It is beginning to look like we will not have in 2012 one of those rare presidential races where the icons of the great tectonic movements in politics face off at Armageddon.
That would be a race between President Obama and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the architect of national paralysis.
William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft gave the country such a race in 1896, and Barry Goldwater and Lyndon B. Johnson another but lesser one in 1964. It is time for another although it is not clear whether for the country it would be a blessing or a curse. The record is mixed.
Bryan, the great Christian commoner, cast out the bourbons who had led the Democratic Party since before the Civil War and led workers, dirt farmers and the downtrodden against the elites of business, agriculture, the professions and the goldbugs of finance, represented by McKinley. The Republicans would control the White House and Congress for all but eight of the next 36 years, and after Bryan's defeats politics would always thereafter be waged inside the confines of capitalist ardor, even during the era of Roosevelt and Truman.
Goldwater and Johnson represented polar extremes, pure laissez-faire conservatism and government activism. Johnson's lopsided victory produced the greatest advances in the liberal democratic tradition since Roosevelt's first term.
Gingrich, like Obama, casts himself as a transformational figure — Gingrich with better cause. He really did recast American politics in the half-dozen years leading up to his four years as the boss of a Republican House before his party exiled him in 1998.
Gingrich brought the scorched-earth strategy to Washington politics, and the changes he wrought in how Republicans conducted campaigns spread across the country and down to courthouse and ward elections. He said if the Republicans were going to take over they had to be ruthless. Democrats were not to be treated as political adversaries but as enemies of the United States and of "normal people."
Video and audio tapes and campaign booklets went out to Republican candidates everywhere about how to wage campaigns.
"Language matters," Gingrich's tapes said. Candidates should learn to "speak like Newt." There were words, tested by focus groups, that they should use against Democratic opponents, whoever they were, because the words always aroused strong emotions, the principal one being hatred. They were to memorize and use words like traitor, corrupt, radical, socialist, failure, destructive, decay, incompetent, disgraceful, criminal, cheat, steal, shame, bosses, abuse of power and pathetic.
Gingrich had used such words in the House and brought down the Democratic speaker, Texan Jim Wright. And they proved increasingly effective as acolytes used them and the other Gopac strategies to get elected. The big one was the campaign of 1994, when Gingrich led the Republicans to a takeover of the U.S. House, which then installed him as speaker.
Washington changed dramatically in that decade and it has never looked back. Civility and cooperation, the latter rarely in great supply, disappeared. The new toxic climate drove a few men — Arkansas Sens. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers, for example — to retire from office.
Bob Michel, the gallant Republican leader of the 1980s, was forced out by Gingrich. Michel, now 88, recalled the other day that he had advised Gingrich he should not treat Democrats as enemies but as political adversaries only with different and worse ideas. The war mentality will turn around to bite you someday, he told Gingrich. Sure enough, Democrats launched ethics charges against him in abundance, which ended with the House, in a bipartisan vote, fining and rebuking him, the only time in history a House speaker has been reprimanded.
Mickey Edwards, the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who enjoyed a leadership role with Gingrich, explained Gingrich's legacy last month.
"Government is dysfunctional because the presidency and Congress no longer have the ability to compromise, and I put Newt at the heart of that," Edwards said. Part of that is Gingrich's policy, now that of his party, of calling Democrats unpatriotic, people who are out to do in the United States.
It might be cleansing to have a presidential election fought out on the terms of the Gingrich/Republican philosophy. I think it would turn out all right, but it's better that we don't find out.
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