George Voinovich needs to stop enabling the fanatics and take back his party

Between January and April, Gallup polled more than 7,000 registered voters to take the pulse of the electorate. And while it's old news that the Republican "brand" is about as valuable as AIG stock, the results were startling. The number of people self-identifying as Republicans was down 10 percentage points. When broken down into demographic categories — along gender, generational, racial, socio-economic and geographic lines — the results were even more dismal. The GOP had lost ground in nearly all of the two dozen or so groups — including self-described conservatives. The lone exception: those who attend church services at least weekly. Their support held steady.

If you set aside the obvious theological questions (one of many: How can followers of Christ support torture?), this trend makes perfect sense. The force that dominated American politics for roughly 30 years — the melding of the conservative movement and the Republican Party — has taken on all the trappings of a religion itself.

There is no such thing as debate with, or within, the right end of the political spectrum. Ideology has become dogma: Government is the problem. Tax cuts lead to greater tax revenues. Wealth trickles down. Immigrants are a drain on society and threaten our way of life. Same-sex marriage destroys families. America is a Christian nation. Our health-care system is the best in the world. There is no scientific consensus on global warming. Or evolution. Invading Iraq made us safer. Bush won in 2000.

To name just a few. If you've read or heard anything to the contrary, don't believe it. The media is biased; everyone knows that.

But insistence on obedience only works for so long; just ask some of the many lapsed Catholics you probably know. Decades of focusing solely on winning elections, by any divisive means necessary, and neglecting the hard work of governing have finally caught up with the GOP. One need not know what "cognitive dissonance" is to experience it, and many formerly loyal Republican voters have noticed that the party of fiscal responsibility, national security and decentralized government gave us endless deficits, unprecedented vulnerabilities and the greatest expansion of executive-branch power in history. It's no longer morning in America; in fact, it's now dark, and no one's quite sure how to get back home.

So the Church of the Right is losing its hold on society and has entered what would be a period of soul-searching, if it had a soul left. Years of bending and even abandoning principles for political expediency have taken a toll on the conservative psyches. No one's entirely sure what it even means to be a conservative today. To placate the various factions of the base, John McCain had to reverse himself so many times that by election day he was unrecognizable to most voters. Then those who'd made the demands on him blamed him for losing. And since then, those who consider themselves the true defenders of the faith have been bent on driving the heretics from their ranks. Reagan's big tent has been abandoned for a bomb shelter, much smaller and easier to defend.

The leaders of this ideological cleansing — Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Pope Rush I — hold neither elected nor appointed positions. They are in charge by virtue of their hold over the remaining believers, who may have diminished in number but have grown in zeal. They are unabashed in their demands for fealty to an increasingly paranoid and reactionary worldview, and no title — not congressman, not senator, not "likely presidential candidate" — will protect a Republican who crosses them from their wrath. The conservative inquisition does not compromise.

For the good of the nation, this cannot continue. It is no one's interests for the GOP to spend a generation tearing itself apart and rebuilding; look what happened during the Democrats' long walk in the wilderness (Clinton's presidency not withstanding). Clearly it's time for a schism on the right. And Ohio Senator George Voinovich is the man to begin it.

"Bush ... is not so much a conservative ideologue as he is simply a politician who has taken tribal partisanship to levels not seen since the 19th century. Bush is relentless at fighting for what he wants, but it turns out that what he mainly wants is to increase the Republican majority and kick some Democratic ass. If that means he's 'perfectly willing to jettison conservative principles at a moment's notice to achieve that goal' — which he obviously is — well, that's the price you pay for electoral victory, isn't it?"

That's liberal blogger Kevin Drum, reviewing Bruce Bartlett's book Imposter in 2006. A veteran of the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, Bartlett surely spoke for many who were either old enough to remember the early days of the conservative movement or had bothered to study its philosophical underpinnings. But even in '06, when winds were beginning to change, open criticism of Bush by conservatives was rare.

George Voinovich was another occasional dissenter.

Voinovich, the former Cleveland mayor and Ohio governor, was a member of a very small club: Republicans willing to defy Bush, at least sometimes. In 2003, Voinovich demanded that Bush's massive tax cuts not amount to more than $350 billion — half what the then-still extremely popular president was seeking. reported, "Voinovich said a [House-approved] $550 billion cut would be 'fiscally irresponsible ... with the debt we're carrying and the uncertainty — we really don't know yet how much more the Iraq war costs.'"

In 2005, he openly opposed Bush's choice for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. The pick was classic Bush belligerence: Bolton's disdain for the U.N. was well documented. But among Republicans senators who would vote on the appointment, Voinovich was the first to express concerns. And in the confirmation delay that followed, we learned more about Bolton's recklessness and underhandedness in advancing the neocon agenda.

