Taliban Republicans shoot themselves in the foot

July 19, 1999|By Tony Snow

WASHINGTON -- Bob Smith left the Republican Party in a huff last week, accusing the GOP of terminal perfidy. Standing on the Senate floor, he spent three-quarters of an hour detailing his charge that the party of Lincoln has fallen into the thrall of pollsters, corporatists, internationalists, gun-controllers and squishes.

It was a Shakespearean performance -- full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Mr. Smith is a nice guy. Bellicosity does not become him. In this instance, it made him look half-comic, half-demonic.

Mr. Smith, like other conservatives, has grown restive during the Age of Clinton. He thinks Congress could have steamrolled Priapus of the Ozarks if only Republicans had shown some spine.

This belief puts him in league with a small band of right-wingers who, like rebels rampaging through the West after the Civil War, revel in the romantic futility of their cause.

They have derided every Republican leader in recent memory, including Ronald Reagan, as a gutless mountebank. Now, of course, they lionize the Gipper.

Mr. Smith even went so far as to liken the 40th president to Christ, suggesting that Mr. Reagan's critics weren't qualified to kiss the hem of his garment.

Mr. Smith developed the theme at length in his farewell oration. He excoriated Republicans for supporting GATT, NAFTA, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. He groused about their failure to push a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution, their refusal to shut down federal departments and agencies and their outright abandonment of various planks in the GOP platform. Say what you will about these cavils, Mr. Reagan was guilty on each count and more.

Mr. Reagan didn't fuss with details. He struck themes -- cut taxes, slow government spending, beat the Commies -- and then took small steps to demonstrate his reliability.

He fulfilled his promise to push for tax cuts. He built up the military, bits at a time. He took a firm line against the then-Soviet Union without engaging in fruitless confrontation.

He had to make choices along the way. He didn't abolish the Department of Education, as promised. He didn't push for an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution, as promised. He didn't disenfranchise the United Nations. He didn't reverse his party's course on free trade.

Perhaps, most importantly, he didn't delude himself or others into believing that government could ever serve as an instrument of personal salvation. Mr. Reagan preached the primacy of the American citizen, and he reveled in describing how ordinary accomplishments laid the foundation for an extraordinary civilization.

The Taliban Republicans take a darker view of human nature. They consider the rest of us a bunch of potential dupes and regard society as a stew of corrupting influences. They look upon government as the ultimate street cleaner.

They share two traits with left-wing activists: impatience and faith in government intervention. They think it possible to resolve an issue such as abortion through constitutional fiat, rather than public debate.

Smith's raiders mistake impatience for principle, intemperance for passion and naivete for honor. They do not consider any triumph complete unless it makes the losers miserable.

They have forgotten that the aim of government is not salvation, but concord; that the engine for progress is consent, not subjugation. Their constant complaint -- nobody listens to them -- ought to send them the message that they're losers, not leaders.

Of course, every political party needs its purists, its crusaders for right and true. Mr. Smith chose to welcome a new millennium by riding away -- not into sunset, but shadows -- with his six-shooter loaded, his pack fully stocked and his noble steed pointed toward a destination called Nowhere.

Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/19/99

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