Candor and liberation



Far be it for me to question the conventional wisdom about the '10 midterm elections. Even Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs told NBC News yesterday that he can foresee a GOP takeover of the House ("there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control"), and some prognisticators envision the Republicans capturing the Senate if they can manage to run the table.

Nevertheless, in recent days two incumbent Republican lawmakers have trashed their own party in separate interviews with the Associated Press, suggesting that historic autumn gains might not materialize if the more extreme elements of the GOP continue to run rampant.

It's probably no coincidence that Senator Robert Bennett of Utah and Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina have committed candor only after being ousted by their conservative constituencies for being insufficiently conservative - Bennett was rejected two months ago in a state GOP convention; Inglis was trounced last month in a GOP primary - but that is the Washington way. Politicians and other inside players (White House aides, top-tier advisors) tend to liberate their tongues only when they begin to glimpse their careers in the rear-view mirror.

Anyway, Inglis, a South Carolinian who is wrapping up a six-term House career, told AP late last week that Sarah Palin is poisoning the political dialogue. This is not something that any Republican with an electoral future would ever dare to say, for fear of being mauled by mama grizzlies, but it's still refreshing to hear a burst of honesty - sort of like what happened in 2008, when GOP congressman Tom Davis, a House election strategist on the cusp of voluntary retirement, wrote a 20-page treatise that featured this gem: "The Republican brand is in the trash can...if we were dog food, they would take us off the shelf."

Inglis never actually invoked Palin by name, but, while discussing what he called the "demagoguery" that now afflicts his party, he referenced the former half-term governor's summer '09 Facebook scrawlings: "There were no 'death panels' in the (health care reform) bill...and to encourage that kind of fear is just the lowest form of political leadership. It's not leadership. It's demagoguery."

But Inglis made it clear that Palin was only one toxic element in the Republican stew. In his AP interview, he slammed the top tier of his party for marching to the tune of the talk-show loudmouths - presumably including Glenn Beck, since Inglis had previously infuriated his town-hall audiences by urging that they not watch the guy. Inglis told AP: "I think we have a lot of leaders that are following those personalities and not leading. What it takes to lead is to say, 'You know, that's just not right.'"

And this bunker mentality, he said, "is a real concern, because I think what we're doing is dividing the country into partisan camps that really look a lot like Shia and Sunni," referring to the two perpetually feuding Islamic denominations. "It's very difficult to come together to find solutions."

Meanwhile, Senator Bennett, has apparently decided not to go quietly into the night. On Friday, for the second time in two weeks, he essentially declared that, intellectually speaking, his own party is brain dead.

Back in June, he said there were "plenty of slogans on the Republican side, but not very many ideas." Now he says that if the GOP somehow wins the Senate in November, it will do so without any blueprint for governance: "That's my concern, that at the moment there is not a cohesive Republican strategy of 'this is what we're going to do.' And certainly among the tea-party types, there's clearly no strategy of 'this is what we're going to do.'"

Note the perjorative reference to "tea-party types." They dumped Bennett at the Utah party convention (he had voted for the '08 bank bailout, after all), so he's returning the favor, if only with words suggesting that these "types" will turn off the swing voters: "With the tea party creating the mischief that it is in Colorado, we may not win that (Senate) seat. My sources in Nevada say with Sharron Angle (as the tea party/GOP Senate nominee), there's no way Harry Reid loses in Nevada."

But words do matter, and his broader point - about the tea party's contributions to the degradation of our political dialogue - is solid: "(T)hese days, there are too many people willing to give up on America from the right. I don't have that sense of despair, which worked against me in the campaign, because they said 'we want more passion out of you' — passion being 'we want you standing there screaming about how horrible everybody is, along with the talk show hosts that are screaming how horrible it is. And if you don't scream, you don't have passion, and if you don't have passion you don't care.' I'm saying, 'Wait a minute, things, as bad as they are, are not that horrible.'"

As is often said, it would be nice once in awhile if a prominent Washington personage sounded off as a matter of principle while on the job - the template for JFK's Profiles in Courage - instead of firing from a safe distance, as George Stephanopoulous did in '99 when he committed candor against the Clintons in his memoir. But, given the stress of careers and the culture of loyalty, we shouldn't be surprised that so few speak freely. Inglis and Bennett dropped a dime on the potential perils of conservative excess only because they knew they would soon be free. As Kris Kristofferson once wrote, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.