Endangered Species

Article excerpt

Byline: Jacob Weisberg

Responsible Republicans are nearly extinct.

Do you remember the Responsible Republicans? In the 1980s small herds of them still roamed around Washington. In 1982 they stampeded over Ronald Reagan's veto of a tax increase designed to mitigate the fiscal harm of his 1981 tax cut. In 1986 they passed bipartisan immigration reform. In 1990 they were spotted with President George H.W. Bush at Andrews Air Force Base, conspiring to reduce the deficit.

After the Andrews summit, however, Double-R glimpses outside captivity became increasingly rare. With their habitats in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Coast under threat, their status moved from "threatened" to "endangered." During the battle over his health-care plan, President Obama was unable to find a single one to serve as a mascot. There continue to be rumors of their return around issues such as immigration and climate change. Yet we have now gone several years without a confirmed sighting.

If Responsible Republicans are in fact approaching extinction, I think we can identify the crucial event that signaled their demise. It was a December 1993 memo by conservative strategist and commentator William Kristol. Kristol's advice about how Republicans should respond to Bill Clinton's 1993 health-care effort pushed the GOP away from any cooperation with the other side. His message marks the pivotal moment when Republicans shifted from fundamentally responsible partners in governing the country to uncompromising, hyperpartisan antagonists on all issues.

In his five-page memo, Kristol took aim at Bob Dole and other congressional Republicans who were then working to find a compromise around the shared goals of universal coverage and cost containment. Kristol called for the GOP to "adopt an aggressive and uncompromising counterstrategy designed to delegitimize the proposal." He argued that a bipartisan deal on health care would be a political victory for Democrats and a defeat for the GOP. "Unqualified political defeat of the Clinton health care proposal," Kristol wrote, " -- would be a monumental setback for the president, and an incontestable piece of evidence that Democratic welfare-state liberalism remains firmly in retreat. …