Below is an address given to the Westbrook Republican Town Committee on the occasion of the 15th annual John A. Holbrook Awards Dinner
It’s wonderful having the opportunity to speak with you. Lee wrote to me back in February inviting me here. I told him it would be a great honor for me and that the title of the talk would be something on the order of “Whither The Republican Party? And he wrote back a note: “Gee Don, I hope you don’t plan to whither us too much.” I knew then we could have a little fun tonight. However, I do want to advise everyone that to forestall confusion the title of this talk has been changed to “The Connecticut GOP And The New Democratic Progressives.”
I’ll post it on my blog site – Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State – for anyone here who nods off during the presentation. If you Google “Don Pesci” in quotes, the site will come up. The quotes are important because, if you leave them off, you’re likely to get a bunch of stuff on Joe Pesci. He’s the guy with all the bodies in his trunk. For some reason, people sometimes confuse me with him.
One of the distinguishing marks of the Republican Party is that Republicans really do like to have fun. Democrats, as a rule, are too busy arranging the order of stars in the belt of Orion to pause to enjoy the good things of life. Has anyone in the past few years seen a more sober mug than that of Governor Dannel Malloy, Connecticut’s stand-in for that old progressive sourpuss Woodrow Wilson? I speak only of Mr. Malloy’s public persona. I’m sure he’s a barrel of laughs in private.
Tonight I hope to review the state Republican Party’s near past and then survey briefly some positive portents.
I’d like to begin with a little story about Bill Buckley and the media of his day. Things in the Northeast have not changed much. In Connecticut especially, beneficial change is agonizingly slow. Unlike Mr. Malloy, Bill was an Irishman who loved laughter, song, and ideas. Watching Bill playing with an idea was a little bit like watching Bach fingering a harpsichord keyboard. You just knew he was going to make celestial music out of his improvisations. Most of the music was wasted on the New York Times. The editors at the paper had little appreciation of stirring conservative political ideas, a failure of good taste that persists at the paper even today.
Someone persuaded Bill to run for mayor of New York against Abe Beame and John Lindsay, a left of center Republican who later drifted over to the Democratic Party. In due course, a reporter asked Bill what he would do if he actually won the contest. “I would demand a recount,” said Bill. Sure, sure. But if he were to be elected, what would he do? "Hang a net outside the window of the editor of the New York Times," to catch the falling bodies.
The French have a saying: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
The leeching of journalists into the Democratic Party continues apace. The percentage of full-time U.S. journalists who claim to be Republican dropped from 18 percent in 2002 to 7.1 percent in 2013, according to a recent study by Indiana University professors Lars Willnat and David Weaver. In 1971, when Bill released “Inveighing We Will Go,” a collection of his current columns, 25.7 percent of journalists polled had identified as Republican.
Some people in this room may think the seven percent figure a little high. In Connecticut, it feels like .007 percent.
Yesterday, the Big Apple had its Lindsays. Today, the state has its Cuomos – and, most recently, its Sandinista mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio. And, of course, it retains its much less influential New York Times. And here in Connecticut we have our Weickers and our Malloys and, of course, our much diminished Hartford Courant. Taken all in all, this is why Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan’s red carpet, once said “If you lop off the Northeast and California, you’ve got a pretty good country.”
In Connecticut Commentary, I’ve gone to considerable trouble to point out the striking similarities between Mr. Malloy and former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker – who once fittingly characterized himself as “the turd in the Republican Party punchbowl.” See: Republicans have punchbowls. They’re a happy group.
Both Mr. Weicker and Mr. Malloy came into office when the state was laboring under a weight of massive debt caused by – no one in this room will be surprised – massive spending. Both Mr. Weicker and Mr. Malloy arrived at the same remedy -- massive taxation. Mr. Weicker draped around all our necks a burdensome income tax yoke. Mr. Malloy was content to raise all those niggling little taxes that Mr. Weicker’s more comprehensive solution to debt was designed to exorcise. Mr. Malloy ended up authoring the largest tax increase in state history, leaving even Mr. Weicker in the progressive dust. Connecticut’s equivalent of the New York Times, the Hartford Courant, sent up a rousing cheer. No need for a net there – not yet. The Malloy long term spending cuts, it turned out, were made of fairy dust. During the next post-election year, Connecticut is looking forward to a debt of some $1.5 billion, according to the bean counters in the Office of Policy Management.
Welcome back to square one.
