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Trouser Trouble

The Republican Party used to be identified with free enterprise, fiscal discipline and personal liberty; it was the party of Lincoln. Now it can’t get past its own meanness.

Having one party in shambles is not good, in the long run, for Democrats or Republicans. The two-party system has served this country well. It pushes American politics toward the center, unlike the fragmented power structures in places like Israel that give disproportionate power to the political extremes. America’s political stability, which underlies the nation’s global power status, requires two viable parties.

It has been a long, sad path to the GOP’s present mess. Personal liberty was tossed overboard a long time ago. Red-baiting in the 1940s and 1950s, halfhearted support for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and Richard Nixon’s anti-busing, code-word-heavy “Southern strategy” of the 1970s all contributed to making “equal rights for us” part of the party’s brand image. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush built on this by using abortion, school prayer, flag burning and gay rights as wedge issues to create a party base without having to make or explain difficult public policy choices, like how to pay for health care or Social Security. Using scary bogeymen was so much easier. Remember Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina railing against “sec’lar humanists?”

Nixon added “law and order” to the Republican message in reaction to the urban riots and antiwar protests of the 1960s. Unfortunately, respect for the law did not extend to the Nixon White House. Nor did Ronald Reagan do much to stop crime from soaring amid the 1980s crack epidemic. It was centrist Democrat Bill Clinton who presided over a national and bipartisan effort that brought crime rates down to Eisenhower-era levels.

George W. Bush fought terrorism pretty successfully. After 9/11, American cities went untouched for the remainder of the Bush presidency. However, the muddled reasoning behind the Iraq invasion, the use of needlessly brutal tactics, an emphasis on loyalty over competence and a general disdain for the rights of anyone outside the administration left Bush and the Republicans with no goodwill for their efforts.

It was the Republican Party’s virtual war against the Clinton presidency that helped bring it to dominance at the start of this century, and to chaos less than a decade later. Clinton engaged in sexual misbehavior with a White House intern, lied about it to the public, and dissembled when forced to testify about it in an unrelated sexual harassment suit. Bad stuff. But Clinton’s private sexual conduct ultimately was his family’s business, not the country’s. He never portrayed himself as a paragon of morality. Republican impeachment efforts made the party’s base happy, but forced a raft of Republican officeholders to claim a “holier than thou” status that they never deserved and could not maintain.

So, one after another, Republican leaders have been banished to a wilderness of failed family values. The process began with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and continues today with Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. This may be the only political party in world history for which trouser trouble has become an existential threat.

The party’s latest savior might have been someone who looks as good in a dress as in pants, the beauty-queen-turned-governor of Alaska. Oops. That went out the window last week when Sarah Palin walked out on her job because, basically, she is sick and tired of it. And still there are elements of the GOP that think she might have a shot at the party’s presidential nomination in 2012.

Republicans took a long walk to get into this wilderness, and it will be a quite a hike before they get out. I think there is hope in the long term. Someone who believes in civil rights, in limited government, in lower taxes and in self-reliance used to be called a liberal Republican. The Northeastern U.S. was the primary range of that political animal, which was exemplified by Sen. Jacob Javits and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, both from New York.

Today that person might be a Libertarian, well outside the two-party mainstream. The closest the major parties may come, apart from a few Republican dinosaurs, is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who, incidentally, was the Libertarian presidential nominee back in 1988, when he ran against the Reagan-era budget deficits. Paul’s brief success attracting a national following in the 2008 presidential primaries provided a map showing Republicans how to get back to their prouder earlier principles.

If only the party can free itself from the haters and the holy rollers long enough to start walking.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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