Newt Gingrich, conservative Republicanism’s last and also perhaps its next purveyor of bold ideas, reached back almost a half century to put into proper context President Obama’s sweeping new budget and his own party’s mission unaccomplished.
"I think that what President Obama has done is outlined the boldest effort to remake America since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in 1965," the former House speaker said during a CBS News web cast chat with Washington’s foremost media monument, Bob Schieffer. "I think he has courageously laid down the challenge to the whole country … And I think the challenge will be, for those of us who don’t want to go that way, to articulate an alternative vision. But I think this budget sets the stage for the biggest fight over the future of America since 1965."
Rewind and rethink. It is 1965 and Republicans have became known as the party that just said no to LBJ’s Great Society programs but offered no alternatives. Two years later, a group of House Republicans, led by Rep. Melvin Laird of Wisconsin and Albert Quie of Minnesota, sought to belatedly undo their negative image by proposing new ideas as alternatives to the Great Society programs that were now being implemented throughout the nation’s capital — from the OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity) to HEW (Heath, Education and Welfare) to HUD (Housing and Urban Development)
They indeed had some good ideas. But apparently unmindful that this is a city of acronyms, the document they handed reporters was proudly titled: "Constructive Republican Alternative Proposals."
Fast forward. It is February 2009 and conservative Republican activists have convened in Washington. But for a nation desperate for new alternatives, the Republican Party base offered nothing more than that old 1967 Republican acronym implied. The conservative delegates seemed to have forgotten how Gingrich in 1994 led Republicans out of their perpetual minorityship to capture the House: By creating a movement based not on negativism or inflammatory rhetoric, but on new ideas that seemed to offer positive, uplifting alternatives.
Instead the Conservative Political Action Conference presented as its new face a keynote speaker who never held any office nor was accountable for administering anything that gushed from his mouth. And shout radio’s Rush Limbaugh clearly did not disappoint.
The conservative activists cheered and shouted huzzahs as Limbaugh boomed: "I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation. Why would I want that to succeed?"
The real question is: Why would any member of any party want to see suffering Americans doomed to ongoing economic woes rather than see someone else’s reforms restore prosperity?
For a few hours, new Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele seemed to have the potential to lead his party’s resurrection. He initially attacked Limbaugh’s comment, adding the radio talker was an "entertainer" who was "incendiary" and "ugly." Naturally, Limbaugh rushed to lambaste Steele — faster than you can backpedal a news cycle — Steele pathetically apologized.
Not all Republicans cheered Limbaugh’s bleating heart declaration. On ABC News’ "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" new House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., disagreed with Limbaugh. "I don’t think anyone wants anything to fail right now," Cantor said, "…What we need to do is we need to put forth solutions to the problems that real families are facing today."
Trouble is, the more Cantor elaborated, the more his idea of new ideas sounded like the same old ideas that got us into this economic mess over the last eight years: "…conservative principles of limited government … belief in free markets … opportunity can only be created by the private sector …"
If the (no longer Grand) Old Party ever produces a flicker of new ideas, they may have to be forged not on Capitol Hill but on K Street, where ex-Professor/ex-Speaker Gingrich now dabbles daily.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)