In the echo chamber of Seattle liberal politics, you don’t hear much about the inner workings of the Republican Party. Those people, for the most part, live “over there” in red-state Washington, or in their own little blog world on the Web.
But we would do well to pay attention to the GOP, because it is the party in power and there is a lively debate within about its future. Fault lines are showing as Republicans argue among themselves over the course of the war in Iraq, the role of religion in politics, the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the criminal indictment of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, out-of-control fiscal policies, and the leadership of George W. Bush in general—post-Katrina and in the shadow of possible indictments of key aides over the Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame CIA case.
If Seattleites attend a forum or hear a speaker on the topic of “what’s wrong with the Republican Party,” it’s generally motivated by schadenfreude. But more can be learned. In a two-party system, it’s never good to ignore the opposition—especially when it controls Congress and the White House and has the power to shape federal courts for a generation (or more). It could be a case of know-your-political-enemy, but it’s also a case—for independents particularly—of looking for opportunities to improve both parties, encouraging them to offer saner choices at the ballot box.
Listening in on the Republican conversation might also suggest ways to rewire our country’s pathetic politics. You know things are bad when Republicans like conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks expresses pox-on-both- their-houses feelings, as he did in an Oct. 9 piece calling for an “insurrection” against the two major parties. The GOP has a serious problem if suburban soccer dads like Brooks are fantasizing about an insurgency. Such disenchantment offers a chance to remake the political landscape.
Facilitating the discussion of the GOP’s future is Foolproof’s American Voices series of lectures. The Seattle group is best known for bringing popular and provocative liberal icons to town, from Bill Clinton to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to Gore Vidal. But this season they are more consciously bipartisan. In early September, they hosted a forum, moderated by Ron Reagan Jr., called “Mainstream or Extreme: The Future of the Republican Party.”
Foolproof steps up again this week (see Brain City) with an onstage conversation between two prominent conservatives: Seattle’s film and culture critic Michael Medved and William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, TV pundit, and cheerleader for the neoconservative movement.
Interestingly, both Medved and Kristol are former Democrats. Medved went to Yale with John Kerry and the Clintons and supported McGovern in 1972. That same year, Kristol volunteered in the Massachusetts presidential primary for U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who was running for president as a pro-war Democrat. “I love Scoop Jackson,” enthuses Kristol in a phone interview. Unfortunately, that love didn’t translate into votes: Scoop lost the Massachusetts primary big time, coming in tied for seventh. He got fewer votes than Wilbur Mills! Despite his failed presidential bid, Scoop became godfather to the neocons. His hawkish, pro-Israel, interventionist foreign policy lives on in the agenda espoused by Kristol and adopted by Bush.
Asked about the state of the GOP, Kristol says it’s a good news–bad news situation. “The good news is that the Republican Party is now, by a slight margin, the majority party. . . . It has a chance to govern.” The party is enjoying the fruits of 40 years of hard work and groundwork laid by the Reagan Revolution of 1980 and the Newt Gingrich revolution of 1994. “The bad news,” Kristol says, “is that it’s hard to govern. You get held accountable for lots of things, not all of which you can control.”
One of those uncontrollable things is the course of federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who is conducting the investigation in the Plame case. Kristol predicted on Sunday, Oct. 16, that Bush and Cheney aides Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, respectively, would be indicted. We can only hope. Kristol doesn’t think that leaking classified information alone is necessarily that big a deal—”I’m not against leaks, I run a magazine,” he says—but he emphasizes that Republicans would be foolish to play down the effects of indictments. “If Rove and Libby are indicted, that’s a pretty big deal, a pretty big blow to the Bush White House.” Still, such things are survivable. “You can have a big blow and still have a successful presidency,” Kristol says. Iran-Contra didn’t wipe out the Reagan legacy.
These tumultuous times invigorate Kristol: “There are a lot of tension and differences in the Republican party. I think that’s healthy. I am happy there is a rebellion on spending in the House by Republicans, I am happy there is a mini-rebellion [over] Harriet Miers.”
There are tensions outside the party, too. “It’s a very unusual moment,” Kristol continues. “How many times in recent history have you had so much at stake and [so] uncertain in foreign policy, scandals, fights within the Republican and Democratic parties?” Kristol maintains these are not the times to stay silent, and he’s following his own advice, making waves among conservatives by bashing Meirs and taking the Bushies to task for messing up in Iraq. “We are all required to say what we think.”
Which means it is also a good time for listening.