In '06, the self-described "deficit hawk" questioned Bush's lobbying to make his tax cuts permanent. "It doesn't make sense to make tax cuts permanent while we're trying to cut spending," he told the Boston Globe. "If we do further tax cuts, we need to pay for them."

In January 2007, reported this anecdote: "Ohio Sen. George Voinovich writes letters to the families of fallen U.S. soldiers. Until now, he's said in those letters that the sacrifices Americans troops are making in Iraq are every bit the equal of those U.S. soldiers made in World War II. But Voinovich told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this afternoon that he's going to have to change his letter now. 'I've gone along with the president on this, and I've bought into his dream,' Voinovich said, his voice choking with emotion. 'At this stage of the game, I don't think it's going to happen.'"

Last year, he told the Columbus Dispatch: "This budget only looks fiscally responsible because it ignores hundreds of billions of dollars in costs that the administration itself supports — such as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, physician payment reform and [alternative minimum tax] relief."

And this past Febraury, when newly inaugurated President Obama was pushing his stimulus bill, Republican Senator Jim DeMint — one of the chamber's most ignorant and irrational members — proposed an alternative: even more tax cuts. To anyone with even a passing understanding of macroeconomics that was like suggesting putting out a fire with gasoline, but only four of DeMint's colleagues had the guts to vote against it. Voinovich was one.

And that surely is how Voinovich would like to be known, as a man of principle and conviction, willing to speak truth to power. A true conservative. But words are easy; only in deeds do we demonstrate true courage. And that's where Voinovich has been a disappointment.

When he voted for the senate version of Bush's tax-cut bill, he must have known that the $350 billion "cap" was a ruse, achieved only by pretending that the cuts would be temporary. Bush, of course, intended no such thing. In fact, Voinovich never voted against a Bush budget.

He not only voted for Bolton, he managed to sound utterly craven in reversing himself: "I cannot imagine a worse message to send to the terrorists ... than to drag out a possible re-nomination process," blah blah blah. And for all his weepy lamentations to Secretary Rice about the futility of the deaths in Iraq, he never voted against measures to continue funding the war or demanded a commitment from Bush to bring our soldiers home.

He even voted against Obama's "non-stimulative" stimulus bill, "because it is weighed down by too much spending that is not stimulative and will not provide the jump-start our economy so desperately needs." Funny, then, that he's so quick to laud non-stimulative spending to which he can attach his own name — like the $400,000 for some Ohio fire departments from the Department of Homeland Security that he announced two days after voting nay on the stimulus bill. His office sends out a steady stream of such pandering. His office even organized a training session for organizations that might qualify for funding now that the socialists are handing it out like candy.

"Anybody that knows George Voinovich," he once said, "knows that when I say something, I mean it." Ohio and the nation would be at least a little better off today if that were entirely true. For all his tough talk, he's been a reliable Republican vote, typically falling into line before risking a showdown with an influential faction of the base — particularly business interests. The Callahan's Cleveland Diary blog has frequently taken the senator to task for looking the other way as the foreclosure crisis has ravaged his hometown.

Voinovich seems to want to be his own man, but somehow always seems to convince himself that going along to get along is the better part of valor — or something.

Still, all things considered, he is rational and responsible by modern Republican standards. He's never shown much enthusiasm for the culture wars. He even opposed the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, on the grounds (and I'm paraphrasing here) that turning Ohio into Alabama might be bad for business. Not exactly a profile in courage, but compared to other Republicans in Congress, it's something.

It's enough to begin the schism.

Someday, someone in the GOP will have to talk about what's already obvious to the rest of us: The party is over, figuratively and literally. Fear, racism, jingoism, homophobia, class warfare — all those old weapons that carried Republicans through countless elections — have lost their potency among all but a dwindling minority. And if the party wants to return to relevancy in the foreseeable future, it will have to leave that minority behind. So far, no Republican has dared to try this. Those who have even gently, obliquely suggested new paths have ended up begging Rush Limbaugh for forgiveness.

But if George Voinovich were to say "enough," well, now — that might be different.

He's already announced his retirement at the end of his current term next year, so no one can hang a primary challenge over his head like they did to Arlen Specter (who bravely switched parties rather than take up this fight). Fairly or not, Voinovich is viewed by the D.C. pundit class as a "moderate," a simplistic and misleading term that nonetheless bestows certain credibility denied to others. He's an elder statesman with a résumé that puts most other Republicans' to shame; if he can't claim the upper hand in a debate with a drug-addicted radio-show host, or any of the other unelected, unaccountable egomaniacs currently calling the shots on the right, then he deserves to be forgotten the moment he leaves office. Indeed, he's already conceded the party's future to the extremists.

It's not too late to change. There is more than enough work to go around, and everyone's help is needed, regardless of voting record. Years from now, no one will remember those who just stood by and heckled. If Voinovich wants a different legacy — for the party to which he's devoted his life and for himself — he needs to stop enabling the fanatics with his muted dissent and start roaring back. His nation needs him.

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