For the last thirty years or so the Republican Party has been engaged in a relentless and effective propaganda campaign designed to secure general assent to certain principles. Government is bad; taxes are bad; elites are contemptible; revealed religion is the only legitimate source of truth and morality; and force is the solution to every foreign policy problem--that list comes pretty close to summing it up. They have been far more militant and far more effective that liberal Democrats, it seems to me, because the latter, coming off of nearly a half-century of power, took their fundamental ideas (especially in the economic sphere) for granted and thought that the country--at least the educated part of it--did the same. (They also forgot that the appeal of their beliefs in the country at large--especially their belief in economic justice--required concrete steps to make it a reality.) Educated Republicans either became Democrats (a very significant phenomenon in the wealthier parts of the country) or pandered with increasing shamelessness to their less educated voters. Nor should we forget that intraparty thought control has been even more rigorous. Grover Norquist, the NRA, and the anti-abortion movement have made it harder and harder for centrists and liberals to remain Republicans, ultimately creating the extraordinary situation we now face, in which just three Republican Senators and not one Republican Representative are willing to vote with President Obama as he tries to cope with the greatest crisis since the Depression or the Second World War.
Alas, this long-term campaign has had another effect: every Republican under 45--that is, every one too young to have vivid memories of any Republican before Ronald Reagan--really believes all that crap, as one Southern Senator famously said of another during a filibuster against civil rights in the 1950s. The conservative CFAC powow in Washington this week argued that the Party's problem was not too much "conservatism," but too little. The party had not run a real anti-government candidate, at least for President--that's why the people did not vote for them. Young Bobby Jindal actually believed he use Katrina as an example of the problem of too much government. Just five weeks into the Obama Administration--which is showing a rapid-response capability at least equal to that of FDR in 1933--the Republicans, echoing their ancestors of the 1930s and 1940s, are in effect arguing against any hint of "me-too" Republicanism. Support for the President, Rush Limbaugh explains daily, betrays the party's principles, which of course, in his opinion, are the only real American principles.
All this is going to have consequences. Everyone knew the stimulus package had to pass, but the same cannot be said for many of the long-term reforms the President has now announced, including health care. Republicans in the 1930s never tried to filibuster against New Deal legislation; now Republican filibusters against any significant legislation are taken for granted. Health care will be a very tough sell. The President has decided not to ask for the immediate repeal of the Bush Administration's high-bracket tax cuts, but to let them lapse in two years--a frustrating choice, but a wise one politically. Shockingly, with large parts of Mexico degenerating into anarchy with the help of assault weapons purchased over the border, Nancy Pelosi doesn't want to risk a vote on re-instituting the ban on those weapons that President Bush allowed to lapse. I believe the Republican stance will very likely lead to an almost unimaginable landslide in November 2010, but there is meanwhile a great deal of work to be done.
The conservative Republican lobby on foreign policy is not likely to remain quiet either, but oddly, it seems to me that neoconservatives are going to turn out to be rather toothless politically compared to the NRA and the anti-tax lobby. Sizing up what the opposition is doing, I checked the Weekly Standard website today and discovered a long piece on the Israeli-Palestinian question by my distinguished Harvard classmate, Elliot Abrams. Like another pardoned Iran-Contra veterans, he was immediately hired by the Bush Administration in a non-confirmable job, and spent the last eight years at the NSC. His piece was revealing: it was an attack on peace talks designed to bring about a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. President Bush, he argues, was right to argue in 2002 that such a solution depended upon change among the Palestinians--change which has not met his standards. The piece makes clear that Abrams must have opposed the whole Annapolis initiative, which was presumably a sop to Condi Rice and the State Department but which was bound to fail anyway, as indeed it did. In fact, Abrams suggests that the Palestinians have proven themselves incapable of responsible statehood and suggests junking the two-state solution altogether and restoring Gaza and the Arab West Bank to Egyptian and Jordanian control, respectively. I suspect, however, that these will remain fringe positions. On Iraq the President has compromised. The withdrawal timetable drew the ire of Kenneth Pollack in the New York Times, the Democratic foreign policy analyst who did so much to help bring about the Iraq war in the first place with his bloodcurdling 2002 book, The Threatening Storm, making it clear that Saddam was on the verge of a nuclear capability; but I cannot believe there is any large constituency that will be upset by it or even particularly disturbed if things go badly. (The danger of an Arab-Kurdish conflict seems to be increasing.) Afghanistan and Pakistan are a different matter, but they are not likely to arouse much public ire either no matter what happens.
It is not at all clear what the Administration intends for the Middle East, but an interesting straw is bending in the wind. Secretary of State Clinton has drawn blasts from several conservative American Jewish leaders for having protested Israeli delays of humanitarian aid for Gaza. It is hard to believe that that alone would have prompted cries of betrayal so quickly. Hamas and Fatah are working on creating a unity government, one which would give the Administration the opportunity to face reality with respect to Hamas, rather than to write it off (as Abrams and one of her critics do) as a cat's paw for Iran, now cast (by Benjamin Netanyahu, too) as the Nazi Germany of the twentieth century, determined to unleash a world war. President Obama seems determined to face every long-standing issue squarely, and that could apply to the Middle East, as well.