Why Responsible Republicans Are Almost Extinct

Do you remember the Responsible Republicans? In the 1980s small herds of them still roamed around Washington. In 1982 they stampeded over Ronald Reagan's veto of a tax increase designed to mitigate the fiscal harm of his 1981 tax cut. In 1986 they passed bipartisan immigration reform. In 1990 they were spotted with President George H.W. Bush at Andrews Air Force Base, conspiring to reduce the deficit.

After the Andrews summit, however, Double-R glimpses outside captivity became increasingly rare. With their habitats in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Coast under threat, their status moved from "threatened" to "endangered." During the battle over his health-care plan, President Obama was unable to find a single one to serve as a mascot. There continue to be rumors of their return around issues such as immigration and climate change. Yet we have now gone several years without a confirmed sighting.

If Responsible Republicans are in fact approaching extinction, I think we can identify the crucial event that signaled their demise. It was a December 1993 memo by conservative strategist and commentator William Kristol. Kristol's advice about how Republicans should respond to Bill Clinton's 1993 health-care effort pushed the GOP away from any cooperation with the other side. His message marks the pivotal moment when Republicans shifted from fundamentally responsible partners in governing the country to uncompromising, hyperpartisan antagonists on all issues.

In his five-page memo, Kristol took aim at Bob Dole and other congressional Republicans who were then working to find a compromise around the shared goals of universal coverage and cost containment. Kristol called for the GOP to "adopt an aggressive and uncompromising counterstrategy designed to delegitimize the proposal." He argued that a bipartisan deal on health care would be a political victory for Democrats and a defeat for the GOP. "Unqualified political defeat of the Clinton health care proposal," Kristol wrote, " … would be a monumental setback for the president, and an incontestable piece of evidence that Democratic welfare-state liberalism remains firmly in retreat."

Slowly at first, then all at once, Republicans adopted this zero-sum view of politics. Newt Gingrich, the truculent House minority leader, had risen to power attacking the more conciliatory Republican leadership that preceded him. Dole soon stopped cooperating as well, responding to Clinton's 1994 State of the Union address by echoing Kristol's line that there was "no health-care crisis." Remaining Double-Rs were left out in the cold by their party, and hopes for a deal died.

Kristol's Carthaginian strategy worked politically, or seemed to. Gingrich and his "Contract With America" Republicans swept into power in the 1994 midterm elections on a platform of monolithic opposition to Clinton's agenda. But the Gingrich revolution soon failed. Its ideas were not enacted, its leaders fell to scandals, and Clinton won reelection in 1996. Congressional Republicans kept their opposition to government at the level of rhetoric, becoming bigger spenders than ever. Yet this did not dim the GOP's faith in the Kristol approach. Under Obama, Republicans have simply replayed the script, opposing everything the president proposes, looking for heretics to burn, and calling the other side extreme—though this time they have been without success in blocking the president's major initiative.

The politics of Republican implacability are based on what might seem an obvious insight that competition is a zero-sum game. But while elections are zero-sum, politics as a whole is not. Without some level of bipartisan cooperation, voters become increasingly cynical, the system becomes too paralyzed to function, and the whole country suffers as a consequence. Longer term, it is hard to see the politics of "no" as a winning Republican strategy.

The rise of hyperpartisanship is not one of those problems for which left and right are equally to blame. Democrats—who like legislating better than Republicans do, and who have seldom had the GOP's ability to march in lockstep—still instinctively prefer to work on a bipartisan basis. They continue to hope, against the odds, that Double-Rs will escape extinction and return as potential partners. Perhaps Ted Turner will find a way to breed them on his ranch.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy and In An Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington.

Why Responsible Republicans Are Almost Extinct | U.S.