The New Deal, argued historian Richard Hofstadter prophetically in the Age of Reform, impelled Republicans on their path to insanity — to the disheveled political asylum that is now their permanent residence. I've taken some liberty in describing Hofstadter's thesis, which he presented more than 60 years ago. But that was the nut of it: FDR, the New Deal and its brain trusters drove the GOP lastingly crazy.
The liberty I've taken is one of characterization only. What I denote as "crazy" Hofstadter delineated as the party's alienation from "hard facts" and its alternative, aggressive immersion into nothing more than "high moral indignation," "cliché-ridden" premises and "hollow" platitudes as critiques of the New Deal. The Republican Party, once the driver of innovation and pragmatism, had "set up [the nation's] great industrial and communications plant and founded the fabulous system of production and distribution upon which the country prided itself," observed Hofstadter with admiration. Yet with the onset and ensuing tenacity of the Great Depression's "urgent practical realities," it was Rooseveltian progressives who adopted the philosophical cloak of innovative pragmatism.
Overwrought Republicans were reduced to screaming national betrayal as they plunged into ideological resentments. They possessed no answers, no proffered solutions, no imaginative approaches to easing the depression's ravages, while Roosevelt offered government intervention in the manner of try-anything experimentation to, you know, actually help people. And it all drove the GOP crazy.
Today we see its enduring madness in almost comical form. For years Republicans screamed the bottomless evils of Obamacare, which was designed to relieve the mass suffering of the healthcare under- and uninsured. This time, however, Republicans promised a responsive answer, in "repeal and replace." The GOP would recreate what President Obama and his congressional Democratic allies had destroyed: the world's greatest healthcare system, according to conservative critics. Just give them a chance, said Republicans to the electorate; they would wipe the scourge of Obamacare from the face of this sorry earth and replace it with — a happy something.
The unfolding of that urgent something is now upon them, but alas, the something is nothing but mad befuddlement. Repeal is a cinch, of course, however they haven't a clue as to how to replace what they so passionately wish to repeal. All those years of Obamacare-bashing were a demagogic thrill, but in their excitement they forgot to conceive what the post-bashing, pragmatic alternative would look like. Now they look like a bunch of pixilated boobs — a teaming herd of ideological cattle who, having stirringly mooed nothing but high moral indignation, cliché-ridden premises and hollow platitudes for seven years, indeed have nothing else to offer. Which is kind of crazy.
The Washington Post's leaked audio of congressional Republicans' recent healthcare summit reveals just how nuts their "repeal and replace" fantasy always was. They would confect a system in which no one would lose — and at much "lower costs" to boot, as Sen. Lamar Alexander envisions it. It took Sen. Rob Portman to remind his colleague that "this" — roughly a half-trillion dollars, the "savings" from repeal — "is going to be what we’ll need to be able to move to" a transition from Obamacare. Oops.
Meanwhile, that unpullable rug Republicans had promised? Said GOP Congressman Tom MacArthur: "We’re telling those people that we’re not going to pull the rug out from under them, and if we do this too fast" — speed having also been promised — "we are in fact going to pull the rug out from under them." Double oops.
The madness continued, with Sen. Bill Cassidy asking a "simple question": What of Medicaid's expansion? Replied Greg Walden, a House committee chairman: "These are decisions we haven’t made yet." Right. Things have a way of just sort of sneaking up on congressional Republicans. How could they ever have anticipated this dilemma?
In the end, though, vexing problems of policy and the welfare of millions came down to power politics, which is all the contemporary GOP cares about anyway. Whatever we come up with, said Rep. Tom McClintock, is "going to be called Trumpcare. Republicans will own that lock, stock and barrel, and we’ll be judged in the election less than two years away." Doubtless that's the real problem for a party that based its repeal-and-replace promises on nothing but the ethereal politics of high moral indignation.
Which is where, perhaps, Republicans should have left their 2016 politics, as they did 84 years ago. Because as political historian Hofstadter pointed out, actual solutions to national hardships tend to maddeningly elude them.