TCS Daily


The GOP's Fawlty Towers

By Stephen Bainbridge - August 31, 2006 12:00 AM

In the late 1970s British cult comedy classic Fawlty Towers, John Cleese played Basil Fawlty who ran a dilapidated seaside hotel and was, quite possibly, the rudest man in England. In a particularly funny episode, The Germans, Basil is expecting hotel guests from Germany. Accordingly, he repeatedly admonishes his staff: "Don't mention the war." Naturally, Basil himself simply can't stop mentioning the war. Hilarity ensues.

The current political scene calls that episode to mind, although one doubts whether anything resembling hilarity will ensure.

On the one hand, we have a New Republic column by left-leaning law professor Cass Sunstein telling the Democrats: "Don't mention the war":

"Republicans say that national security is a winning issue for them; Democrats say the same thing. Social science evidence strongly suggests that the Republicans are right, because the politics of terrorism touches a chord that produces much more support for them than for Democrats: our own mortality. ... Unless circumstances have relevantly changed since 2004, Bush -- and almost certainly Republican candidates more generally -- are likely to benefit from any reference to terrorism or the September 11 attacks."

Likewise, we have conservative pundits like Hugh Hewitt telling Republicans, in effect: "Don't talk about anything but the war." Hence, Hewitt repeatedly pounds the same drum beat: "Any vote for any Democrat is a vote against victory and a vote for vulnerability."

I think this advice has it exactly backwards. Democrats need to talk about the war, while Republicans need to talk about something else.

I suspect a substantial number of Americans might agree with the following sentiment: The Republicans deserve to lose at the ballot box, but the Democrats don't deserve to win.

Sunstein's basically right that national security issues are good for Republicans and bad for Democrats, although his claim that behavioral economics explains that divide is wrong. Occam's razor provides a much simpler answer; namely, the history of the last 40 years.

  • Most of today's national Democratic figures cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Almost to a man (or woman), they were McGovernites, whose opposition to that war morphed into a set of general anti-military attitudes.
  • While Democratic anti-militarism helped elect Nixon in 1972, Watergate helped elect Jimmy Carter in 1976. Under his feckless administration, our elite Delta Force badly bungled the Iranian hostage rescue effort and the country otherwise proved toothless to deal with the hostage taking. On top of which, there was a general perception that his military couldn't have held the Fulda Gap against the Salvation Army let alone the Red Army.
  • Ronald Reagan knew there was a bear in the woods. While a few Democrats helped Reagan win the Cold War (Sam Nunn comes to mind), the center of gravity of the Democrat Party in those days was dead set against Reagan's military build up.
  • When Bill Clinton came into office, he let 20-something political operatives treat senior military White House aides as errand boys. At times Clinton's main use for the military seemed to be bombing someone every time his poll numbers dipped. It was on his watch that Osama bin Laden grew bold enough to plan 9/11, while our intelligence and security forces slept.
  • The closest thing the Democrats have these days to a Sam Nunn -- Joe Lieberman -- just got run out of his party.

In sum, the Democrats' track record on security issues does not encourage faith that they can be trusted with the national security. The Democrats simply have to change that dynamic if they are to deserve victory in 2006, let alone 2008. Hence, they must talk about the war.

In contrast, the GOP has a different problem. The party of fiscal conservatism, low taxes, and small government long talked the talk but failed to walk the walk. Neither Reagan nor Gingrich fundamentally cut government -- they mostly just kept it from growing quite as fast as it might otherwise have done. Worse yet, while Gingrich went swimming in the government shutdown, he let Clinton swipe his anti-deficit clothes. There are a lot of reasons the deficit fell in the 1990s, but the Clinton Democrats get -- and to a considerable extent deserve -- credit for fiscal responsibility.

Under George Bush, the GOP has largely stopped even pretending to talk the talk. Instead, Bush's two terms have brought us: a massive increase in government entitlements; renewed fiscal deficits; a worsening trade deficit; huge spending increases; bigger government; more intrusive government.

The GOP therefore needs to talk about these issues. They have to persuade the American people either that the war is so important that nothing else matters or that the GOP can both win the war on terror and get back to its sound fiscal roots.

I take it Hewitt and his ilk prefer the former. Hence, the constant drum beat about voting for a Democrat is a vote for defeat. But I don't buy it. Even in existential wars like the Civil War or World War II, domestic policy mattered.

A couple of recent election results tell me that the GOP base can no longer be counted on the reflexively turn out in response to the toscins of war. In Michigan, Congressman Joe Schwarz was a stalwart supporter of President Bush and the Iraq War. He was endorsed by Bush and Cheney. If the war was all that mattered in his safe GOP seat, he should have coasted to reelection. Instead, he lost a primary challenge to Tim Walberg. Walberg is pro-life; Schwarz is pro-choice. Walberg is a fiscal conservative backed by the Club for Growth; Schwarz is a member of Christine Todd Whitman's Its My Party Too, The Republican Main Street Partnership, The Republican Majority For Choice, Republicans for Choice, and Republicans For Environmental Protection.

In Colorado's 5th Congressional District, Hugh Hewitt vigorously endorsed Jeff Crank. When the GOP primary results were announced, however, Crank had lost to Doug Lamborn. Why? My guess is that the voters agreed with the Club for Growth that a comparison of Crank's and Lamborn's records showed it was the latter "who will stand for the pro-growth principles of lower taxes and limited government."

If these results turn out to be the bellwethers I expect, the GOP needs to follow Basil's advice: Don't talk about the war, at least until you've convinced us that you're again going to be the party of small government and economic growth.

Steve Bainbridge is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor and a Professor of Law at UCLA. He writes two popular blogs: ProfessorBainbridge.com and ProfessorBainbridgeOnWine.com.

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