As the nation absorbs the depth of Democrat political corruption in Illinois, the Republican Party has an opportunity to claim the mantle of reform, but only at the cost of turning against some of our own.
The impressive 15-point runoff victory of Saxby Chambliss has removed the prospect of the GOP losing its final shreds of influence in the legislative branch. But it has not relieved conservatives from answering the question of how we got into this position in the first place. Since 2000, the GOP has lost 15 senatorial seats, a number, I believe, that stands as a political record. The party has slid from predominance to the very verge of losing its filibuster powers. As a result, one of the more desperate moments in the last campaign involved waiting to see whether Alaskan senator Ted Stevens could eke out a victory against Democrat Mark Begich.
Begich won, which is no bad thing for the Republican Party on a number of levels. Stevens, of course, had at the peak of the campaign been convicted on seven counts of the cheapest form of graft -- offering political favors in exchange for payoffs in the form of house renovations and the like. He was, simply put, a criminal. So the GOP was waiting on tenterhooks to see if its chestnuts would be pulled from the fire by a convicted felon. And nobody found this the least unusual -- that's how far the Republican Party has skidded.
Voting for a felon is an act of shame. All the same, enough Alaskans found themselves capable of that act to make the 2008 campaign an actual race. Some of them voted for Stevens out of habit, some out of party loyalty, some out of pure ignorance. Fortunately, there were not enough of them. Stevens at last went down to defeat, sparing the GOP the agony and embarrassment of piercing his self-esteem and conceit forcefully enough to persuade him to resign (he had already refused to allow himself to be replaced during the campaign), the same distasteful and demeaning process that was required with Larry Craig and Mark Foley.
It's also fortunate that it was wrapped up quickly enough, with no recount or court squabbles, so as not to affect the Chambliss runoff. Stevens -- and the others of his kind -- had already done enough damage. Chambliss would very likely not have faced a runoff, or Norman Coleman a recount, if they hadn't been tarred with membership in the Trash Party.
All of which underlines a fact so unpalatable that it has scarcely come up in discussions concerning GOP reform. Namely, that voting for the Democrats in 2008 was a rational act. Not a very smart act, and in the fullness of time definitely to prove a mistaken one. But rational because the alternative was to vote for the party of Ted Stevens, Larry Craig, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, and a gaggle of beggars drooling for earmarks and willing to throw small children onto train tracks to get them. In 2008, the party of Trash went up against the party of Change. That brand of Change is no doubt empty, specious, and dangerous, but you can't argue with the fact that it smells better than trash.
You pay a price for tolerating trash. Perhaps not an obvious one, perhaps not an immediate one, but you always pay a price. The GOP is now paying that price, after getting its wakeup call in 2006 and refusing to roll out of bed. As for current efforts at reform, everything else is on the table except this one factor, despite the easily comprehended fact that everything else will be totally irrelevant if this one factor is not dealt with. Corruption cannot be ignored. As has been demonstrated time and again this past decade, sane, moral, and intelligent voters will not settle for a party comprised of the reprobates that have populated the GOP in recent years.
I am well aware that the Dems are corrupt to the point of delirium. At this moment alone, in addition to the Blagojevich sewer, we have William "Cold Cash" Jefferson, Alcee Hastings, one of the few judges to confront the criminal justice system from both sides, and figures such as Dodd and Frank, engaged in forms of corruption involving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac so esoteric that nobody knows quite what to make of them. This very week, Charlie Rangel is fighting for his political life for pulling the oldest real estate and tax scams in the book, while Tony Rezko, friend and mentor of... somebody or other, awaits sentencing in Chicago, perhaps to share a cell with Governor Blago.
But none of that matters. The Dems have been corrupt as far back as anyone cares to look, reaching to the days of Tammany Hall and the Locofocos. The Democratic reputation is well known and factored into decisions made by voters. They are the charming rascals who may steal a few rolls of quarters now and then but bring home the political bacon. The Republicans, on the other hand, are the Eagle Scouts brought in to straighten things out once they get out of hand. When the roles of rascal and Scout start to blur, you get trouble in the form of voter rejection. This may not be fair, but it is the American political dialectic and there's no getting around it.
Democrats may protest and bring up the Grant and Harding administrations, to mention only two instances. But these are recalled as exceptions, as opposed to the corruption-as-a-way-of-life of the Democratic Party. That has held true for over a century and a half, and it holds true today, despite present circumstances. (I have personal reasons to believe this to be the case. I had an uncle who did time after serving as a Massachusetts state senator -- or did I just repeat myself? Today the sole question among Boston Dem regulars is whether or not to name the new Dorchester recreation facility in his memory. That is the Democratic Party, as it was and shall be.)
