Political Hay

The GOP: Rabbits or Tigers?

Reagan, Thatcher and the real battle behind defunding Obamacare.

By 7.30.13

Send to Kindle

“We had rabbits when we needed tigers.” -- Ronald Reagan writing in his diary of congressional Republicans

Well.

There they go again.

The GOP Establishment is terrified at the idea of defunding Obamacare.

Except, of course, that the opposition within the GOP Establishment and among some conservative pundits to defunding Obamacare -- as Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio propose -- has nothing whatsoever to do with Obamacare.

Zero.

As Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would both recognize instantly. 

Leading to the obvious. The problem within the GOP is just as Reagan described decades ago: too many rabbits, not enough tigers.

First: Reagan and Thatcher. We’ll get to the critics after that.

Reagan, right from the very beginning of his active political career in 1964 all the way through his two terms in the White House, saw the party’s problem as the timid, barnacle-encrusted GOP Establishment. An Establishment he called the “fraternal order” Republicans, as he told the New York Times in December of 1976 when the GOP was reeling from what Reagan saw as yet another unnecessary GOP presidential loss by faint-hearted party moderates, this one to Jimmy Carter by Gerald Ford.

“With some of our friends we don’t need enemies,” Reagan frostily noted in his diary in 1984 after another frustrating presidential encounter with faint-hearted GOP moderates on the subject of budget cuts.

I’m afraid I blew my top at one point. It seemed to me they [GOP Establishment congressmen and senators] are willing to let the Dems. run with the ball because they don’t think we can stop them. I told them before we do that, it’s time for us to agree on our position & then let me take it to the people (TV) & smoke them out. The way we’re going we’re not exerting any leadership.

These were the Republicans and their media supporters who preferred, as he said in an earlier speech, “pale pastels” over “bold colors.” Reagan saw the GOP Establishment, one Reagan biographer later wrote, as being “victims of the political equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to sympathize with their captors.”

The “captors” being Establishment liberalism.

Tellingly, over in Great Britain’s Conservative Party, Reagan’s political soulmate Margaret Thatcher was dealing with the exact same problem. Thatcher and her allies summoned a term of art from the elite British public school system that described boys seen by their peers as “feeble” or “timid” -- “the wets.”

Here’s Thatcher on the problem. Speaking of one of the leading “wets” of her own Tory government, the Secretary of State for Employment Jim Prior, Thatcher wrote in her memoirs The Downing Street Years, bold print for emphasis:

There was, of course, a more profound and general divide between us. For all his virtues, Jim Prior was an example of a political type that had dominated and, in my view, damaged the post-war Tory Party. I call such figures the "false squire." They have all the outward show of a John Bull -- ruddy face, white hair, bluff manner -- but inwardly they are political calculators who see the task of Conservatives as one of retreating gracefully before the Left’s inevitable advance. Retreat as a tactic is sometimes necessary; retreat as a settled policy eats at the soul. In order to justify the series of defeats that his philosophy entails, the false squire has to persuade rank-and-file Conservatives and indeed himself that advance is impossible. His whole political life would, after all, be a gigantic mistake if a policy of positive Tory reform turned out to be both practical and popular. Hence the passionate and obstinate resistance mounted by the "wets" to the (Thatcher) fiscal, economic and trade union reforms of the early 1980’s. These reforms had either to fail or be stopped. For if they succeeded, a whole generation of Tory leaders had despaired unnecessarily. …..I had to stake out a more determined approach.

Let’s take a look at one liberal tactic and see how the game is played in America -- and how Reagan dealt with that game.

First, recall this clip from Sean Hannity’s February 19, 2013 Fox TV show. In the course of a debate with ex-Obama economic aide Austan Goolsbee, Hannity plays a tape of President Obama from 2011 in which Obama says of Republicans: 

And then you got their plan, which is let's have dirtier air, dirtier water.

It is a quote Hannity cites often as an illustration of how liberals play the game of smearing Republicans and conservatives.

