What do you do with a drunken sailor?

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 29 2006 11:59 PM

What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?

With this election sinking fast, Republicans debate how not to lose the next one.

80_thehasbeen

Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006

The Recriminator: One reason political parties rarely learn from defeat is that they don't really want to. That's why in politics – unlike other sports – most post-game analysis happens before the game is over. For most partisans, examining the actual results might be too threatening. It's much more comforting to look for excuses and play name-that-goat than to deal with the possibility that Americans might have fundamental problems with your way of thinking.

Both parties have a long history of ignoring inconvenient electoral truths. Democrats learned little from underperforming in 2000 and 2002, and came up short again in 2004. Republican ran a tired campaign in 1992, and replicated it in 1996.

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If you're going to misread an election, it's important to start early, before the votes are actually cast. Otherwise you might learn something.

Lately, Republicans have had the recriminations race to themselves. After six straight years of non-stop misery and self-hatred, Democrats' only current complaint is that the election hasn't happened yet. Republicans, by contrast, have been at each other's throats for months. If Election Night goes badly, Republican talking heads won't have to scramble for talking points. A pre-season of pre-criminations has honed them for the internecine battle ahead.

At least three competing theories have emerged as early frontrunners in the Republican blame game. All have the same fall guy: George Bush.

The first and most persuasive school of thought is the Drunken Sailor theory, which John McCain (a Navy man) has been pushing from the outset. According to this theory, the Bush administration's original sin was forgetting that once upon a time, in a Republican Party far, far away, conservatism meant fiscal conservatism. Then Bush and Tom DeLay greased the skids to fiscal ruin with tax cuts and budget earmarks, luring Republicans to spend like drunken sailors and pig out on pork.

The Drunken Sailor theory has the virtue of truth. McCain made the same case against Bush on the campaign trail in 2000 – that big tax cuts would cause deficits and make it hard to strengthen Social Security. Fiscal prohibitionists like McCain (as well as the last surviving Northeastern Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and the last known Ohio Republican, George Voinovich) aren't quite sure what to do about the budget-busting Bush tax cuts. But they think any Republican who still buys the Cheneyist nonsense that "deficits don't matter" deserves a "dunk in the water," which in one form or another is what drunken sailors often get.

A second and much more counterintuitive Republican recrimination is the Squealer theory, named for the spokespig in Animal Farm who talks so persuasively, other animals forget their own firsthand memories of history and accept his version instead. Newt Gingrich is playing that role brilliantly as he lays the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Ten years ago, Gingrich – not Bush – was the vote-losing face that Republican congressmen morphed into in Democratic attack ads. Today, he wants conservatives to remember the mid-90s as the good old days, back before the only ones certain of Republican convictions were federal prosecutors.

Dick Armey offers the same view in a compelling and deliciously judgmental Outlook piece in today's Washington Post. Armey says, "Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy." It's a familiar lament of disillusioned revolutionaries: We were doing great till we took office.

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