In the days before the Republican Congress sent Republican President George Bush the most expensive new entitlement since Lyndon Johnson left office, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed a marriage of convenience for the GOP.
The bride to be? AARP, the seniors’ lobby. "I think this is one of the great historic moments," Gingrich gushed of the impending enactment of an AARP-approved Medicare prescription drug bill.
He even brought the new sweetie home to meet the kids. "Gingrich, speaking Wednesday to the regular weekly gathering of conservative leaders chaired by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform," reported Cox News Service, "called the AARP endorsement of the GOP bill ‘a shift in tectonic plates’ for politics, providing the Republican Party new opportunities to win votes with the elderly.
"The Georgia Republican," Cox reported, "told the group he has spent years reaching out to the AARP in the pursuit of Medicare reforms because the organization is one of the most powerful in Washington, with 35.5 million members over the age of 50."
The idea is that retirees (including those in the swing state of Florida) will be increasingly sympathetic to a Republican Party, aligned with AARP, that provides government benefits to retired people.
Future elections would become bidding wars in which Republicans and Democrats vie to see who can do more for those who want more from government.
Gingrich is right about one thing: This is historic. In days of yore, before Newt went hoary, he rode the backbenches of the House spitting acid-laced invective at party elders who sold out his principles. He once famously accused then-Senate Finance Chairman Bob Dole of being "the tax collector for the welfare state."
But now Newt spits invective at what he calls "obstructionist conservatives." These are today’s backbenchers who labor to prevent their entire party from becoming the tax collector -- or debt monger -- for the welfare state. They are led by principled legislators -- such as Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana, John Shadegg of Arizona, Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Tom Feeney of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
"Obstructionist conservatives can always find reasons to vote no," Gingrich wrote in the Wall Street Journal on the eve of the drug vote, "but that path leads right back into the minority and it would be a minority status they would deserve."
"Deserve," he said!
But since when did subsidized drug handouts become a litmus test of good government? When did they become a defining issue for the party of limited government?
The answer: in the wee, small hours last Saturday.
It was 3 a.m. when the leadership called a vote on the drug entitlement. When the voting period expired 15 minutes later, the entitlement seemed doomed. But Republican leaders kept voting open and kept twisting arms. At 5 a.m., President Bush called Republicans who still wouldn’t crawl into bed with AARP.
Feeney recounted an earlier call from the president. "I basically said it was a matter of principle, that I came to Washington not to ratify and to expand Great Society programs," Feeney told the Associated Press. "He wasn't happy to hear that."
Yet, toward dawn, the shotgun wedding was completed. The bill passed 220-215 -- with 25 Republican defectors.
Now it must be asked: Will the GOP-AARP union last?
In the cold light of day, Republicans will find this bride a porker -- who disdains tax cuts as much as she loves the swill of government largesse. Her legislative bible -- "The Policy Book: AARP Public Policies 2003" -- reads like the next Democratic National Platform. "Congress should reconsider (the 2001) tax changes," says AARP, "in order to ensure both equity and fiscal discipline."
"Some form of energy tax may be appropriate to raise revenues and promote energy conservation," says AARP.
"Congress should retain an estate tax as an important component of our tax structure," says AARP, "because it offsets imbalances in wealth and prevents large amounts of capital income from escaping tax entirely."
"State income taxes should be enacted where none exist," says the GOP’s newly betrothed.
If AARP doesn’t henpeck the GOP majority into an early grave, there will be a well-justified annulment. The party will then find its next leaders among those -- like Pence, Shadegg, Musgrave, Jones, Feeney and Toomey -- who opposed this marriage in the first place.