignore the real reasons for their defeats. Aggressive foreign policy and loose monetary policy, among other things, remain as sacrosanct and beyond reproach in the GOP as they were in the early Bush years. Not recognizing their past errors, the GOP will make them again and again in the future, and they will attempt to cover these mistakes with temporary, tactical solutions that simply put off the consequences of their terrible decisions until someone else is in office. They will then exploit the situation as much as they possibly can, pinning the blame for their errors on their hapless inheritors and hoping that the latter are so pitiful that they retreat into yet another defensive crouch.

Is the GOP in a worse position than a year ago? On the surface, no, it isn’t. Once we get past the surface, however, the same stagnant, intellectually bankrupt, unimaginative party that brought our country to its current predicament is still there and has not changed in any meaningful way in the last three years. Why would it? The party’s leaders have no clue, its pundits are reveling in the luxury of opposition, and its rank-and-file has been whipped into such a state of agitation over their own impotence that they cannot see that they are led by people who will ignore and abuse them the moment they are no longer needed to win elections. It may seem that the GOP has derailed the majority’s agenda, but in reality it is the GOP that went off the rails long ago and has yet to begin to recover.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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