Rick Perlstein, author of Before The Storm, the fine 2002 book about the 1964 Goldwater campaign, is getting some blogospheric buzz after posting a speech he did to a conservative confab at Princeton. In his acerbic remarks, which undoubtedly discomfited hosts who expected him to regale the group with AuH2O war stories, he examined the parallels between the Goldwater zealots who got caught up in the manifold ethical and legal problems of the Nixon administration, and those who today are distinguishing themselves likewise in scandals and other violations of conservative principle, such as fiscal profligacy.Rick’s observations about the corruption of conservative ideologues into what they once disparaged as mere “Republicans” are acute and on-target, but I’d add an additional thought about the second-generation conservatives who are now running and ruining our country.I wrote a review for Blueprint magazine earlier this year that compared and contrasted Perlstein’s book with Craig Shirley’s hagiography of Reagan’s failed but seminal 1976 campaign, Reagan’s Revolution. And Shirley’s book made it plain that most of the people who now control Washington made their bones in that and subsequent Reagan campaigns, not in Goldwater’s or Nixon’s efforts.If you compare the Goldwater and Reagan generations of conservatives, the first thing that jumps out at you is that the latter became convinced that conservatism needed for political reasons a much sunnier disposition, and a more popular agenda, than that offered bt the dour but principled Arizonan. The second thing that jumps out at you is that Reagan himself won the GOP nomination and the presidency after embracing a supply-side economic doctrine that made it easy to be conservative, offering tax cuts that paid for themselves without forcing any real decisions about the role of the federal government in national life.This doctrine has largely been discredited economically, but it’s had a sensational and still-vibrant run as the political underpinning of Republican fiscal policies that promise to square every circle, and invite every corruption of traditional conservative principles.The transition from supply-side theory to corrupt practices has been devious if predictable. But the big jump was supplied by Grover Norquist’s “starve the beast” concept (the phrase itself borrowed from Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, who ultimately deplored the idea), that conservatives should embrace tax cuts without worrying about spending cuts, since the former would eventually force the latter. In my own article about Norquist’s significance, I described “starve the beast” as offering Republicans the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe: you could support both tax cuts and spending increases, and use both to buy votes and reward favored constituencies, because it would all come out in the wash someday, when future administrations and Congresses would be forced to balance the books.The ready embrace of “starve the beast” ideology by the Republican Party of the W. era has also exposed another rotten underpinning of conservatism in power: if you don’t believe in the actual ability of the federal government to do anything of real value, then why not turn federal agencies into patronage machines and well-paid holding pens for rising young ideologues?This question, I suspect, explains how you get from Reaganesque critiques of bureaucratic incompetence to Brownie, in less than a generation.In other words, I believe the endemic corruption of conservatives in power we are witnessing today is not just a morality play about power’s corrupting influence, or about the descent of ideologues into the practical swamps of politics. Worse than that, it’s about the consequences of entrusting government’s vast power to people who can’t think of it as a force for the common good, and thus, inevitably, treat it as a force for private gain.
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By Ed Kilgore
I ran across a quote from Kyrsten Sinema this week that made me angry, so I vented my spleen at New York.
In a cloying little exchange of pleasantries before Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema spoke from the podium of Mitch McConnell’s eponymous center at the University of Louisville on Monday, the Senate Republican leader called the Democrat “the most effective first-term senator” he’d ever seen. McConnell was probably being sincere given Sinema’s role, along with Joe Manchin, in saving the filibuster, the chief tool in the GOP’s obstructionist bag of tricks. He could have called her a “one-term senator” since her demise in 2024 seems all but certain after she alienated as many Arizona Democrats as she could, but that wouldn’t have been gracious. Instead, he went on to give her the highest token of his esteem, calling her a “deal-maker.”
For her part, Sinema noted that she and McConnell share a “respect for the Senate as an institution,” a statement she reinforced by calling for the restoration of 60-vote thresholds for executive and judicial-branch confirmations in the upper chamber, which were abolished by serial Democratic and Republican majorities in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Sinema is, you see, an old-school respecter of the Senate, which makes me sick to my stomach.
Anyone who spends time around the Senate (I worked there in the late 1980s and early 1990s and with Senate offices for years before and after that) is aware of the extremely high regard in which senators hold themselves “as an institution.” They don’t publicly bash House members as petty-minded, party-bossed parochial Lilliputians who have to spend all their time running for reelection. But the unstated though very real mutual disdain of the two congressional chambers is deeply rooted in the Senate’s distinctive constitutional role as an anti-democratic redoubt of entrenched privilege.
This is nowhere more apparent than in Sinema’s beloved filibuster, which in its most recent incarnation has made supermajorities a requirement for even routine legislation. But lest we forget, even if the filibuster went away, the Senate’s grant of equal power to all 50 states is profoundly undemocratic. The states themselves are not allowed to get away with such a gross misappropriation of legislative power. In the 1964 decision in Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, under the Equal Protection Act of the 14th Amendment, state legislatures had to respect the principal of “one person, one vote,” with seats in the upper as well as lower chambers being awarded in districts of equal population. As Chief Justice Earl Warren famously wrote in the Court’s opinion in a 8-1 decision:
“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.”
The logic is the same with respect to the model for all those once-oligarchical state upper chambers, the U.S. Senate itself. But the Senate has its own separate, unassailable constitutional basis. The Article I, Section 3 provision of the Constitution providing for equal representation of states in the Senate is expressly exempted from amendment in Article V (“no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate”). So we are stuck with an anti-democratic chamber. But we don’t have to celebrate it.
It’s important to remember the two reasons we have a U.S. Senate. First, it represented a compromise with those in the founding generation who wanted an unelected body like Britain’s House of Lords to counteract “the people’s House,” the lower chamber. But more important, as James Madison made clear in “Federalist 62,” it was essential to the ratification of the Constitution that the country maintain its original character as a compact of states, not as a truly United States:
“It may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each state, is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual states, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty …
“Another advantage accruing from this ingredient in the constitution of the senate is, the additional impediment it must prove against improper acts of legislation. No law or resolution can now be passed without the concurrence, first, of a majority of the people, and then, of a majority of the states.”
This understanding of the country as a modified confederation of states with a stronger central government than it originally had more or less perished with the outcome of the Civil War and the ratification of the Civil Rights Amendments (including the 14th Amendment, that great and still-evolving guarantee of individual rights against states rights). But the Senate remains as a relic of the era when McConnell’s hero Henry Clay and a host of other patriarchal slaveholders held the Union temporarily together by engaging in “deal-making” at the expense of human dignity. The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 and providing for the popular election of senators instead of letting state legislatures choose them, took the chamber as far toward democracy as a flawed Constitution would allow.
“Respect for the Senate as an institution” means contempt for democracy as a fundamental value. That is why those with respect for democracy — particularly those who profess to be a member of the Democratic Party — should do everything possible to minimize the Senate’s ability to function according to the Founders’ design instead of boasting about making the chamber even more susceptible to high-handed measures to frustrate the popular will.