Both Mr. Weicker and Mr. Malloy are progressives. At the root of progressivism lies the sundering notion that if government is good, more government must be better. From here it is but a baby step to the equally absurd notion that government is the state. In fact, the state is all of us, the government merely an administrative apparatus designed, if you credit the U.S. and State Constitutions, to accomplish our reason informed will. Mr. Weicker, whose ego as U.S. Senator and Governor was infinitely expansive, took this absurd logic a step further and regarded himself as the state. I should like to call your attention to the hopeful tense in that last sentence: Mr. Weicker was, he regarded– past tense: There is a God.
But it never hurts to remind ourselves that there is a Devil too.
From time to time, Mr. Weicker shows up, most often at WNPR or in the op-ed section of the Courant, to advise Republicans what they must do to become a majority party. You will never guess: They must field candidates like Mr. Weicker. But these days only progressives pay him much mind, because they alone are interested in tossing turds into punchbowls.
You’ve heard the expression: It’s always darkest before the dawn? Over the past few years, it has become possible to hope that a Republican dawn may yet arrive. To be sure, the same old evil spirits hang like a dark aureole around the rising sun. The Courant is still the Courant. Progressives occupy all the heights in Connecticut’s political arena – including the governor’s office, a majority position in both houses of the General Assembly, the entire U.S. Congressional delegation and all Connecticut’s constitutional offices. What we used to call in the old days “the climate of opinion” is still a silly mixture of utopian fantasy and political palliatives. The old political heresies – including the anticipated arrival of a political superman, the god of the polis who will with a stroke of his pen banish all our fears and inaugurate a long hoped for Eden – still persist, like the ragged ends of a recurring nightmare. Connecticut’s left of center commentariet would like us to believe that conservatives are responsible for this sad state of affairs – even though, asked to name one conservative governor or two or three conservative members of the General Assembly, they would be tongue-tied -- for once.
But – be of good cheer. There are rays of light, tokens marking the end of a long twilight slumber.
Let me tell you what some of them are.
First of all, the pinch is on, and people – proletarians, not the One-Percenters – are feeling the pinch. Nothing is quite as effective as a pinch to wake you up.
The Malloyalists may have noted with some alarm the Hartford Courant’s post-budget editorial, “Gimmicks From The Anti-Gimmick Governor,” in which the editorial board, usually friendly to all tax increases and gubernatorial spendthrifts, chastised Mr. Malloy for using “gimmicks to paper over deficits.” In his first campaign for governor, Mr. Malloy flailed former Republican governors for having done the same thing.
All the polls have turned into gibbets for Malloyalists. The latest poll shows an alarming 49 percent of Connecticut’s overtaxed and overregulated citizens would bolt the state for greener pastures elsewhere if given their druthers. In one of his recent columns, ominously titled “Will Connecticut Ever Get An Opposition Party?" Chris Powell writes:
“… advocacy groups purporting to represent the neediest just observe silently as state government finds billions of dollars to spend on pork-barrel projects like the bus highway from Hartford to New Britain, corporate welfare, binding arbitration of public employee union contracts that puts government's biggest single cost outside democratic control, defined-benefit pensions for government employees, subsidies for childbearing outside marriage, drug criminalization, social promotion in schools, what is called farmland preservation, and such.” Kowtowing to such special interests rather than representing the general good insures, Mr. Powell writes, “that spending is never cut.”
The progressive palliatives – most especially the notion that a dollar removed from the private marketplace and re-allocated by politicians adds to the wealth of the state – have run aground on the rocks of reality. A close reading of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” might have dispelled this destructive fallacy. But progressives are more inclined to read “Dreams From My Father,” President Barack Obama’s “fact based” autobiography, than they are likely to read Adam Smith or Ludwig von Mises, the author of “Human Action,” or Friedrich Hayek, the author of “The Constitution of Liberty” or, for that matter, anything written by Bill Buckley.
Here in Connecticut, Mr. Malloy has followed the same progressive campaign script as the one now being promoted by the Obama administration, a sort of updated version of Robinhoodism – with this important difference: Robin of Sherwood took from the idle rich – most of whom were made rich, it should be pointed out, by their close association with political power brokers – and gave to the poor. Mr. Malloy, masterful in fooling most of the people most of the time, has taken huge gobs of money from the working class and given millions of dollars to multi-million dollar companies that gratefully accept handouts from politicians hungry for campaign donations. Mr. Malloy was able to dispense these giveaways after having first broadening the tax base so that nail salon owners, who had previously escaped the taxman’s hang noose, would be able to participate in his “shared sacrifice.” I know of no Democratic politician who, following this imposition on the proletariat, has yet accused Democrats of conducting a war on women’s salons. A young man I know who left the state for greener pastures elsewhere told me that as soon as he heard the expression “shared sacrifice,” he knew he would be fleeced.
