Thursday, October 24, 2013

John G. Taft's evasive honesty

What a peculiar exercise in moral exhortation. John G. Taft rather bravely excoriates the recklessness and cruelty of the current Cruzified GOP in the name of the party's grand old traditions of responsible governance and fiscal probity-- presumably embodied in "Five generations of Tafts [who] have served our nation as unwaveringly stalwart Republicans." And yet he does so by invoking the party's -- and his family's -- past shame: its collusion with Joe McCarthy's communist witch hunt. Taft manages to be refreshingly honest and subtly evasive all at once.

Taft levels his attack against Ted Cruz & co. in the name of his grandfather:
As I write, a photograph of my grandfather, Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, looks across at me from the wall of my office. He led the Republican Party in the United States Senate in the 1940s and early 1950s, ran for the Republican nomination for president three times and was known as “Mr. Republican.” If he were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn’t even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff — seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge.

Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room. Yet somehow the current generation of party activists has managed to do what no previous Republicans have been able to do — position the Democratic Party as the agents of fiscal responsibility.
"The adults in the room" -- except with respect to one little issue that is the focus of Taft's historical analogy:

This recent display of bomb-throwing obstructionism by Republicans in Congress evokes another painful, historically embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party — that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked, unnecessarily and unfairly tarnishing the reputations of thousands of people with “Red Scare” accusations of Communist affiliation. Finally Senator McCarthy was brought up short during the questioning of the United States Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, who at one point demanded the senator’s attention, then said: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”* He later added: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” 

Watching the Republican Party use the full faith and credit of the United States to try to roll back Obamacare, watching its members threaten not to raise the debt limit — which Warren Buffett rightly called a “political weapon of mass destruction” — to repeal a tax on medical devices, I so wanted to ask a similar question: “Have you no sense of responsibility? At long last, have you left no sense of responsibility?”
Good for you, Mr. Taft. But your grandfather -- the one presumably turning over in his grave over the current GOP's fiscal irresponsibility -- was prominent among the "Republican elders" who allowed McCarthy's "anti-Communist expand unchecked."  Here's historian David M. Oshinsky, author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (1983):
Prominent Republicans rallied to [McCarthy's] side. They now viewed McCarthy as the Party's chief alchemist, the man who could turn public fear and distrust into Republican votes. Privately, Senator Robert A. Taft dismissed McCarthy's charges as "nonsense." Yet he urged his colleague to keep on plugging. "If one case doesn't work out," said Taft, "just bring up another."
 The sleight of hand peaks in Taft's conclusion. Grandfather -- or rather, his ghost -- makes one more cameo:
There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party survived McCarthyism because, ultimately, its excesses caused it to burn out. And eventually party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.

What a long way we have yet to go. 
You'd almost think that Robert Taft's political progeny helped restore the decency, wouldn't you? John Taft is too honest to make that claim. But he'd skates so closely around it, you have to look twice to note that McCarthyism was left to burn itself out, and that party elders only restored some semblance of probity and responsibility, fiscal or otherwise, after it did so. It might have been better to leave Grandfather out of it.

* I prefer this sentence to Welch's more famous "Have you no sense of decency"..etc.  I don' know that I've seen it before. Magnificent, isn't it?

UPDATE 10/25: In a NYT letter response to John Taft, historian Ellen Schrecker, author of Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, flags the same Robert A. Taft quote as I did: 
To the Editor:
John G. Taft offers a paean to his family’s tradition of true Republicanism and claims that the Tea Partyers resemble the notorious Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

At an early point in McCarthy’s career, Mr. Taft’s grandfather, Robert A. Taft, the supposedly responsible leader of the Senate Republicans, encouraged the Wisconsin brawler, suggesting that “if one case doesn’t work out, bring up another.” Isn’t that the same playbook Speaker John A. Boehner is using?
 All the letter responses are worth reading.

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