But what happened to the GOP this time? Quite simply, Ronald Reagan happened.. Not that Reagan was in any way corrupt, or would have tolerated corruption among his following. But Reagan was a watershed in more ways than one. Not only did he end the predominance of New Deal liberalism, he opened up a new epoch of success for conservatism as well. For decades, liberals had called the shots and scooped up the rewards, leaving only the dregs for the Republicans. That ended with Reagan. Suddenly it was smart to be a Republican and to profess conservatism. For the first time in generations, conservatism became a path to worldly success.
Inevitably, with political success came corruption, in the person of individuals looking for easy pickings, a smooth hustle, a way to get over. These people (along with closet liberals looking for a foot on the ladder -- another, closely-related form of corruption) moved into the party in force during the mid to late 80s. I recall one GOP politician in New Jersey who campaigned on the accepted conservative platform, mouthing all the customary slogans, only to be heard to say following his election: "Now it's our turn to belly up." And so he did -- so they all did, leaving the state today bankrupt, hopeless, and Democratic, the Louisiana of the Eastern Seaboard.
Conservatives, unused to success, proved to be bad judges of character. They welcomed these hustlers with open arms, believed in them, trusted them, and promoted them. And now, twenty years later, we have the end results.
Several factors smoothed their way. The normal give and take of politics -- the necessity of making deals with people you might not want to see walking down your street after dark. Then we have the "friends" syndrome, the impulse to excuse inexcusable behavior with a remark such as, "He's not really a bad guy -- he's a friend of mine."
One unique element was a contribution of Ronald Reagan himself, the 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." While certainly well-intentioned and useful in many circumstances (such as dealing with the media, which I'm convinced was Reagan's primary concern), it has been commonly utilized as a shield to prevent close scrutiny of the activities of the hustler class.
And there was the numbers game, particularly after the GOP triumph of 1994, when it was considered crucial to pack Congress with as many warm bodies as possible to assure that all those vital conservative policies would be passed. (Which policies were those? I'll get back to you on that...)
This environment gave us Duke Cunningham, with his immortal bribe menu, Mark Foley, of the pathetic attempts to groom congressional pages as sex partners, Larry Craig and his more successful forays into various men's rooms, and others who really aren't worth the bother of looking up how their names are spelled.
And we cannot overlook those who viewed politics as a kind of resume-building effort, happily serving when the going was good in the late 90s and early zeros, but cutting and running for greener corporate or lobbying pastures when things got rough after 2004. Or those who said all the right things and were perfectly willing to fight the good fight until there was actually a fight to be fought, one example being Rick Santorum, who scampered out of town rather than be seen with George W. Bush on a presidential visit to Pittsburgh. A short time later, Republicans inexplicably failed to turn out for his 2006 re-election attempt.
Such a situation could not have prevailed without the contribution of the nonentities at the top of the pole, who played the "see no evil" role to perfection. Particular thanks must go to Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, who ran the Senate and House, respectively (or maybe it was the other way around), creating a legacy of sloth that will be hard for future party heads to match.
The rot is not limited to politics per se, but is prevalent throughout the conservative world, in think tanks, party and advocacy organizations and the like. Though not necessarily guilty of direct corruption, many activists can be accused of careerism and averting their eyes from the more criminal elements. Special attention needs to be paid to the commentariat, the interface between conservatism and the public at large. While happy to talk the talk during the years of plenty, some are now considering jumping ship. They should be encouraged.
This last example reveals that to some extent the problem will solve itself. Now that the snows have come, the summer soldiers are sneaking off to warmer climes. No sense being a hustler where there's nothing to hustle. This process will send large numbers of future indictables home to the Democrats where they belong.
But plenty of rotten apples will remain. What can be done with them?
The simple answer is: expose, expose, and expose. Somebody -- possibly everybody -- knew what Foley, Cunningham, and Stevens were up to. Somebody should have spoken up. Forget the excuses. The numbers? We've seen how well that strategy works. Those seeking to protect corrupt "friends" need to find new ones. The 11th commandment must be repealed until further notice. Shining a spotlight on these people and running them out will pay dividends in the long run. The GOP's major appeal lies in its probity, its steadiness, its sense of virtue in a fallen world. These have been cast aside in favor of ephemera.
The voters and breaking events have given us a good head start; it is up to us to take up the slack. This is in no way a recommendation for a purge but a call for the restoration of the simple, honorable methods of dealing with such types that should have been practiced for the past twenty years and have not been. This is a role that conservatives must take on -- to become the watchdogs of the party and its representatives. While taking action may well mean the end of several "promising" careers, that will represent no loss in the long run.
All the other "urgent" questions -- who is a RINO and who is a true conservative (whatever that might be) and whether social conservatives or moderates would better be dropped from helicopters, are trivia compared to this one. The voters are not stupid. After four years watching the Democrat's nightmare combination of the Chicago and Clinton machines (and what a soap opera that is going to be!), they will be ready for something better. We must be ready to give it to them.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.