Political Hay

Gina McCarthy and the Hell of a Ride Republicans

Jeb Bush, Obama’s EPA nominee, and the tie to Republican moderation.

By 3.7.13

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Gina McCarthy?

Jeb Bush?

Here we go again with yet another “hell of a ride” Republican.

What exactly is a “hell of a ride” Republican, anyway?

And what does Jeb Bush have to do with Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s pick as his new nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency?

First, a nod to today’s Commentary editor John Podhoretz the Older and his shadow, John Podhoretz the Younger, the latter an ex-White House aide to President Bush 41. With more hair and cool sunglasses dangling, Podhoretz the Younger (“Younger” as compared to his later self) is pictured in the author’s photo accompanying his groundbreaking 1993 memoir of the Bush 41 White House: Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies 1989-1993.

In this remarkable book, the younger John Podhoretz tells the tale of “a president and a presidency that had literally no idea what they were about… frittering away the affection of America, damaging the economy and mortally wounding the Republicans all in the short space of 18 months.” Revealing “the startlingly empty core at the center of the Bush White House: George Bush himself.”

Ouch.

Why is this twenty year old book on the first Bush White House important today? And what does it have to do with Jeb Bush and the announcement this week that President Obama has picked Gina McCarthy to head the EPA?

Here’s the Wall Street Journal on Ms. McCarthy:

President Obama gave his second-term global warming agenda a lot more definition Monday with a new Environmental Protection Agency chief to replace Lisa Jackson. Picking Gina McCarthy, one of her top lieutenants and the architect of some of the agency's most destructive carbon rules, is a sign he intends to make good on his vow of "executive actions" if Congress doesn't pass cap and tax.

Over the last four years running the EPA's air office, Ms. McCarthy has been a notably willful regulator, even for this Administration. Her promotion is another way of saying that Mr. Obama has given up getting Congress to agree to his anticarbon agenda, especially given the number of Senate Democrats from coal or oil states. The real climate fight now is over the shape of forthcoming rules that could be released as early as this summer, and a brutal under-the-table lobbying campaign is now underway.

….Ms. McCarthy has been integral in abusing laws that were written decades ago in order to achieve climate goals that Congress has rejected, all with little or no political debate. Someone should ask her about her antidemocratic politics at her confirmation hearings.

Hmmm. So? McCarthy is an Obama appointee. What else would one expect other than that a card-carrying leftist environmentalist is set to run the EPA?

How about this?

Ms. McCarthy’s leftist résumé includes time as… yes indeed… the “Green Quarterback” (per the media) for… for… Mitt Romney.

You read that right.

The woman Barack Obama has picked as his new EPA Administrator, the woman described as what Rush Limbaugh might call your basic left-wing environmentalist wacko, was once a member in good standing of then- Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s administration.

And therein lies the core problem for the Republican Party.

Why in the world would then-Governor Romney hire someone who surely had already manifested signs that she was a far-left liberal on environmental issues?

The answer is obvious -- and not limited to Romney.

Gina McCarthy was in the Romney administration because this was Romney’s way of saying: “Hey, I’m not some sort of conservative extremist nut. Look, I hired liberal environmentalist Gina McCarthy.”

And in the end, the end for Romney being the November election night of 2012, he lost the White House because millions of conservatives across America decided they would rather not vote than elect a moderate Republican they perceived -- fairly or not and surely without knowing a thing about Gina McCarthy -- as just Obama lite. This was, after all, the Republican who was already infamous with conservatives for creating Romneycare -- which became the model for Obamacare. And knowing that lost Romney votes -- and won him none. 

What John Podhoretz described with his only-an-insider-detail of the Bush 41 White House was a snapshot of why Mitt Romney became the eleventh losing GOP moderate nominee since the Progressive Republican Herbert Hoover ran for re-election in 1932.

It is as well a warning about the man who would be Bush 45 -- former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

The title line for the book comes from one of the last things then newly-former President Bush 41 says right before he boards, in Podhoretz’s words, “a plane that used to be Air Force One but is no more because he is president no more.” 

Says the now ex-president of his single term in the White House: “It’s been a hell of a ride.”

The point of Podhoretz’s book, of course, was that the Bush presidency -- a moderate GOP presidency -- was content free, ideologically speaking. The whole experience reduced to process: “a hell of a ride.”

Where have we heard something like this in the last few days?

That’s right. We heard this from Mitt Romney, the man who appointed Gina McCarthy, in his recent interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace:

"We were on a roller coaster, exciting and thrilling, ups and downs. But the ride ends. And then you get off. And it's not like, oh, can't we be on a roller coaster the rest of our life? It's like, no, the ride's over."

Moderate Republicanism is all about the ride. “It’s a hell of a ride” (Bush) and “a roller coaster, exciting and thrilling, ups and downs. But the ride ends. And then you get off” (Romney).