Now let’s go back to a diary entry for February 3, 1987, in which President Reagan writes of his veto of a $20 billion Clean Water Bill that he said was “loaded with waste and lard.” Reagan was under heavy attack from Democrats for the veto. The Democrat who was the chairman of the powerful House Public Works and Transportation Committee -- out of which the Clean Water bill had emerged -- took to the House floor and attacked Reagan in this fashion:

Should we follow President Reagan's recommendations, we'll return to the dark days when our oceans, rivers, streams were choked with poison.

Sound familiar?

Which is to say, 24 years before President Obama was running around America accusing Republicans  of wanting “dirtier air, dirtier water,” this exact stunt was being played with Ronald Reagan and House Republicans. 

The key point? Reagan never wavered in 1987 -- but House Republicans, fearing for re-election, ran for the hills.

Wrote President Reagan in disgust:

A meeting with Repub. Cong. Leadership. I pitched a plan that they stand together so that even with the Dem’s out voting us we can point out to the people how different the Dems & Repubs are. I don’t think they got the message. In the House today only 26 Republicans supported my Veto of the Clean Water bill.

In short, what is now an almost $17 trillion deficit took yet another lurch forward back there in February of 1987 because Congressional Republicans, fearful over re-election prospects, were simply too “wet” -- too weak, timid, and feeble in Thatcher’s phrase -- to stand and boldly draw a line in the sand that made a Reaganesque difference between themselves and liberals.

Out of that Stockholm syndrome necessity of “retreating gracefully before the Left’s inevitable advance” (as Thatcher termed it) the Republicans in the Congress of 1987 did exactly what Senator Cruz accuses some today of doing: behaving as “the Surrender Caucus.”

And the irony? Having joined Democrats to override Reagan’s veto on the notion they could gain House seats in 1988? Come election day, having sold out their principles yet again -- and doubtless egged on by rabbit-minded consultants -- the GOP lost two seats in 1988.

This Establishment GOP behavior has been run and rerun repeatedly over the decades. Confronted with some issue X out there -- the environment, immigration, the budget, the size and role of government and just about anything else, the classic GOP Establishment response is to run like -- Reagan’s word -- a “rabbit.” Which is precisely what is going on right this minute with the reaction to Senator Lee’s proposal to defund Obamacare.

“The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program,” Reagan liked to joke by way of making his decidedly serious point about the actual way Washington really worked.

The notion of deliberately allowing Obamacare to kick in for “the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth” -- and make no mistake, once in place, this is no piker of a $20 billion Clean Water bill loaded with “waste and lard” -- is yet another example of finding only rabbits in the GOP when tigers are needed.

Those who are shrinking from defunding Obamacare are Thatcher’s “false squires.” They are Reagan’s “rabbits” for whom retreat since the very dawn of the Progressive era has been not about tactics -- as the objections to defunding ObamaCare are presented -- but about retreat as, Thatcher’s sentiments again, a settled, soul-eating policy.

Viewed through the eyes and actions of Reagan and Thatcher, the reasoning behind the GOP Establishment panic over defunding ObamaCare comes clear. It’s the 1987 Clean Water bill reaction all over again. 

“The dumbest idea I've ever heard," said North Carolina GOP Senator Richard Burr of Lee’s proposal to defund Obamacare, channeling the ghost of Gerald Ford.

Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team, dismissed the proposal as a “temper tantrum” and likened it to “blackmail”: 

Seems to me there’s appropriate ways to deal with the law, but shutting down the government to get your way over an unrelated piece of legislation is political equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum. It’s just not helpful. And it is the sort of thing that creates a backlash and could cost the Republicans the majority in the House, which is after all the last line of defense against the president. And it could materially undercut the ability of the Republicans in the Senate to have the majority in 2014 which they have a decent chance to do.

And Karl Rove.

But of course, Karl Rove.

