A loyal Republican’s lament
It’s not a good sign for the Republican party when a longstanding loyalist like Rich Galen bangs his own party.Galen is the Zelig of the GOP, popping up in the foreground of party tableaux since the 1980s. Among other things, he was Dan Quayle’s Senate press secretary before Quayle became veep. He was Newt Gingrich’s press secretary when Newt was an upstart, and served as communications director when Newt was House Speaker. Later, he directed Newt’s political action committee. He strategized for Fred Thompson’s ill-fated ’08 presidential bid For the past 13 years, he has written Mullings, a blog aimed at providing the Washington press corps with a Republican perspective. And he’s always defending the GOP on the cable chat-fests, most recently on Bill Maher’s show.But when I hosted him yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, he said he agreed with President Obama’s Tuesday assertion that party icon Ronald Reagan would be a bust in the 2012 Republican primaries, drummed out of the race for being too liberal. The party’s ever-rightward tilt is a bad thing, he said, and if it’s not reversed, the GOP may well find itself “consigned to the minority.”I’ve known Galen for years. He’s a smart and funny guy, a feisty advocate for the Republican cause. He likes Paul Ryan’s conservative House budget plan. He shrugs off Mitt Romney’s polling problems with women voters by noting that Obama has a deficit with men. He says today’s hyper-partisanship began with the ’80s congressional Democrats, not Newt. He says that Obamacare will be a political burden for Obama this year, no matter now the high court rules, because rank-and-file Democrats “are staying as far away from it as possible.” He says the presidential election will be close, no matter how well Obama is currently performing in the polls.And yet…The fact that Ronald Reagan would bomb in today’s GOP, he said, is symptomatic of “a difficulty for the Republicans, going forward…You can almost see how he would be portrayed by the (conservative) Super PACs: ‘He was a Hollywood actor who served as president of one of the most liberal unions in America! Whose members were some of the most leftist individuals on the planet!'”Yes, Reagan’s tenure at the Screen Actors Guild would’ve exposed him as insufficiently pure – and Galen says that’s precisely the problem with his party today: “There’s a religiosity of what your beliefs are supposed to be. There’s a very narrow tube you have to go down, if you don’t want to be a ‘heretic’…If we’re going to insist on only being this ideology, we’re going to lose. Reagan wouldn’t have put up with that.”Galen singled out Rick Santorum for narrowing the tube. He doesn’t believe that any politician should try to foist his morality on others. He’s bugged by Santorum’s attempts this week to liken himself to Reagan (Santorum thinks he can win a string of late primaries, just like Reagan did in his quixotic 1976 campaign), because if Reagan were running today, Santorum the moral family man would be casting aspersions on the fact that Reagan was once divorced.In Galen’s words, “Santorum, especially, has morphed the party from what it once was (an emphasis on fiscal conservatism) to a place for religious purity issues. That’s dangerous. That has been dangerous throughout human history.” Galen says that a majority party can’t be built on purity; in a majority party, “you have to accept that there are parts of the party platform you’ll disagree with.”But Santorum is virtually finished in the Republican race; the latest poll suggests it’s lights out in Pennsylvania on April 24. So the big question, looking toward November, is whether Romney can resist this ever-rightward undertow and instead move to the center, where elections are ultimately won. Galen thinks it’s doable – although he’s not particularly wild about the likely nominee:”A lot of people have said that the long primary campaign would make Romney a better candidate. But the Romney we see now – this is as good as Romney is ever going to get. He’s not going to give a speech and have people quaking in the aisles or speaking in tongues.” Romney giving a speech, he says, is akin to a business drone saying in a business meeting, “Let’s turn to page A16 and look at footnote four.”(He’s just as enthused as Romney endorser Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, who uttered this barn-burner after Mitt swept three Tuesday night primaries: “Everyone may not agree with who won, but the primary is over.”)Moreover, Galen said, a presidential incumbent has huge institutional advantages (“if you’ve ever seen Air Force One, the hair on your arm stands up”), including the biggest megaphone. Obama will try to tie Romney to the GOP’s ever-rightward stances on social issues, and Romney will try to “finesse” them “by just not talking about them.”Romney’s November prospects may hinge on whether he can pull that off. As Galen pointed out, Romney’s aim is to frame the election as a “referendum” on Obama’s handling of the economy, but his challenge is tougher if Obama succeeds in framing the election as a “choice” between an incumbent and a party tilted too far to the right.Nevertheless, Galen anticipates a close election. “It’s a 50-50 country,” he reminded his UPenn listeners, and the ideological battles in March are often ancient history in October, when millions of undecided voters finally tune in. Indeed, he said, one can’t know today what events could change things for Obama tomorrow – a currency crisis in the euro zone, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a showdown in Iran, the jobless rate at home, an oil pipeline disruption in a place like Nigeria. All told, however, he gives a slight edge to Obama.By the way, we had to ask: What’s up with Newt? Why does your old boss insist on staying in the Republican race long past his sell-by date? Could you provide some character clues that would help explain this?Galen surely did: “Newt’s world has always been inside his head. He’d have 15 ideas a day (back when Galen worked for him), and at least one would be deadly. It was my job to sort out the deadly one…He has the attention span of a five-year-old…He truly believes that if Romney doesn’t get the 1144 delegates (by convention time), he’ll have one last chance to get the delegates to chant his name.”But how can Newt possibly believe that?Because, as Galen put it, Newt operates within “a reality-distortion field….And he’s 68 years old, so what else is he going to do with his time? Go to the zoo?”No, he need not go to the zoo. It’s clear, from Galen’s depiction of the GOP, that he’s inside one already.——-Some Obamacare supporters believe that the U.S. Supreme Court, mindful of its public image and hoping to rebuild its old reputation as a font of Olympian dispassion, wouldn’t dare strike down the health reform law in a 5-4 ideological ruling. But of course it would. My Thursday newspaper column, here.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1
WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.