Bring back prudent Republicans of yesterday

Watching today's Republicans being led around by an extremist Tea Party faction, with no adult supervision, I find my mind drifting back to the late 1980s when I was assigned to cover the administration of George H.W. Bush, who I believe is one of our most underrated presidents. I have long admired the elder Bush for the deftness with which he dealt with the collapse of the Soviet empire. But, in later years, I came to admire him even more for the fact that he believed that math and science were not matters of opinion — a view increasingly rare in today's GOP.

Despite having run on the promise of "Read my lips: No new taxes," when the deficit started spiraling to dangerous levels under his presidency, Bush agreed to a compromise with Democrats to raise several taxes, along with spending cuts, as part of a 1990 budget deal that helped to pave the way for the prosperity of that decade. It definitely hurt his re-election, but he did it anyway.

Bush also believed in science. How many Republicans know that he and his aide Boyden Gray pioneered the use of cap-and-trade to deal — very effectively — with the problem of acid rain produced by power-plant emissions?

In an article, "The Political History of Cap and Trade," published in Smithsonian Magazine in August 2009, Richard Conniff details how "an unlikely mix of environmentalists and free-market conservatives hammered out the strategy known as cap-and-trade." As Conniff explained it, "Gray liked the marketplace approach, and even before the Reagan administration expired, he put (Environmental Defense Fund) staffers to work drafting legislation to make it happen. ... John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, was furious. He said the cap 'was going to shut the economy down,' Boyden Gray recalls. But the in-house debate 'went very, very fast. We didn't have time to fool around with it.' Bush not only accepted the cap, he overruled his advisers' recommendation of an 8 million-ton cut in annual acid rain emissions in favor of the 10 million-ton cut advocated by environmentalists. ... (Today,) the cap-and-trade system continues to let polluters figure out the least expensive way to reduce their acid rain emissions."

Bush also believed that to be a conservative was to act with "prudence," one of his favorite words and a philosophy he demonstrated in foreign policy by deciding, once he defeated Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, not to follow him to Baghdad.


I find it hard to look at today's GOP without thinking how far it has drifted from the kind of balanced conservatism the elder Bush brought to politics. Today's GOP has gone from espousing cap-and-trade to deal with pollution to espousing the notion that all the world's climate scientists have secretly gotten together and perpetrated a "hoax," called climate change, in order to expand government — all of this at a time of record heat waves and climate disruptions.

On the economy, the GOP has gone from the magical thinking of Vice President Dick Cheney — who argued that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter" and used this argument to help run up the deficit to its current astronomical levels with huge tax cuts — to an anti-tax cult that spurned a "Grand Bargain" with President Obama because it would have not only cut $3 trillion in spending over the next decade but also involved $1 trillion in tax increases. Somehow, the GOP has forgotten that even Ronald Reagan didn't believe deficits don't matter and he raised taxes when our fiscal stability demanded it. As for prudence today, well, the willingness to risk a default on America's financial obligations by refusing to raise the debt ceiling may be many things, but it is not prudent.

Where have all the adults in this party gone? Where is Dick Lugar, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Colin Powell, Hank Paulson and Big Business? Are you telling me that they are ready to fall in line behind Michele Bachmann, Grover Norquist, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin? Are these really the pacesetters of modern conservatism?

I wish Obama had embraced the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan when it was announced last November and then added his own long-term investment plans on top of it and then built a national mandate for this "Grand Bargain" — before we got to this point. But the president has now embraced such a deal, which is important and constructive, though he needs to spell out this Grand Bargain more emphatically, publicly, repeatedly and specifically.

Because it is the only long-term solution — and it is coming. Either the market will impose a Grand Bargain on us in a haphazard way or we can do it rationally by a Democratic and Republican consensus. The president says that he is ready and that his party is behind him. I hope so. But without a Republican Party that returns to the sane conservatism of the likes of Bush — which accepts that both spending and tax increases are, reluctantly, needed to fix our budget and maintain social stability — we're not going to get even a minibargain, let alone a grand one. It is time for a counterrevolution in the GOP.

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