From Rove to Hastert

It is indicative of the bias that gusts through our media that when the most successful political strategist in memory, Karl Rove, retires from his powerful position in the Bush White House, the press reports his departure tsk-tskingly. Somehow Rove’s departure must suggest his failure and disgrace. Or as some nitwit anchoring the midday CNN news broadcast, "Your World Today," put it when I was walking past a television monitor, "Does that mean the Bush administration is essentially over?" And we are told FOX News is biased. What about stupid?

Well, who has been a finer political strategist than Rove was in 2000, 2002, 2004 and even in the defeat of 2006, James Carville or the Clinton administration’s other machiavel, Paul Begala? While they sweated to keep up with the arrant lies and other misbehavior of their playboy president, the Democratic Party went into its steepest decline since, roughly, the Civil War. Yet Carville and Begala have gone on to become political sages within the media and with no taint of discredit. Both are rude and vulgar and the political sidekicks of the American presidency’s closest approximation to President Warren Harding, complete with sweethearts in the Oval Office, a bossy wife and a passion for golf — though Warren was never known as a golf cheat.

Actually there is a retiring Republican who does deserve obloquy. This week it has been reported that former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is quitting. He became speaker in December 1998, after a dozen lackluster years in the House. He always is introduced in news stories as "a former small-town high school wrestling coach," and when I met him in 1999, he looked like a former high school wrestling coach to me. Wrestling is a very demanding sport, and I wish Hastert had stayed in the gym. His period as speaker marked the Republican congressional delegation’s final decay from Reagan splendor to the provincial Republicanism of an earlier era. The late Harding again comes to mind.

Hastert did preside over tax cuts and did help hammer out legislative responses to the Sept. 11 sneak attacks on New York and Washington. Of course, both initiatives were pretty much devised by the Bush White House. He also opened the floodgates to congressional spending. He turned a blind eye to the petty corruption that beset the House during his term. He encouraged mediocrity and held back young principled Republicans of the Reaganite variety. He allowed the Republican Party to return to the era of pork barrel deal making.

The Reagan era began as a revolt against the welfare state and appeasement of Soviet aggression. It was not simply a visceral revolt by old-fashioned reactionaries but an advance by people who had analyzed sclerotic liberalism and found it incapable of responding to contemporary problems, for instance, cities that were increasingly ungovernable, stagflation in the economy, Soviet military growth and subversion in what was then called the Third World. The most intellectually agile liberal Democrats were parting company with the ritualistic liberal conformists. Intellectuals such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol and — for a time — Daniel Patrick Moynihan were joining Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman and suggesting new solutions to problems liberals dithered over. Such liberals came to be called neoconservatives — and frankly only these skeptical liberals who eventually joined forces with the Reaganites can be called neoconservatives accurately.

The result was the Reagan administration, an amalgam of the best of the rising right and the old liberal consensus developed at the beginning of the Cold War. It was a politics of ideas. Irving Kristol had pronounced modern politics the domain of ideas, and he was right. Hastert, the retired high school wrestling coach, had no appetite for ideas. Until Republicans return to a politics of Reaganite ideas, they will be as antiquated as the Democrats and infinitely less interesting.