It’s the ride. The process -- not the principles.

Bush 41's "hell of a ride" process included appointing people like David Souter to the Supreme Court (because he was so low profile he was confirmable as opposed to a conservative) and, less remembered yet perhaps more telling: John Frohnmayer as head of the National Endowment for the Arts. Both of these men were Gina McCarthy-style appointees. Souter, a one-time New Hampshire Republican pushed by liberal New Hampshire Republican Senator Warren Rudman and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, an ex-New Hampshire governor (and last year a big Romney backer), is now known as one of the Court's most liberal Justices. Frohnmayer is less remembered. But as Podhoretz points out in vivid detail, Frohnmayer was a "liberal Republican concerned about his reputation in Democratic circles, someone who had everything to lose by siding with the outspoken members of his own party and every thing to gain by siding implicitly or explicitly with his own political opposition." All of which led the Bush NEA leader to race quickly away from conservatives and embrace the liberal Establishment politically correct line of the day on the arts. The Bush government-backed film Poison, championed by Frohnmayer, was recalled almost twenty years later in the New York Times as "the inciting spark for what came to be known as the New Queer Cinema." Now there's a conservative legacy. 

Like Romney appointing Gina McCarthy, Bush's appointments of Souter and Frohnmayer were heedless of ideology. The ideology that had elected him president by a landslide in 1988 as Ronald Reagan's heir. It was the last landslide victory for any GOP presidential candidate. In a nutshell, it explains why every GOP candidate from Bush's 1992 re-election race to Romney's 2012 defeat, Bush 43's by-the-skin-of-his-teeth-wins included, have played out as they have. When moderates complain that five out of six of the last batch of GOP nominees have lost the popular vote -- they never get around to mentioning all of them were moderates like Bush 41 in 1992 and Romney in 2012.

Both these men are good and decent men. But both, in their own fashion, have captured what lies at the core of GOP moderates: it’s all about the ride. The process. Not being seen -- for reasons as much social as political in the Ruling Class -- as “too extreme.” When it came time for Bush’s farewell address to be written, Podhoretz writes that Bush instructed “none of this right-wing agenda stuff.” In the end, no speech was given.

Why is any of this important now?

Over at Commentary magazine, where John Podhoretz the Older reigns today, former Bush 43 aides Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner have penned an article titled “How to Save the Republican Party.” And over at the Washington Post Jennifer Rubin, the Beltway champion of moderate Republicanism who spent last year insisting only Romney could win, advises that “It is time to get out of the 1980s and into the 21st century.”

Which is to say, this is Rubin’s unsubtle way of saying “dump Reagan.”

But of course. Apparently 11 out of 11 losses by moderate Republicans just isn’t enough for Rubin. Let’s all step on the roller coaster and have another content-free hell of a ride! Why learn anything from the guy who won the presidency twice in a landslide? Let’s listen to all the losers!

The ex-Bushies at Commentary, meanwhile, insist “the Republican Party is in trouble.”

Yes. And?

And then the two go on to outline precisely what not to do.

First, they begin by acknowledging that the GOP “in 2010 gained an epic midterm electoral victory.” But yet, in 2012, mysteriously, “Obama won going away.” How could this be?

One can only ask the obvious? Which campaign -- 2010 or 2012 -- had more in common with the Reagan victories? Which campaign produced candidates that boldly challenged the notion that, as Reagan himself insisted, “a political party is not a fraternal order. A party is something where people are bound together by a shared philosophy.”

That would be the 2010 campaign.

The losing campaign was in 2012. Yet again, it was a campaign that was not only principle-adverse (you don’t want to upset those independents, you know) in the “hell of a ride” process style beloved by losing moderates. It was a campaign absolutely terrified of defining Barack Obama. Oh my! We can’t do that! Leave that stuff to Dinesh D’Souza and his crazy 2016 movie. Leave it to Rush or Sean or Levin. But for heaven’s sake… don’t let the Romney campaign get into that nutty business.

So instead of discussing conservative principle as Reagan always did, instead of having a hardball discussion of issues as they connected conservative principle to clear-eyed examinations of Barack Obama’s life, beliefs, and actual record, the “fraternal order” enthusiasts had at it again. While Romney was being pilloried as a rich plutocrat who murdered a steelworker’s wife when he wasn’t busy being a felon, the “fraternal order” Republicans politely busied themselves with commercials and speeches saying what a nice guy Obama was but, golly, the poor man was just in over his head.

Now, the enthusiasts for the fraternal order approach straight out of 1948 -- or was that 1976 -- or 2008? -- are laying the groundwork for defeat by moderate number twelve.

While Jeb Bush’s name is never mentioned, our Bushie Commentary friends have made the case for a Jeb Bush campaign -- which is to say the next moderate campaign.

