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The Repo Republicans

Why the GOP never seals the deal with its own best cleanup men.

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When Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger do their star turns from the stage at Madison Square Garden this week, Republicans from one corner of the convention floor to another will gyrate and whirl and wave their silly hats in the air, as party people always will, Democrats no less than Republicans, when confronted with their tribal gods. From their klieg-lit anchor booths, Peter and Dan and Tom will look down, amused, and lay out for their viewers some familiar taxonomical distinctions among varieties of Republicans, explaining patiently that while these convention delegates are one kind of Republican, Giuliani and Schwarzenegger are another—deploying the usual centrist/right-wing, pro-life/pro-choice, social vs. fiscal conservative dichotomies that even the most casual reader of the Times has been taught to recite by rote.

But such distinctions, useful and dull as they are, don’t get to the heart of the matter, especially when it comes to placing Giuliani and Schwarzenegger in the context of their fellow Republicans. For the truth is, notwithstanding the gyrations and hat-waving, their fellow Republicans don’t really like their type—the Giuliani and Schwarzenegger type. Does anybody really like repo men? Those sly characters tend to make us uneasy. They fatten on trouble, showing up mysteriously when all seems lost to clear the wreckage, fix what can be fixed, and cart away the rest, until some kind of natural equilibrium is reestablished and life can go on as before. And that’s what Giuliani and Schwarzenegger are—the repo men of American politics. They are Repo Republicans.

In one sense, of course, it seems odd to lump them together. Two politicians could scarcely appear less alike. Both are creatures of the utterly alien political environments that produced them. Giuliani is short and crabbed, pale and raked over, tightly wound with the coiled and imperfectly concealed impatience of the native New Yorker; at first glance, he has the look of a man who would snap “Buy a watch!” if you asked him the time. Schwarzenegger has the sunny disposition of the Californian; the fact that he was born and raised in a place as distant from California as it is possible to be, spiritually and physically, makes his Californian-ness all the more genuine. His good nature signals that he has escaped life’s darker possibilities; Giuliani moves with the jittery unease of a man haunted by them. Schwarzenegger conveys an easy sensuality that, if it were possessed by Giuliani, would be too horrible to contemplate. And so on, and so on: Schwarzenegger was once filmed smoking pot, Giuliani has not smoked pot. Schwarzenegger has posed naked, Giuliani has never taken off his tie. I could go on.

So much for their differences. What the two men share, on a more profound level, is the political role that chance and circumstance have called them to play. Both are improbable characters whose careers would be unimaginable without disaster—some social and political breakdown that immediately preceded them and called them to the center of their time and place. When Giuliani first ran for mayor, in 1989, the extent of New York’s crisis had not yet penetrated the city’s dim-witted, sclerotic political class. By the time he ran again, in 1993, even the biggest jerks among the knee-jerks could no longer deny that the worthless school system, the ubiquitous crime, the collapse of basic services had sunk the city to a condition from which it might not recover. The cliché at the time was that the city was “ungovernable.” And the ungovernable led to the unthinkable: Matters had disintegrated so thoroughly, and the usual remedies had failed so utterly, that there was nothing left to be tried. The city elected a Republican.

California in 2003 was not yet so politically hidebound as New York City, and the magnitude of its social dysfunction can’t rival New York circa 1993, but after more than a decade of managerial incompetence—first from Republican governor Pete Wilson, then from his Democratic successor Gray Davis, both of them goosed along by a State Legislature filled with car salesmen, Wobblies, and poverty pimps—California too was being declared “ungovernable.” Though overwhelmingly Democratic, voters decided to throw the long ball and elect a Republican. The recall that brought Schwarzenegger to Sacramento was, like Giuliani’s election, an act of desperation.

Once given the chance, however, a repo man doesn’t dwell on the odd circumstances of his rise. It helps that wise men think the job is impossible; low expectations are a repo man’s best friend. The improvement in the quality of city life during Giuliani’s eight years was visible not only on the streets but in the hard data of social science. Schwarzenegger hasn’t had the time to transform his state as Giuliani did his city, but already good-government types are swooning over his ability to make the most stubborn problems seem suddenly solvable.

By now, readers of the Democratic persuasion may be feeling left out. Aren’t there Repo Democrats, too, they will ask? And the answer is, Sorry, but no. Democrats leave the mess that Repo Republicans clean up. Professional Democrats are voluptuaries of government. When the electorate lifts them to a position of responsibility, they delight in tinkering with the machinery of bureaucracy. They become enthralled with its power, succumb to fantasies about its reach and potential, and soon enough are pushing this lever and flipping that switch just to see what will happen. As with a 6-year-old at a computer keyboard, sooner or later, after all that poking and tapping, something will crash. A lot of good gets done along the way, too, of course—even the coldest heart will admit that Social Security, Medicare, and other artifacts of Democratic fidgeting have relieved the world of much suffering. But the tinkerers and uplifters screw up, inevitably. This thing they love breaks. And then the voters, who are not nearly so ideological or partisan as professional party people, call in the repo men, who must be Republican by default.

“The Repo Republican’s success in governing is an insult to the conservative sensibility.”