Said Rove to Sean Hannity about the Lee defunding proposal:

You know what? I’m suspect about it because it gives the president the bully pulpit and a gigantic stick on which to beat us, because all he has to do is say, "Look, this law was passed, it’s on the books. I’m going to veto your continuing resolution that doesn’t fund Obamacare, and it’s on you for shutting down the government.”

Then Rove took to The O’Reilly Factor last night, going on about discretionary spending, funding bills, and how defunding Obamacare was a “political loser.” Yada, yada, yada. Said Rove, in language that spelled “rabbit” to Reagan and “wet” to Thatcher, “being conservative doesn’t mean you do something that blows up in your face.”

This is rabbit lore. This is exactly how the government winds up expanding when Republicans are running the government. This is precisely why both Reagan and Thatcher had such disdain for the conservative rabbits in their respective conservative political parties.

Adding fuel to this fire, Erick Erickson over at Red State has learned of this Rove business:

Karl Rove’s Crossroads group commissioned a poll by North Star Opinion Research. The poll found most Americans do not want the GOP to block "health care reform." That’s right, Crossroads repeatedly called Obamacare “the healthcare reform law” and was shocked to find people oppose stopping reform. Go figure.

But that poll has been circulated to Republican leaders and they have soiled themselves over it. That is why Mitch McConnell will not support Mike Lee’s strategy to draw a line in the sand against funding Obamacare. That is why John Cornyn withdrew his name from Mike Lee’s letter. That is why Richard Burr of North Carolina calls defunding Obamacare "stupid.” 

Run, rabbits! Run!

Whether over here at Bloomberg (“The Disastrous Plan to Defund ObamaCare” by Ramesh Ponnuru) or over there at the New York Times (“Going for Bolingbroke” by Ross Douthat) or even on Fox (here where the normally astute Charles Krauthammer derails and calls the effort “really dumb”), the idea of actually doing something about Obamacare as opposed to repeatedly holding fruitless “repeal” votes in the House has struck terror in the hearts of Establishmentarian Republicans and conservatives.

What Messrs. Burr, Cole, and Rove and all the rest (that all the rest is suspected to include Speaker Boehner and Senate GOP Leader McConnell) are exhibiting is the core problem at the root of the decline of the Republican Party. A decline Reagan -- and Thatcher in Britain, tigers both -- spent a career fighting, not coincidentally winding up winning elections and ratings as a great American president and British prime minister respectively.

The problem at the heart of the GOP -- in Congress and elsewhere -- is that once again the GOP has, as Reagan once observed, far more “rabbits” than “tigers.”

This latest bout of intellectual rot decidedly did not take hold, as Thomas B. Edsall wrote in the New York Times, with the rise of talk radio or the release in 1992 of Rush Limbaugh’s bestselling book The Way Things Ought to Be. That is an absolutely absurd premise.

This decline -- and it is no accident -- tracks exactly with the end of the Reagan presidency and the return/rise of the moderate wing of the Republican Party that coincided with the 1988 election of Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush. Bush, who campaigned for the GOP nomination as Reagan’s heir, was decidedly, upon election, anything but. He immediately set about a restoration of the Establishment wing of the party that had been defeated by Reagan. Four years later, in 1992, the Establishment Bush (one of the most decent of men, a sterling human being, and genuine war hero but politically speaking a hopeless Establishment moderate) lost the White House with a humiliating 37% of the vote. Yet the GOP Establishment has been in the saddle ever since, with the momentous if brief exception of the 1994 Newt Gingrich-led congressional version of the Reagan Revolution.   

President Bush 43, again a thoroughly decent man who was nothing if not the personification of courage in the wake of 9/11, similarly bought into the Stockholm syndrome that is GOP Establishment Republicanism -- the so-called “compassionate conservatism” that almost lost him the White House in 2000 and barely enabled his re-election in 2004. And the other losing GOP nominees -- Dole, McCain, and Romney -- were similarly moderate Establishment leaders and good men yet were utterly incapable of energizing the conservative base.

Today, Texas Senator Ted Cruz calls the American version of the wets -- or as Reagan called them the “rabbits” or “fraternal order” or “pale pastel” Republicans -- “the Surrender Caucus.”

