Last week Dana Milbank, The Washington Post columnist and political reporter, lamented the lost virtues of amity, collegiality and friendship in Washington political circles, and predictably, he blamed all of this on the Tea Party Republicans. Milbank, who has written on this great national problem before, discussed the matter last week with former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, at a public soiree celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, in 1990. Milbank characterized the ADA as “…the sort of bipartisan triumph of yore that now seems unimaginable.” Milbank professes exasperation at the gridlocked nature of our current politics, and he asked Senator Dole, “How…can we get back to the days when Washington worked?”
After setting out his purpose in the first paragraph, Milbank then segued into a recitation of Bob Dole’s quite impressive accomplishments. “The Kansas Republican, in his nearly 28 years in the Senate, was one of the great legislators of the 20th century.” Lest the reader, however, think that this column was a simple tribute to Mr. Dole and his record, Milbank sets his readers straight by remarking that “…Dole probably couldn’t be elected to Congress as a Republican today. Neither could George H.W. Bush, the President who signed the ADA into law. Both would be dubbed RINOs-Republicans in Name Only-because of their nasty habit of compromise.” By “compromise,” Milbank actually means Republican surrender, but no matter. He notes a “growing polarization of both parties,” but finishes that sentence by lobbing this rhetorical stink bomb, “…the obvious reality that Dole’s Republican Party has gone particularly bonkers.” Milbank urges that the parties should tone down the nastiness even if he cannot find the will to do this in his own writing.
Shortly after torching the modern GOP in the column, Milbank spoke of other political veterans of the Americans With Disabilities Act fight , namely, a bi-partisan group that included former Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, and former Republican Representative Steve Bartlett of Texas, and held them out as models of political decorum and manners, forgetting that Tom Harkin had been described by associates and adversaries as being of an especially hard-edged and dogmatic nature. In any event, Milbank led these folks where he wanted them to go in expressing a longing to go back to the good old days, when everybody got along.
In the interest of clearing the air a bit, let us take a closer look at those thrilling days of yesteryear. First of all, The Washington Post didn’t always think so highly of Bob Dole. They tolerated him when he exemplified the impotent Republicans of the 1970s variety, and they encouraged him to attack the supposed “irresponsibility” of Reaganite tax reduction. (Those tedious lectures on fiscal responsibility led Newt Gingrich to nickname Dole as the “Tax Collector for the welfare state.”) Still, the Post, and their prestige media brethren trashed Dole in 1976, when as the GOP vice-presidential candidate he seemed to relish the job of attacking the Democrats a little too much. Likewise, in 1996, when Dole ran for President, a nomination that actually served as his reward from fellow Party members for meritorious service, he found himself derided as a “…cranky old man…” when he dared to point out President Clinton’s corruption.
So, the question of the moment is simply: Why does The Washington Post love Bob Dole now? The prestige media love Dole because he represented the species of American politician known as “Me-too Republicanism.” This term was coined in the late 1950s, when the GOP, holding the Presidency, but facing a stark disadvantage in numbers in the Congress, saw their role as seconding Democratic initiatives, but trying to contain costs and moderate public expectations. Those Republicans did not challenge Democratic assumptions or orientations. They did not offer a compelling counter-vision. Instead, they supported moderate and unthreatening Eisenhower-style restraint, and happily jumped on the Kennedy-LBJ Great Society bandwagon when it became the next big thing. The only conservatives who questioned this new paradigm were those crazy western lunatics like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
The disappearance of this state of affairs is the “loss” that Milbank mourns. He longs for the old days when Republicans had no hope of controlling Congress, and, therefore played the role of obedient children, who we"re granted a favor or two after behaving themselves when company came to visit. He lets this fact slip out two times in the piece. He compared the reality of 1990 favorably with the reality today. Milbank quotes former US Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, on the difference between the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the battle over Obamacare, with Harkin stating, “…there was no one saying, we’ve got to stop this…” Certainly Milbank and his Washington Post colleagues yearn for a world in which there was no real opposition. In Milbank’s second slip of tongue, he lauds Dole for saying that “compromise” is not a dirty word, but notes that this was “…before the rise of Newt Gingrich.”
It is crystal clear that Milbank and company see a real and competitive Republican Party as more than a threat. They see this as an unmitigated disaster. How, though did the national politics get to this point? The Republican resurgence began in the late 1960s when the nation began to harvest fruits of liberalism. We saw out-of-control government spending and a steady rise in taxes, leading to the infamous “stagflation” of the 70s. We saw government social policy organized around massive transfer payments which seemed to penalize work, enterprise, and intact families. We saw a cultural breakdown concerning standards of behavior and decorum. Finally, the nation saw a feckless foreign policy, retreat in the face of aggressive Soviet behavior, and a growing sense of American weakness around the world.
In the realm of domestic politics during this period, the Democrats regularly picked the GOP pockets. When Republicans met their Democratic adversaries in a spirit of goodwill they were regularly taken to the cleaners. In the rare instances that the GOP attempted to put up a fight, their lack of numbers guaranteed that they would be brushed aside. Also, numerous instances of Democratic corruption were ignored, or swept under the rug such as the ABSCAM scandal of the later 70s, and the Democrats stealing of congressional seats in the 80s. Conservatives, who had begun migrating to the GOP after about 1965, determined that a stronger Party stance was necessary, and after over two decades of disappointment, they began to win some battles, just as the permanent Democratic majority became a thing of the past.
Dana Milbank and his Georgetown-Hamptons-Martha’s Vineyard social set (along with their adjunct chapters in Malibu and Berkeley) are frustrated that they no longer rule the roost. They must contend with a GOP that doesn’t resignedly accept defeat, except for the leadership class. President Obama deals with this reality by heaping abuse, scorn, and ridicule on them, without fear of similar treatment, due to his racial-ethnic suit of armor. Milbank and his colleagues in the prestige media cannot follow their leader’s example, so they publicly yearn for a day now long in the past. The features of that day were a permanent Democratic congressional majority, a GOP paper tiger, and an America falling farther through the Welfare State-Socialist looking glass.