06.08.09

Joe Scarborough Can Save the GOP

I’ve found the new face of the Republican Party. It’s not a new one, entirely, and it’s been hiding out on national television every weekday morning from six to nine.

There’s been a lot of talk lately among Republicans about the need to find a new face for our party. Rush Limbaugh’s and Dick Cheney’s are, let’s face it, a bit scary. John Boehner’s looks like it wants to sell you a used car. Mitch McConnell’s looks like that of the accountant who’s explaining to you why you can’t afford the car that Mr. Boehner is trying to get you to buy, no money down.

So we Republicans have a Face Gap with the Democrats, who—let’s face it—have the best one of all in Mr. Obama.

Well, I think I’ve found the new face of the Republican Party. It’s not a new one, entirely, and it’s been hiding out on national television every weekday morning from six to nine.

Joe Scarborough.

I say this because I have just read his new book, The Last Best Hope: Restoring Conservatism and America's Promise. It’s not a perfect book by any means. It’s a bit preachy here and there, a bit speechy here and there, a bit cutesy here and there, and occasionally repetitive. That said, it is a thoroughly honest book about the largely, if not entirely, self-inflicted wounds the Republicans have visited upon themselves over the last eight or more years. And his argument that we are heading to certain fiscal disaster is quite calmly and dispassionately made. Into the bargain, Joe Scarborough comes across as a profoundly likeable and reasonable man. Reagan Lite, you might even say. Could we do better? I’m open to suggestions.

One truly senses that Scarborough, who went out of his way as a congressman to befriend such lefty firebrands as Ron Dellums and Maxine Waters, doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.

(Full disclosure: He repeatedly invokes William F. Buckley, Jr. in more or less hagiographical terms; and I was recently on Morning Joe, during which, if I recall, Mr. Scarborough said pleasant things about the book I was on to promote. If that makes me out to be in the tank, fine—but read the book and decide for yourself.)

He is unsparing about the disaster wrought by George W. Bush and the Republican majority. At times, indeed, it reads like an indictment co-authored by Michael Moore and Paul Krugman. Iraq, reckless spending, the works. His insight is that Bush and the Republicans were not in any sense “conservative,” but rather radical and ideological. In foreign policy, they tossed aside the Powell and Weinberger doctrines of restraint and went pell-mell into every quagmire in sight.

At home, Bush accumulated more debt that the country had amassed from the presidency of George Washington’s to Ronald Reagan’s.

“Big-government conservatism? Woodrow Wilson Republicans? Really. Is it any wonder that the Republican Party got slaughtered at the ballot box over the last two elections?”

Joe Scarborough was one of 74 Republicans elected to the Congress in 1994, in response to the missteps of the early Clinton era. He was the first Republican elected to Congress from his northern Florida district since the 1870s, and handily won re-election three times. He takes credit, legitimately, along with his fellow conservative young Turks, for forcing Clinton to balance the budget, reform welfare and cutting taxes. (Odd how Mr. Clinton claims credit himself for those accomplishments.)

Then things went to hell (as Lord Acton would say) and we got Newt Gingrich’s tantrums and Ken Starr’s unmagnificent obsession. Then we got George W. Bush, Iraq, Katrina, and mind-boggling deficits.

Scarborough—who left Congress in 2001 to go into TV—became a pariah in his own party for his Cassandra-like warnings against the fiscal excesses of the Bush era. He was actually blackballed by the Bush White House in 2006 for writing a caustic Washington Post op-ed. (Op-ed pieces seem to be the modern equivalents of medieval gauntlets.)

All this gives him considerable street cred. He’s been there and done that.

He is also damning on the subject of our new president, and scoffs contemptuously at Mr. Obama’s claim to being the “candidate of real change.” His Brobdingnagian spending, his acquiescence to congressional earmarks (which he condemned so loudly on the campaign trail), his acceptance of Fannie Mae money while a senator—all this marks him, Mr. Scarborough avers, as nothing more than a “candidate of the status quo.”

This censure is in no way ad hominem. One truly senses that Scarborough, who went out of his way as a congressman to befriend such lefty firebrands as Ron Dellums and Maxine Waters, doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.

He is, simply, scared to death of where this country is headed fiscally, and it has nothing to do with ideology, which he appears to abjure. It’s the math, stupid.

America faces unfunded Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entitlement liabilities in the coming years amounting to $80 trillion. He (rather neatly) insists on spelling that out, as “$80,000,000,000,000.00.”

This is an inexorable freight train headed at us. And, points out, Mr. Obama is not doing anything about it, for the reason that Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want it on the table. In fact, few politicians want to talk about it. But it is coming at us. If nothing is done, it could be the end of the American experiment. If that sounds hysterical, look at the math yourself.

“Our Army is stretched thin,” he writes, and our bank accounts are emptied.”

He has, by the way, a rather shrewd, and almost mischievously un-“conservative” take on how the U.S. should pursue certain aspects of its foreign policy:

“Since it is in the best interest of the United States to refrain from nation-exhausting wars, conservative leaders should direct all those who wish to advance humanitarian missions through military troops to take their cause to the United Nations. Americans may decide to play a proportional role in assisting those facing genocide or famine, but our role must be limited and in concert with 150 other nation-states… Washington politicians should leave international moral crusades and global social work to the United Nations and Angelina Jolie.”

The U.N.! You won’t find that in the “conservative” playbook.

This is a lively, likeable and important book. It’s also downright frightening, which, coming from someone of such sunny disposition, somehow makes it all the more so. Why is this man smiling? (As we used to say at Esquire magazine.)

When Mr. Scarborough started out in TV after leaving Congress, he writes that he tried to be someone he wasn’t, snarling and snapping at his opponents. His wife Susan would meet him at home with her arms crossed and frowning. “Try to be more like Tim Russert,” she said. He’s taken her advice.

So, my fellow Republicans—rejoice! We have a face! Now let’s get to work.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.