Paul Greenberg / March 18, 2009

Old Man In A Dark Shop

It was the fall of 1958 B.R. (Before Reagan), and the Republican Party was in its usual, sad shape. As it is again in 2009 A.R. (After Reagan).

It was a time not unlike this one, although neither the American economy nor the Grand Old Party was as depressed as both are today. The party had just been swamped in the congressional elections that year, foretelling its defeat in the coming presidential contest of 1960.

But hard times are the health of prophecy. Surveying the ruins, Whittaker Chambers wrote this diagnosis – and warning – to a promising, 33-year-old conservative editor named William F. Buckley:

“If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in, and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people – why, somebody else will. There will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel.”

Whittaker Chambers could be writing today in the dismal aftermath of this year’s show at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is today’s equivalent of Whittaker Chambers’ dark shop. It was doubtless great fun for those in attendance or watching the proceedings on C-SPAN. After all, it starred Rush Limbaugh – El Rushbo himself! And there’s an undeniable attraction about politics as vaudeville.

Just ask those Democrats who miss the ideologically pure days when Al Gore and John Kerry led their party to safe, cozy defeat. Those were the days when liberals had their own Rush Limbaugh in Michael Moore, and felt no need to sell the American people on their ideas. All they had to do was sit back and admire their own ideological purity, to hold and to feel.

Today it is the Republicans who seem determined to plunge into the political wilderness. It should be familiar territory, since the GOP wandered through it for 20 years – from 1933 to 1953 – while the Democrats acted on their ideas, not just admired them.

However swirling and incoherent, however larded with patronage and pork, however wasteful or ineffective, corrupt or contradictory, irrelevant or just plain sneaky their current program, the Democrats at least have one.

But what’s on the Republican agenda besides opposition? To paraphrase that great political philosopher Gertrude Stein on the joys of Oakland, Calif., there’s no there there – no unifying thread. And if the Republicans could somehow find one to tie their ideas together, there’s no one in sight to sell it the way The Great Communicator did.

The future, like the past, belongs to leaders who not only have great ideas but can explain them simply. Instead, the Grand Old Party can only repeat the applause lines of an earlier time to an audience that left some time ago. The American people have got better things to do than listen to talking points. Like look for a job.

Listen, if you can bear it, to Bobby Jindal’s disastrous response to this still new and still popular president’s State of the Union address. What a singsong disaster his response was. Having been handed a nationwide television audience, Louisiana’s governor sounded about as dynamic as some long-forgotten Republican senator from the Midwest opposing the New Deal. At a time when the party could use a Reagan, or at least a Wendell Willkie, it gets a Bourke Hickenlooper.

Barack Obama, bless his soul, has his own problems. The impression grows that he is a temporizer rather than a leader, much better at describing a crisis than addressing it. His economic program doesn’t seem to have a unifying thread, either. Not all the king’s men seem able to give his administration clarity or direction.

There was something pitiable about the still new president’s joint appearance the other day with his hapless secretary of the treasury, Timothy Geithner. At this point they’ve thrown out the biggest, most indigestible assortment of government spending programs since the not-so-Great Society, but capital remains on strike. See this year’s jittery stock market. Or look at the state of your 401(k) – if you can bear it.

All wish the new president well (except maybe Rush Limbaugh) but wishes cannot provide focus. As an economist, this president is proving an effective community organizer.

But instead of offering a clear alternative, the opposition seems only to oppose – everything. That kind of opposition for opposition’s sake moves no one, let alone Whittaker Chambers’ masses of people. As usual, the old prophet was right, and still is.


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