(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

How I became a man without a party

A disillusioned veteran of the Reagan White House has some advice for liberals


Bruce Barlett
June 29, 2017 7:58AM (UTC)
This piece originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.

I am part of the reason why Democrats have not been successful in the Trump era. I am someone who should be a Democrat, but I’m not. Let me explain.

I was a Republican most of my life — I even worked in the White House for Ronald Reagan. I was very comfortable with the Reagan-era GOP. It was conservative, but not obsessively so, and not at the expense of proper governance. Republicans today easily forget all the “liberal” things Reagan did, such as raising taxes 11 times, giving amnesty to illegal aliens, pulling US troops out of Lebanon, negotiating nuclear disarmament and many other heresies to conservative dogma.

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At first, I cheered the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and even contemplated going back to work on Capitol Hill. I remember being invited to many meetings with Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders to help them shape their agenda.

But soon, I was disturbed by things I saw the new majority doing in Congress. One of the first was slashing some 3,000 staff slots from the congressional committees. I thought this was very unwise because committee staff were the primary source of policy expertise. “Without staff to do the work, how were Republicans going to implement their agenda competently?” I thought.

It turned out that Gingrich was only interested in centralizing all policy on every issue in his own office. I soon found myself dealing with young staffers in the speaker’s office with no experience or expertise on the issues they were working on. Their only job was to get the Contract With America enacted; they weren’t interested in fixing it or improving it or coming up with new ideas. They had all the policy ideas they needed, thank you.

I was further dismayed when Republicans became obsessed with bringing down Bill Clinton pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. With budget surpluses building up there were plenty of opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to work together on issues such as tax reform and entitlement reform that were simply lost to political rancor.

The incompetence of the George W. Bush administration finally drove me over the edge. The final straw for me was enactment of the budget-busting Medicare Part D program. As a conservative, I thought we needed to be reigning in such open-ended spending programs, not creating new ones.

In 2005, I wrote a book attacking Bush from the right called "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy". No Republican today would disagree with a word that I wrote, but, at the time, criticizing a Republican president was grounds for defenestration. I was fired from my job at a conservative think tank and banished from polite Republican company.

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For a few years, I still considered myself to be a Republican, hoping that some degree of sanity would be restored. But it only got much worse. The election of Obama seemed to drive even moderate Republicans over the edge into hysterical hatred and opposition, egged on by the so-called tea party, which consisted entirely of people who knew absolutely nothing about government or policy except that they were mad as hell.

This dictatorship of the idiocracy drove me out of the GOP. I began referring to myself as an independent.

Once freed from needing to feign party loyalty, I found myself receptive to ideas I had once rejected out of hand. I wrote a book that was skeptical of supply-side economics — the Republican theory that tax cuts are the cure for every economic problem. I wrote columns sympathetic to the welfare state and other heresies. I lost the last few Republican friends I had.

The simplest way to explain my intellectual and political evolution is that I had previously seen the Republican glass as half-full, now I saw it as half-empty. (These days, it is completely empty.)

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The Trump phenomenon is the culmination of everything I hated about the Bush-Gingrich era Republican Party that drove me out, especially the anti-intellectualism. The sum total of Trump’s agenda appears to begin and end with reversing whatever Obama did; I see no sign of a positive agenda even from a conservative point of view. The Republican Party appears to exist for the sole purpose of acquiring power in order to shower rewards on those who support the party, especially those who support it financially.

I’ve grown to hate my former party. You’d think this would make me a prime candidate for recruitment by the Democrats. But I’m not. First, no Democrat has ever reached out to me. I am not insulted by this, only surprised. And my efforts to suggest ideas to Democrats have been uniformly rebuffed. Like the Republicans, Democrats are wary of apostates and are only receptive to those born into their church, it seems.

Of much more importance in terms of my reluctance to join the Democratic Party is that the party doesn’t really seem to stand for anything other than opposition to the GOP. Admittedly, just about everything the Republicans are doing deserves to be opposed. But the Democrats also need a positive agenda of their own. I remember thinking late in the 2016 campaign that I could not name a single policy proposal Hillary Clinton had put forward. I knew they existed — 10 point plans to fix various problems that were probably well thought through, but all of the points were small-bore and impossible to summarize easily. You had to go to her website and dig them out because they never appeared in any of her commercials or interviews.

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As much as I hate what the conservative movement has become, it rose to power through some strategies that are easily duplicable by progressives. One is putting as much effort into marketing ideas as originating them. Another is coordinating efforts among disparate groups on the right — you support my cause and in return I’ll support yours. And all these efforts are continuously repeated throughout the right-wing echo chamber.

It took decades for conservatives to set up the institutional infrastructure that supports and nourishes the GOP today. And fundraising was a big part of it. One thing conservatives learned is to share donors with each other through groups such as the Council for National Policy. I don’t know of any similar group on the left.

Progressives always complain about a lack of funds, but clearly there is plenty of money available. Hillary Clinton did not lose because she had less money than Trump; she had considerably more. The congressional race Georgia’s 6th District attracted tens of millions of dollars for the Democratic candidate. He lost, but not because he was underfunded.

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What ultimately won the day for the right was its long-term focus. The left seems to me to be totally focused on the short-term — stopping whatever the Republicans are doing today. They’ll worry about building institutions and developing a positive agenda when the crisis is past. But tomorrow is another crisis and no Republican idea ever stays dead no matter how badly it was defeated; it will arise again like a phoenix the next time an opportunity presents itself. This puts Democrats permanently on defense. But as my old boss Jack Kemp, a former pro football player, always told me, “You don’t win games on defense.”

Another strength of the right that the left could learn is its self-confidence and aggressiveness. Turn on cable news at any hour and you will hear a right-winger expounding with bravado on some subject they have no clue about. If there is a liberal on for “balance,” he or she will waste all their air time futilely trying to explain why what their opponent said was complete nonsense. As a consequence, progressives never get their points across and appear feckless. I often joke that a Democrat is someone who won’t take their own side in a debate.

There are many other ways as well that Democrats handicap themselves that make me reluctant to join them. Sure, I’ll vote for their candidates — in a choice between crazy and sane, I’ll vote sane every time. But joining a party, even if it’s only in my own mind, implies a higher level of commitment, one that I am not yet ready to make.

I suppose the easiest way to get me to join is to find a decent leader and at least one tent-pole big issue — like tax cuts were for the Republicans — around which intellectual-types like me can help build a tent that would include us. New publications need to be established where thinkers can throw out ideas, build support, answer critics and all the other things the right-wing echo chamber does so well for the GOP. A few million dollars a year would go a long way. But no one on the left with money seems to want to do anything except make contributions to Democratic candidates that go into worthless TV ads that only make Democratic consultants rich.

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Anyway, for the time being, I will remain an independent who is waiting for a tough, muscular Democrat with the courage of their convictions and no fear of Republicans to arise, as French President Emmanuel Macron did. He showed that being a moderate does not mean being weak, and that fear of the right is the right’s greatest strength, but one that is easily punctured. If I were a Democrat I would study Bobby Kennedy’s race in 1968, the Bill Clinton of 1992, Sen. Pat Moynihan and other Democrats who could project strength and leadership and had new ideas to back them up. When one such Democrat emerges, I will be ready to join.


Bruce Barlett

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