The worshipful, fawning depiction by the general news media of the first hundred days of the Obama administration should surprise no one, and conservatives ought to get over it and move on. It’s more interesting to note the near-silence—passivity really—of Republicans over the course of those hundred days. Nearly six months after a running a national campaign that had all the excitement and energy of Bob Dole in 1996, Republicans remain locked in a stupor, even in the face of the most radical political agenda since the birth of the Republic.
The Obama administration and its policies could be the best thing to happen to conservative Republicans in decades. Mr. Obama is on a mission to propel an already bloated and intrusive federal government to mammoth new proportions and authority over its citizens, perhaps the most drastic shift in political dominance since the nation’s founding. Never has there been a better opportunity for Republicans advocating smaller and less intrusive government to set forth their stark differences with the liberal vision of the all-powerful state while at the same time reorienting their party on a path away from eight years of Bush fiscal profligacy.
It appears as if the new administration rolled into town and could barely decide what aspect of government and social structure should be overhauled first, so it started off by doing everything at once. The limping economy, meanwhile, takes a back seat to massive social-engineering proposals, unfathomable spending programs, and an aggressive repudiation of the policies and actions of its predecessor. A pork-laden budget is rammed through while whole industries appear to be sliding toward some form of nationalization. Haphazard and seemingly arbitrary bailout programs indicate significant economic policy disarray. Health care, tax reform, the environment, education, immigration, issues great and small, must be tackled immediately in a frenzy of activity that values haste over prudence. The president travels the globe apologizing to anyone and everyone, foe and friend alike, for America’s past transgressions, bowing to ruthless kings, buoyantly glad-handing dictators, acts which diminish both his countrymen and his office, all for the sake of “change.”
Either inadvertently or by design, depending on which spokesperson is crafting today’s version, the president has set in motion the possible prosecution—persecution—of vigilant and conscientious public servants forced to make difficult decisions during a period of national calamity. All campaign pledge pretenses of “post-partisan” cooperation have been abandoned, and the chilling effect on national security agencies is ignored.
Nevertheless, Republican reaction has been piecemeal, sporadic and muted. Their quietude has been deafening.
Consider House Minority Leader John Boehner’s lame response to myriad Democratic calls for an “independent” commission to “investigate” interrogation methods used by the CIA. Sounding much like Mr. Obama during the campaign, Mr. Boehner said he doesn’t “see a lot of value in looking back” and reminds us that while Americans are “struggling in a very difficult economy” this would be a Washington “sideshow.” Evidently these are the best reasons the Minority Leader can come up with for opposing John Conyers’s totalitarian-sounding “truth commission.” Boehner made no mention of fundamental fairness to these individuals who are clearly targets of a political witch hunt. Nor does he refer to the paralysis it will inflict on those charged with the responsibility of keeping the nation secure. And what about the corrosive effects of vengeful partisan acts during a time of crisis?
Perhaps it can be argued that Republicans are simply standing back waiting for this ambitious new administration to self-destruct. After all, some cracks are already appearing in its agenda. This week the Wall Street Journal analyzed recent Treasury Department data. It showed that in February banks that had received the largest amounts in bailout funds had actually reduced their lending by nearly one-fourth from October levels, the month that TARP money first became available. Controversial revenue-raising proposals—like eliminating itemized deductions including charitable contributions—have gone nowhere in Congress. A plan to create auctions for carbon emissions permits met unexpected calls for delay. Even some Democratic members of Congress, fearing constituent backlash, are joining Republicans in opposing various revenue-raising schemes. Ten Democratic senators crossed party lines in a Republican effort to protect more Americans from the effects of the much-despised federal estate tax. Despite breathless press accolades, it is not all smooth sailing for the Obama administration after the first hundred days.
But even if this spinning-top of an administration is starting to wobble, Republicans should begin to lay the foundation of their case for limited government. They should be at the ready as the grim reality of monumental deficits and out-of-control spending begins to sink in to a notoriously fickle American electorate. But at the moment conservative Republicans have not found their voice; just as in the campaign, they have not yet discovered a way to convey their message.
Unless they do, this historic opportunity will be lost, and the party of Lincoln may spend the next generation wandering in the political desert.