- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008


The Whig era of 1832-56 ended when the party of the same name split over extending slavery to new U.S. territories. It left behind the golden years of Presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Since Harrison died a month into his term, and Taylor a year-and a-half into his, call it the golden years of Fillmore.

The latest and perhaps last Republican ascendancy of the period 1980-2006 ends with the party incoherent over opposition to big government, illegal immigration and how to win the war against Islamic imperialism. Its legacy is the golden years of Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Okay, maybe just the gleaming years of Ronald Reagan.

President George W. Bush”s 2000 campaign slogan of “compassionate conservatism” ” an irritant to conservatives (“What, we”re not compassionate because we think government often is the least effective way to help?”) ” hinted at the coming crackup. It has featured ballooning federal growth, including the president as pharmacist-in-chief with his unaffordable Medicare drug expansion; failure to enforce immigration laws; and insisting the “war on terror” could be won with an undersized military and without war taxes and non-defense cuts.

Conservatives’ lack of enthusiasm for the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, is, as several commentators have noted, partly “buyers’ remorse” over Mr. Bush and fear of a replay from the maverick Mr. McCain.

Like its Whig predecessor - Abraham Lincoln was a Whig congressman before becoming the Republicans’ first president - the Grand Old Party may fade quickly. This, just as Democrats offer mainly New Deal doctrines with New Age rhetoric, Sen. Barack Obama or Great Society regifts for Baby Boomers Sen. Hillary Clinton and avoid the central issue of how to triumph in the global war.

Whigs coalesced in opposition to President Andrew Jackson. They were jealous of congressional authority in the face of presidential dictates. Urban-oriented, advocating industrialization and “internal improvements” such as canals, railroads and public education, they contrasted with Jacksonian Democrats” agrarian, rurally inclined status quo.

Republicans fragment in reaction to presidential overreach, from tainted interrogations of terrorism suspects to federalizing education and dispensing billions for HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa. The syndicated columns of former chief presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson inadvertently clarify much that went wrong in the Bush White House. Repeatedly praising the president”s African intervention as a Holy Grail of sorts, Mr. Gerson presumes a “faith-based” federal activism sprawling worldwide, its hand deep into the taxpayer”s pocket. This most un-Republican government, virtually without limits, would overwhelm both state and local authorities and the private sector, profit and non-profit.

So the Republican Party staggers off stage under the oxymoron of “big government conservatism.” Republicans undermined their limited government ideology, if not the economy, with only the second third of the Democrats” traditional tax-and-tax, spend-and-spend, elect-and-elect formula. Like Democrats, Republicans seem bereft of serious plans for curtailing high-volume oil imports, strengthening the dollar and promoting economic growth through investment over consumption.

Where is the hope? With Mr. Obama, along his “Music Man” Harold Hill or Pied Piper arc? With Mrs. Clinton, maybe in a St. Joan trajectory? In Mr. McCain, whose great personal courage contends with numerous political contradictions? The really intriguing question is, Can this long campaign forge a new John McCain, as Lincoln”s encounters with slavery and experiences as a Whig refashioned him into a Republican?

Of course, Lincoln was 45 when he joined the fledgling Republican Party. Mr. McCain is 71. But win or lose, negatively or positively, Mr. McCain could catalyze what Mr. Bush may prove to have precipitated a post-Republican party of the right. A conservative party would be the not-quite-direct descendant of the Federalists-Whigs-Republicans.

Out of this tumultuous campaign, which already has produced the first serious female and black presidential candidates, it just might be possible.

Eric Rozenman is a writer and editor in Washington. The opinions are his own.

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