Reagan in particular would surely have gotten a chuckle out of Cruz’s further note to Hannity on the latter’s radio show that the liberal media likes their Republicans “timid and house trained.” Reagan would have thoroughly agreed.

One need only take a look at the recent Thomas Edsall column in the New York Times to see the Republican rabbit psychology at work. Edsall, now a professor of journalism at Columbia University, was a longtime reporter for the Washington Post. The column was titled "Has the GOP Gone Off the Deep End?"

Perhaps it should have recycled the title of the old John Updike novel Rabbit, Run. Or another -- Rabbitt Redux.

Why?

Because, of course, nothing has changed in all these decades.

Nothing.

The column is filled with decades-old Establishment GOP bromides about conservatives.

It leads with the tale of an aide to ex-New York GOP Governor George Pataki who tweeted that if the GOP House defeated the Senate immigration bill “I’ve decided to leave my political home of 32 years #sad.”

Sad? How about laughable. Not that this ex-Pataki lieutenant would have a clue, but Reagan himself was asked in that December, 1976 article about the idea that another New York Republican would leave the GOP if Reagan succeeded in his stated goal of, as the Times reported it, saving the party from “extinction” by “acting quickly to assert the party’s ideological identity.” That Republican was New York’s senior United States Senator -- Jacob Javits. Said Reagan about the possibility of Javits leaving the Republican Party:

Senator Javits might have some problems staying within the party. Again, however, we are not ushering anyone out of the party. We are simply saying, "What does our party stand for?" If the great majority agrees with the philosophy, and some say it’s a philosophy they can’t go along with, that’s a decision for every individual to make. A political party is not a fraternal order.

As events turned out, New York Republicans rejected Javits in the state’s 1980 Senate primary in favor of the more conservative Alfonse D’Amato. Javits ran in the fall with the Liberal Party nomination -- and lost. By the time Reagan was sworn in as president in January of 1981, D’Amato was sitting in the Javits Senate seat.

The rest of the Edsall article beyond the party-leaving Pataki aide?

There’s nothing that hasn’t been said by angry Establishment Republicans of conservatives -- not to mention Reagan himself -- for decades.

Conservatives are rigid. They can’t win. (This is always an amusing charge considering the absolutely miserable winning record of Establishment presidential candidates.) They have an “orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement,” says Jeb Bush. A GOP House and Senate staffer named Mike Lofgren is quoted from back in September 2011 (notably on a liberal website) as saying the GOP is becoming like “an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”

My favorite in this list of nonsense? John Feehery, a former GOP House staffer turned lobbysist, drags out that old chestnut that was used by Gerald Ford against Reagan -- the charge that Reagan was the candidate of “government by nostalgia.” Says Edsall of Feehery on Tea Party House members:

These members of the House are what Feehery describes as "nostalgia" Republicans who define conservatism as "the ability to fight progress.”

Progress, you see? Moving Left to the GOP is always “progress.”

All this fuss by GOP Establishment types about defunding Obamacare? 

The GOP has been there and done that.

Over at Breitbart, Matthew Boyle takes note that: 

Polling data obtained exclusively by Breitbart News shows that self-identified conservative and GOP likely voters want their representatives in Congress replaced if they vote in favor of funding Obamacare, even if they had voted against the law in the past. 

Surprise, surprise.

Mark Levin has challenged the Establishment wisdom per Karl Rove that if Obamacare is just left alone it will “collapse on its own.” “When has a law ever collapsed?” Levin asks -- making the same point as Reagan. Laws -- government programs -- don’t collapse. They are in fact the closest thing to eternal life on earth.

Don’t defund Obamacare?

This isn’t even about defunding Obamaxare.

As Ronald Reagan knew all those years ago, what the argument over defunding ObamaCare is really about is another much more serious problem entirely.

That real problem?

The GOP Establishment has more rabbits than tigers.

Photo: UPI

Like this Article

Print this Article

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