Go through the usual discussion of things like demographics, economics, the middle class and so forth and what do you find? They cite Bill Clinton and the British Labour party’s Tony Blair for modernizing their respective parties. The case for Jeb Bush.

But what goes unmentioned is… who forced Clinton and Blair to rethink? That would be, of course, principled conservatives Reagan and Thatcher. Both of whom were pilloried repeatedly as “extremist” -- or worse. (In America, no less than Gerald Ford went to the New York Times in March of 1980 to describe Reagan in this fashion. This extremism, of course, was what Ford -- the 1976 moderate loser to Jimmy Carter -- insisted would be a landslide loser for the GOP if they dared to nominate Reagan. He was… ahhhh… wrong.)

Both Clinton and Blair succeeded not because they or any other Democrat or Labourite could beat Reagan or Thatcher -- but because they were able to clobber Reagan and Thatcher’s moderate successors: Bush 41 and John Major. Both of the latter going to great lengths to distance themselves from their conservative predecessors.

What this Commentary piece is really all about is precisely what nominees with names like Hoover, Landon, Willkie, Dewey, Dewey, Nixon (1960), Ford, Bush (1992), Dole, McCain, and Romney were all about. It is what Bush 43 in 2000 (when he won by 537 votes and the Supreme Court) and 2004 (when he scraped by with 100,000 plus Ohio votes over John Kerry) was all about with the whole “compassionate conservative” business.

Moderation. Stay away from those right-wing agenda nuts.

In fact, using the same title of How to Save the Republican Party, Gerson penned a separate, solo column which begins thusly:

In the summer of 1999, George W. Bush chose the first major policy speech of his presidential campaign to pick a fight with Grover Norquist. Bush flatly rejected the "destructive" view "that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved" -- a vision the Texas governor dismissed as having "no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than leave us alone."

… [T]he Bush campaign was purposely attempting to alter the image of the Republican Party. And the party -- rendered more open to change by eight years in the presidential wilderness -- gave Bush the leeway to make necessary ideological adjustments….they [the GOP] must move beyond Reagan-era nostalgia.”

So. Um. The question.

How exactly did that Bush idea of “purposely attempting to alter the image of the Republican Party” and making “the necessary ideological adjustments” work out for Republicans? Ronald Reagan left office with a 63% popularity rating, changed the country and the world, and has been a world class political asset for every Republican since. George W. Bush left office with a popularity hovering in the thirties and made the Bush name fodder for every Democrat running for anything from president of the United States on down to township commissioner to say -- and be believed! -- that “it’s Bush’s fault.” “It” being anything and everything from a ruined economy to a lost dog.

Which is to say, the Reagan and Bush models have now been separately road tested. Mr. Gerson got his way and now proposes -- having helped toss the party in the dumper -- to recommend more of the same.

Issues can change -- or they can never change. Economics, after all, was as big an issue for Harry Truman and Tom Dewey as it was for Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Climate change, on the other hand, is relatively new.

But the moderate GOP approach is always the same: Concede the main issue to the left, tinker at the edges. Then sit back and enjoy a hell of a ride.

This is what the Bushie moderates are recommending in Commentary. Gee, isn’t it time for Republicans to admit that they can be, um, “hyper-individualistic,” they ask? Shouldn’t we just “acknowledge climate disruption” to show that we’re not “anti-science”? Can’t we signal that conservatives really don’t believe in a “closed society”?

Isn’t this what Jeb Bush has been all about in saying the GOP needs to get over Reagan “nostalgia” -- as Reagan biographer Craig Shirley pointed out the other day over at Townhall? (Craig also notes there is no “Reagan panel” at CPAC this year. It is an excellent suggestion for next year.)

Which is to say, if George H.W. Bush set out to deliberately drop the Reagan agenda, and George W. Bush set out to do more of the same to move beyond what Gerson called “Reagan-era nostalgia” -- is it not reasonable to believe that when the same words come from Jeb Bush that the GOP is setting itself up yet again for another presidential election disaster?

This is, it is critical to note, not about the Bushes. This is about moderate Republicanism and the unbelievably long and unbelievably feckless trail of political disaster it leaves in its wake.

The fact that someone like Gina McCarthy could even shadow the doorstep of a GOP governor’s administration, much less be appointed by a man who told his CPAC audience last year that he was a “severe conservative” -- is symbolic of the GOP’s real problem. It says all you need to know about the intellectual bankruptcy of moderate Republicanism.

What the Commentary article is really about is writing the screenplay for another moderate Republican disaster. Revving up the limo -- with Jeb Bush or some other moderate behind the wheel -- for one more moderate-style “hell of a ride.”

For which no serious conservative should have “nostalgia.”

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.