In the Spring of 1989, I was a Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander serving in the White House Military Office. Like for numerous other active-duty service members who labored, largely unseen, in windowless, often subterranean, offices scattered throughout the “18 Acres,” it was the privilege of a lifetime. My duties involved serving as the White House interface for several highly classified national security-related programs; including one that was receiving (much deserved) scrutiny from both the Administration and Congress. The Administration, prudently, appointed a panel of “wise men” comprised of five of America’s most distinguished former public servants to review this program. I was appointed as the panel’s Executive Secretary.
One of the members was the late former Senator Edmund Muskie – one of the kindest, most humble, patriotic, and brilliant people it has ever been my great fortune to know. One day, I was asked to take Senator Muskie to a classified location in the Western U.S. Aside from the flight crew, we were the only passengers on the sleek USAF G-3 – heady stuff that. Flying home that night, Senator Muskie and I faced each other over dinner (and several glasses of wine).
I was a former Democrat who had registered as a Republican in 1980. Ronald Reagan’s candidacy spoke to me, and I never dreamt at the time that one day I would serve in his White House. The child of generations of Boston Democrats, I felt, at that time, that the Democrat Party had lost its way and drifted too far from what I believed were its core principles. I was one of many so-called “Reagan Democrats.”
Perhaps it was the wine, but at one point during my dinner discussion with Senator Muskie, I boldly and foolishly asked him “What happened to the Democratic party of my father?” He was not amused and proceeded to tell me exactly where that party had gone. It was a humbling, yet instructive, dissertation on political parties that I shall never forget and for which I have always been grateful. The Senator gracefully forgave my temerity.
Having served in two Republican Administrations and on the Presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain, I remained a faithful member of the GOP until February of 2017. During the intervening four years, I have been dumbfounded by the dishonesty, cruelty, criminality, and ignorance of former President Trump and his followers.
Looking back at my long-ago disillusionment with the Democrats over mostly policy differences seems quaint and anachronistic when compared to the full-on revulsion I am experiencing with what has become of the GOP. This is a party that used to stand for something other than blind loyalty to a twice impeached President who sought to overturn a legitimate election and who was the catalyst for a bloody assault on our seat of government – examples abound. The once most powerful GOP member of either House of Congress, Senator Everett Dirksen, joined hands with his Democratic counterpart, Senator Mike Mansfield and co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act. Richard Nixon created the EPA. George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Presidents of both parties have been extraordinarily effective in comforting the nation during periods of tragedy and loss. Ronald Reagan’s pitch-perfect remarks following the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger, Barack Obama following the Sandy Hook shootings, and George W. Bush “on the pile” at Ground Zero spring to mind.
Today’s GOP wants to “paper-over” the malfeasance and nonfeasance of a President who repeatedly lied to us about a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and who created a culture, among many of his followers, that made a mockery of sound public health policies such as mask-wearing and social distancing. He never once acknowledged publicly the great loss our nation has (and is) suffering nor its devastating impact on many Americans.
The GOP once stood for strong national defense and respect for the rule of law. Today, however, party leaders make the “Haj” to Mar a Lago to curry favor with a former President who repeatedly ridiculed our intelligence community, abandoned our Kurdish allies in Syria, and defended President Putin’s proven interference in the 2016 election. His derision of our NATO allies did little to make the world a safer place.
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan is far from perfect; however, it is a good first step in helping our nation return to something approximating normalcy as the pandemic begins to fade. According to Data For Progress, roughly 69% of Americans support it, many of whom are GOP supporters and constituents. Yet, it passed in the Senate without a single GOP vote.
The Republican Caucus cited its cost and made vague references to “pork” although more than 85% of the bill’s funding will go to direct pandemic-related aid. These are the same Senators who happily countenanced whatever wasteful spending the former President demanded. For example, they supported his bloated and fatuous “Wall” and his unnecessary and redundant Space Force. This party that once was dedicated to deficit reduction wordlessly watched our national debt balloon to figures beyond comprehension.
This all leaves me to wonder if there are lifelong, indeed generations-long, Republicans who are now asking “What happened to my Dad’s GOP?” I wonder what happened to the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, Dirksen, McCain, and the Bushes. Today’s GOP is a shadow of its former self and continues to cleave to an orthodoxy of simple blind loyalty to one man and to his intractable base. It still, for the most part, refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the 2020 election and suffers party leaders who seek to trivialize the atrocities of January 6th.
What happened to that party? Unfortunately, there is no Ed Muskie around to explain what happened.