They follow the pattern set by the most famous Repo Republican, Ronald Reagan. Reagan himself followed in the footsteps of two would-be Repos who never quite achieved the status. Barry Goldwater pledged to clean up the mess left by Democrats in 1964, except the mess hadn’t yet materialized and voters roundly sent him back to his native Arizona. In 1968, Richard Nixon had a better case to make, since the country faced the widening war in Vietnam and civic unrest at home. But Nixon, amazingly, only managed to make things worse. Both men were professional politicians, which repo men rarely are. A failed showbiz personality turned corporate shill, Reagan was another unlikely officeholder, and like Schwarzenegger and Giuliani he cannot be understood without reference to what went before him. At his death in June, eulogists politely elided Reagan’s debt to the staggering incompetence of Jimmy Carter. Carter himself had inherited a tangle of difficulties from his Republican predecessors, of course. But Carter wasn’t a repo man. He was too sentimental, too well-meaning. He would never have spooked the Soviets by calling them names, as Reagan did. The nerve required to fire the air-traffic controllers and break America’s unions would have been beyond his summoning. And he could never have withstood the shitstorm of the Reagan recession, which led directly to the Reagan boom of the eighties and beyond.

Repo Republicans succeed in their restorative mission, as a rule, though they may fail elsewhere. William Weld in Massachusetts, for example, rescued the state from the disastrous fiscal course set by his predecessor, Michael Dukakis, but having worked wonders in the statehouse he lost his campaign for John Kerry’s Senate seat; the crisis had passed and the repo man was no longer needed. Leading his eponymous revolution in 1994, Newt Gingrich wanted desperately to be a Repo Republican, salvaging the wreckage of government from Bill Clinton’s liberalism. Gingrich’s miscalculation was twofold: The government hadn’t been wrecked, and Clinton wasn’t a liberal. The failure had its sunny side, happy to say, opening the way to Gingrich’s true calling, as a motivational speaker and TV blowhard—success at last.

Gingrich was also too ideological to be a successful repo man. Repo men may talk like ideologues, but they never govern that way. This is one reason they make party people uncomfortable. (Reagan, in death the most popular figure in his party, made them uncomfortable, too, for most of his career.) Even the most charming repo man is, at bottom, all business. He is undistracted by the sideshows of American politics. On the social issues that excite the true-believing Republican—abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools—he is either pragmatically indifferent, like Reagan, or tilted toward the wrong side, like Giuliani and Schwarzenegger. Single-minded, the Repo Republican risks ideological impurity. He inhabits that gray no-man’s-land between blue-state and red-state America. Occasionally, he may even inject a bacillus of blue into the red of his party. Party people don’t appreciate the contamination.

The Repo Republican’s greatest transgression, however, is his success. Success in governing offends Republicans on two levels, one philosophical, the other sentimental. Republicans are the anti-government party, yet Repo Republicans demonstrate that government can work—can indeed be a positive good. With vigilant oversight, it can live within its means, deliver its services with relative efficiency, and make the lives of citizens safer, richer, and more convenient. No Republican Party person wants to hear this; it is a heresy that strikes at the very heart of the party’s self-justification.

Still more important, the repo man’s success in governing is an insult to the conservative sensibility. For a conservative, success of any kind is supposed to be unlikely, if not impossible. Most Republicans console themselves with the notion that they fight a losing battle, that the odds are insurmountable, that redemption lies in having struggled honorably, and failed utterly. The notion binds them together and allows them to locate themselves in the grander scheme of the cosmos. Repo Republicans, by hitching up their golf pants and succeeding where only failure seemed an option, raise the possibility that the cosmic scheme is not quite what their fellow Republicans thought it was.

In the long run, of course, we are all failures, if only because in the long run—as John Maynard Keynes, the economist whose luminous, idiotic ideas have kept Repo Republicans busy for three generations, pointed out—we are all dead. Yet the question remains why, if Repo Republicans are so successful, they have so little lasting political effect, organizationally or philosophically. Among them, only Reagan could plausibly lay claim to having started a movement, but as George W. Bush, a self-proclaimed Reaganite, has demonstrated, Reaganism doesn’t travel well, and it never really survived Reagan’s time in Washington. There is no repo wing of the Republican Party; no activists lobby for the repo position on this issue or that.

The answer lies in their loneliness. Repo Republicans are not party people. They leave no heirs. To succeed him, Ronald Reagan handpicked George H.W. Bush, an amiable man of tepid political talent, who had few ideas about what to do next. Giuliani endorsed a similarly wan and talentless protégé to follow him. I have no doubt that Schwarzenegger’s successful terms in office will lift some eager Republican to the governorship, where he, or maybe she, will dither for a single term and give way to a series of Democrats, whose idealism and incompetence will before too long make a new repo man necessary.

It will be worth remembering this week, when you watch Giuliani and Schwarzenegger nodding modestly at the gyrating crowd, especially if you are tempted to think that the party’s future lies with them. Repo Republicans have no heirs because they are creatures of the moment. By the time they finish their work, their kind is no longer needed. Their success dooms them, until, as it always does, some disaster calls them forward again.


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