It was a nice party while it lasted.
Republicans once stood for a hawkish foreign policy. But 79 percent of Republican voters said they approved of President Donald Trump’s dovish coddling of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Suddenly, the skepticism of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush has melted into a gooey infatuation with a Russian leader who kills and imprisons his political opponents, invades neighboring democracies, and whose collaborators likely authorized the shooting down of a civilian jetliner over Ukrainian airspace.
Republicans once unabashedly supported the military. Now they seem fine with the public whipping of our NATO partners while Trump butters up Putin. In Reagan’s soaring defense of freedom, he famously proclaimed to the premier of the old Soviet Union, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” In Trump’s defense of Putin, he stated infamously, “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. I think we’re all to blame.”
How is that for a clear and consistent vision of a Western democratic order? Republicans were once the party of law and order and unequivocally supportive of our intelligence agencies. But now they sound like 1960s radical Abby Hoffman who said, “No government, no FBI, no judge, no jailer is ever gonna make me say uncle.”The death of Republican ideals is not limited to national security. Now Republicans are taking their last gasps on their historic belief in free markets. Their president has ignited a trade war with Canada, Europe and China. The party opposing taxes and spending is about to increase spending where it hurts the most: consumer products.
After the summit between the United States and Russia in Helsinki, the pundits increasingly asked, “What does Putin have on Trump?” Perhaps another question is, “What does Trump have on Republicans?” Why would so many willingly surrender to this daily bulldozing of their bedrock principles? The answer is their political survival.
Republicans are not actually swooning over Trump. They are trying to hold on to their districts in a buffeting storm of an election. Many are caught between their own principles and a fervid base ready to inflict punishment on any Republican who is not sufficiently supportive of Trump.
Why? Because, for years, many Republican strategists fed their base a daily diet of fear and loathing. They have won elections by tearing down institutions and immigrants, by telling voters that if ISIS does not get them then ebola will, and by enabling economic and tax policy that spectacularly widened the income divide and hardened resentments.
Indeed, Republican leaders rightly rebuked Trump’s kumbaya with the Kremlin. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others expressed, in proper Washington parlance, their disagreements with the president’s moral equivocations. But it may be too late. They have planted the invasive seeds of demagoguery, and now they cannot prune them with a few soft “tsktsks.”
I never agreed with the Grand Old Party on everything when I served as a member of Congress. But I found accord with it on promoting a Western democratic order in the world, maintaining a strong military to defend freedom, and opposing authoritarianism. I supported the global leadership of the Bush administration in combating AIDS.
I hope that party is not over and replaced by a frothing coalescence of our worst instincts. I hope that real Republicans will take to heart the words, not of Andrew Jackson, whose portrait hangs in the Oval Office of their president, but the singer Jackson Brown, “Oh won’t you stay, just a little bit longer, oh please please please stay, just a little bit more.”
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist and author of the new book, “Big Guns,” a satire of the gun lobby. You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
This first appeared on TheHill.com