Sidney Blumenthal: Interviewed about his new book on the collapse of the Republican Party
Sidney Blumenthal has written for The New Republic, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and most recently served as Washington editor to Salon.com and as a contributor to The Guardian. He is one of America’s foremost political commentators, and also has a noteworthy track-record of political engagement. He served as an assistant and senior advisor to President Bill Clinton and is currently a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton. He was also executive producer for the Oscar Award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. Blumenthal has just published a collection of essays entitled The Strange Death of Republican America. I put six questions to him on the subject of his current book.
1. You have modeled your book, at least to a degree, on George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, the 1935 classic of modern political historiography that linked the demise of the Liberal Party to dramatic external changes–the political ascendancy of trade unionism, the civil war in Ireland, and so forth. But there’s a difference, isn’t there? When Dangerfield wrote the Liberal Party really was on the verge of extinction. But today you’re effectively forecasting doom for the Republicans. Not only do the Republicans cling to power in the Executive Branch, they have arguably succeeded in a sweeping reallocation of power from the other branches to the Executive. And they have greatly consolidated their control of the Judicial branch. Only in the legislature have the Democrats staged a comeback, and even there the margins are narrow and they rest on a single election in 2006. Admittedly George W. Bush has emerged as the most unpopular president of modern times, but America has developed a very stable two-party system, and part of that stability comes from a party’s rejection of its failed leaders. In the 2008 presidential race, the Republicans rejected the two candidates who positioned themselves as Bush’s heirs (Romney and Giuliani) in favor of John McCain, the man who was Bush’s nemesis in 2000. Don’t the signs point to an internal realignment within the G.O.P. that positions the party to hold on to the only part of the government that seems to matter, the Executive? Doesn’t that make your prognosis premature?
[BLUMENTHAL] My book’s title was inspired by Dangerfield’s cogent history of the Liberal Party. Though published in 1935, it covered the period from the end of the Boer War to the beginning of World War I. We now regard that era as a time of illusion: the Liberals’ belief in an upward spiral of progress armored their blithe indifference to the social forces being unleashed within England. If the Liberals suffered from arrogance it was stoked not by fierce fires but rather by deeply settled complacency. Their inability to recognize and respond to changing realities, despite their assumption of progress, led to their undoing. The contrast between the fall from grace of the English Liberals under Edwardian beneficence and the American Republicans under Bush malfeasance could not be starker. It is the difference between inertia and volatility. The Liberals did not envision the inferno that lay ahead in world war while the Republicans would not acknowledge the inferno they created after the fact.
As I have reported and analyzed in The Strange Death of Republican America and my preceding volume on the Bush presidency, How Bush Rules–taken together offering a contemporaneous historical record–Bush pursued the radicalization of Republicanism to its limits. Politically, he has succeeded in discrediting the conservative Republican project. His popularity is the lowest (and most extended) for a president in modern times and the party brand has been contaminated. Bush’s consequences make it impossible for a Republican successor to embrace his legacy.
John McCain’s emergence is testimony to the shattering of Bush’s presidency. Without the fracturing of conservatism, McCain would never have become the Republican nominee. It is not an accident, as the Marxists might say, that McCain was Bush’s rival in 2000, a bitterly fought contest that resulted in wounds that are still fresh to McCain. Regardless of McCain’s need to consolidate and conciliate the Republican base–and despite some Democrats’ insistence that McCain is little more than a party line reactionary–he remains an utterly singular figure in the individualistic tradition of Goldwater but lacking Goldwater’s early (at least) extremism. Ironically, at the end of the current Republican era, McCain is the last important Republican whose career stretches back to the Reagan period–and even to the Nixon years as an icon of the Vietnam War. McCain represents continuity and a break with it. His reliance on neoconservatives for foreign policy advice is his most important connection to the Bush legacy.
For McCain to win in the Electoral College, of course, he would have to reassemble the Republican coalition. But he might well have greater appeal and put into play states that dropped out of the G.O.P. alliance under George W. Bush, from New Jersey to California. If McCain did so the result would not be a restoration of Reaganism, but the basis of a post-Bush Republicanism....
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