Thursday, March 1, 2012

Olympia Snowe, Possum Republicans and Park Avenue Pinks

Olympia Snowe, Possum Republicans and Park Avenue Pinks

An older friend of my uses the phrase “Park Avenue Pinks” which is so charmingly anachronistic that a Google search turned up only nine matches-the second from a May 26, 1954 Rome-Tribune article by Westbrook Pegler. A Park Avenue Pink was not a wealthy gay person, rather he or she was a distant cousin to a Ferrari Socialist; someone who can afford to be a soft on socialism, softhearted (and presumably soft-headed) liberal.

I don’t know if there are any Park Avenue Pinks extant, but according to the conservative columnist David Brooks, there are “Possum Republicans.”   In an op-ed piece published earlier this week he writes about how the mainstream conservative and “professional politicians” in the GOP have been relegated to a “possum” posture, hoping not to be noticed by the “wingers” who have relentlessly been purging “tribal heresies.”  Even reliably conservative but respected Senators Lugar and Hatch, who could build bridges, are now moving sharply to the right to fend off primary challenges-and the party leadership is not there to help them.  And now Olympia Snowe, the moderate three-term Senator from Maine, announced she would not run for reelection. 

I can understand Brooks’ angst.  He is a William F. Buckley acolyte who would be happy to see Obama gone, but clearly is feeling the odd-man out. Even if the tea-infused GOP were to sweep in November, there would be no place for his type of mainstream conservatism.  What’s more, as Santorum doubles down on the anti-intellectual anti-elite scourge-of-the-sinful-secular persona he’s presently hawking, he is starting to dominate the descriptions of just what it means to be a Republican in the 21st Century.  On Wednesday, in the course of just a few hours, Mitt Romney gave a human, instinctive, tempered reaction to a question on whether he would support a Republican-sponsored Senate bill that would allow all employers to stop covering contraception in their health care plans.  He said he didn’t want to get between a man and a woman in the privacy of their marriage.  Sounded sensible.  By sundown, he had frantically reversed himself. 

Santorum may be the current spear-tip for the seething resentment and demand for purity, but, whether he’s aware of it or not, he isn’t leading.  And rage might carry any election cycle, including this one, but it isn’t a recipe for building a sustainable governing majority.  Brooks knows that, and so do the Possum Republicans.  They just haven’t done anything about it.

Senator Snowe knows that as well, and chose to walk away, citing the increased partisanship.  People close to her indicated that votes like contraception bill, where she was being pressured to get in line (and give cover to Scott Brown) against her better judgment, were a major motivation.  I wonder whether fine folk like Mitch McConnell ever had her back. 

Why did Brooks and so many of his mainstream conservative buddies and professionals stay silent as the tea was brewing?  Well, not to be too cynical, but as Henry Kissinger once said in a different context, power is the greatest aphrodisiac. 

So, when the Tea Party and the social vigilantes were willing to march to the polls, like some giant column of African Army ants, leaving nothing but the stripped skeletons of Democrats along the way, why not hop on board?  If, on occasion, the ants cut out one of their own from the herd, or even devour the odd elephant (former Utah Senator Bennett comes to mind) well, that’s a modest price to pay for all that power. 

Yet, somehow I think even that is too facile.  The party pros and intellectuals who looked past (or thought they could harness) the dark anger on the extreme right were no different than the Park Avenue Pinks who ignored that nasty Stalin mustache behind the curtain.   Neither was capable of fully grasping the danger to them, because they were so used to being the masters. 

That applies to rest of us as well, even though we know we are (individually) powerless.  Each election, we either vote our principles, our piqué, or our self-interest-and very often that varies depending on the circumstances. That has worked for a long time, as the two major parties have rotated around a center “consensus” axis.  Neither party was entirely homogeneous, so legislation could be reflective of a diversity of ideas and compromises-less edgy, less one-sided.  Elections tended to be about performance rather than strictly about ideology, and sometimes we just voted the bums out, assuming that the next guy we handed the keys to would be better at the job-not a motivated ideologue with an agenda, and (in Mitt’s surprisingly felicitous turn of a phrase) his hair on fire. 

Buyer’s remorse can be a hard thing. The Park Avenue Pinks long ago disappeared into a fog of well-meaning disillusionment.  The Possum Republicans hold on, clinging to the illusion that this shall pass, and the natural order of the world shall be restored.  David Brooks’ moment has apparently come; he’s being forced to stand outside the candy store, watching vandals wearing “I’m A True Conservative” T-shirts turn all his favorites into spoiled marzipan.  He ends his piece with a variation on the famous Martin Niemoller quote, “first they went after the Rockefeller Republicans, but I was not a Rockefeller Republican…”

It’s a strange turn of events when, on Wednesday night, waiting for the Michigan primary results to come in, I found myself rooting for Mitt Romney.  I’m pretty sure it will pass.