We’re not where we used to be

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, the Whigs

The $3.4 trillion federal budget, the first of the Obama administration, passed in the Congress on Wednesday without a single Republican vote behind it. The Senate voted 53-43 for the Obama plan after the House voted 233-193, again without one Republican vote in support.

That’s zero. Zilch. Nada. Sound and fury signifying (literally) nothing. Maybe they were too busy sulking in the Senate cloakroom, or they were hunkering down in strategy sessions around the Senate figuring out other ways to tell the president No, No & Hell No.

Whatever the reasons, the absence of the GOP’s support for one of the biggest and most important budgets in the nation’s history was another sign of the utter and willful irrelevance of the Republican Party. The votes on Wednesday symbolize their standing in the great American scheme of things. Right now they’re nonentities. Anachronisms. They might as well be the Whigs.

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Students of history will recall the Whigs — not the incredibly excellent garage-rock band from Athens, Ga., nor the Afghan Whigs, the equally excellent grunge & soul band from Cincinnati, but the political party that was in many ways the antecedent to today’s Republican Party, right down to the GOP’s current and uncanny appetite for self-destruction.

Like the Republicans, the Whigs had an innate appeal to the business classes, and adopted an aristocratic mein that excluded as many people as it included.

Like the Republicans, the Whigs championed moralism as a fundamental component of social relationships and interactions.

Like the Republicans, the Whigs would come to ally themselves philosophically with xenophobes who would do their best to Keep America Ethnically Pure.

And like the Republicans, the Whigs’ ranks would be rife with infighting, disloyalty and an increasing inability to define themselves for a steadily growing electorate — a formula for political extinction.

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The Whig Party began about 1833 when it was founded by Henry Clay, the brilliant orator, congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and three times the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As king of the Whigs, Clay hailed the "American system" of government, reinforcing the need for high tariffs on imported goods, the development of so-called "internal improvements" and the primacy of the Congress as the legitimate will of the American people.

The Whigs’ early platform had to do with expansion of some basic functions of government, such as the building of roads, schools and infrastructure. United in their opposition to the increasingly autocratic aspects of President Andrew Jackson, the Whigs made a convincing case against an imperialist America. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before he entered presidential politics as a Republican.

After the death of William Henry Harrison (who in political terms was in the White House just long enough to have a cup of coffee) and the renunciation of their economic policies by turncoat Whig President John Tyler, the Whigs displayed internal dissension over those policies and other matters. As the country’s economic fortunes increased, as well as the political fortunes of the Democrats, the Whigs were shown the door in the 1842 Congressional elections.

In the 1850s, some Whigs desperate for political traction flirted with the Know-Nothing Party, lulled by its seductive nativist campaigns against “corrupt” Irish and German immigrants — a distinct parallel with modern conservatives’ nativist thinking about Mexican and Central American immigrants.

It was pretty much over for the Whigs in 1854, as the issue of the expansion of slavery reached fever pitch. That year Whig Winfield Scott was soundly defeated by Democrat Franklin Pierce for the presidency.

Ohio Rep. Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio, deeply affected by his party’s defeat that year, was quoted saying something that might well ring in the ear of Republicans now: “We are slain. The party is dead, dead, dead!”

Campbell later ran for office, and won, as a Democrat. Make of that what you will.

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Maybe the Republicans should tie up with The Modern Whig Party, a movement of avowed moderates that, according to its Web site, "represents moderate voters from all walks of life who cherry-pick between traditional Democratic and Republican ideals ... This includes general principles of fiscal responsibility, strong national defense and bold social progression.”

Or they could just come up with their own tweak on the Whig moniker. The EarWhig Party has a nice ring to it. They could make it look real postmodern by running the words “ear” and “Whig” together, in one of those hip, shiny word ligatures CorporateAmerica is so fond of.

Whatever. They need something. CNN’s reporting today that a range of Republican Party leaders will help spearhead a new GOP outreach initiative, the National Council for a New America. The principals in this redesign of a retrofit, announced today, are many of the party’s usual suspects (Romney, Jindal, McCain, Barbour, among others). It’s the second rebranding effort the Republicans have mounted in about four months.

But Olympia Snowe knows what’s up, and what’s really needed: “There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party,” the Maine senator wrote on Wednesday in an op-ed in The New York Times. “Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities — indeed, it was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash.”

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does modern American politics. With the Republicans surrendering the high ground of contributing to the debate over the future of the country, by taking what’s left of their ball and going home, the GOP isn’t advancing its agenda so much as it’s advancing no agenda. And with an obsession with holding on to the Republican brand, and its managers in Congress and on talk radio, the GOP has lost sight of the importance of something more crucial than the name on the label: the product inside the can.
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Image credits: Republican Party logo: Republican Party. Mission Control cover: © 2008 ATO Records. Henry Clay: Public domain. Zachary Taylor-Millard Fillmore banner: Republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Modern Whig logo: modernwhig.org.

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