In some columns, I’ve called Mr. Malloy “Connecticut’s crony capitalist in chief” and – I like this one -- “Governor Bling.” No Republican running for any office this year should fear that a charge of crony capitalism brought against Mr. Malloy or any of his Democratic associates in the General Assembly, will boomerang and harm real capitalists. We arrest bank robbers because we are able to make the important distinction between bank robbers and bank tellers. It is because progressives cannot make reasonable distinctions that so many of our young people, the beneficiaries of very expensive tax supported colleges in Connecticut, are taking their diplomas to other states. Here in Connecticut, we appear for the moment to be satisfied with a progressive government; other less predatory governors and legislators are content with progress.
Here is another ray of sunshine. More Republicans in Connecticut are identifying themselves publicaly as conservative – which means more Republicans have been moved by progressive whips and scorns toward a political position that might accurately be described by those who can tell their right from their left as “right of center.” And they are no longer persuaded by passé editors who think – absurdly – that Mr. Weicker was a “moderate Republican” or that Mr. Malloy can pull Connecticut out of its nosedive by taking taxes from nail salon owners and giving them to Aetna Insurance Company. These are hopeful signs that the long Weickerian captivity of the Republican Party in Connecticut has come to an end.
Nationally -- and increasingly in Connecticut -- Democrats are attempting to refashion a new and winning coalition of voters. The political world is no longer divided only into the “haves and “have not’s.” Democrats have cut up the body politic into numerous pieces: women, against whom they suppose Republicans have made war; unionized teachers, traditional allies of the Democratic Party; minority groups; the permanent government, mostly unionized state and federal workers; malleable students caught in the briar patch of progressive academia; left of center media outlets; progressive billionaires who do not yet feel the ropes about their necks – remember Lenin’s promise that after the proletariat had seized the means of production, their victorious enemies would hang the bourgeois with the rope they had so obligingly given to them -- and other groups too numerous to mention. The ambition of new progressives such as Mr. Obama and Mr. Malloy is to fashion a political credo that will capture the minds and hearts, not to mention the votes and political contributions, of all these disparate groups.
If you are able to meld these body parts into a political force, you needn’t worry too much about traditional political groupings such as churches, normative family configurations or political parties. Government, George Washington said, is force—which is why, he thought, it should be used sparingly. And force in a democratic republic involves the building of coalitions, temporary or not. Think of the temporary coalition as a sort of Trojan Horse, an artful engine of destruction deployed to secure a desired political end. The end is the capture of the city or the state or the nation. And some who have been paying attention to the destructive progressive programs of Mr. Obama might well conclude that his end in view is the destruction of traditional and familiar coalitions of power. The Trojans were confident that the matchless walls and towers of Troy could withstand any assault. But wily Odysseus found a way.
There is one solid conclusion that may be drawn from a party of this kind that feeds on energy drawn from elliptical interests, and that is this: the Democratic Party – certainly nationally, and now within Connecticut as well – is no longer a centrist party. Still less is it a moderate party. It is, to use a word much in favor with demagogic progressives whenever they are inclined to hurl rhetorical thunderbolts at Republicans, an “extremist” party. And if the less than seven percent of journalists in Connecticut who are Republicans were, say, twice that figure, the obvious imposture would be twice as obvious.
Twenty years ago, political commentators used to refer admiringly to the “vital center.” That center has all but disappeared within the new progressive Democratic Party – led down the road to perdition by utopian supermen such as Mr. Obama and, closer to home, Mr. Malloy.
Progressivism is a very old political creed; it sprang from the religion infused prairie populism of the post-Civil War period and found its most complete national expression within the Republican Party of Teddy Roosevelt, the Bull-Mooser. But the new progressivism of Mr. Obama, Nancy Pelosi, her Connecticut counterpart, U. S. Representative Rosa DeLauro and, so it would appear, U.S. Senators Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, really is a Trojan Horse of a different color. It is a movement pushed forward by hard leftists and some overly nostalgic Democrats who look back upon the depression and post-depression years of Franklin Roosevelt as the golden age of their party.
So then, once we have established, as I’ve briefly and inadequately tried to do here, a clear view of what used to be called the “correlation of forces,” the all-important question arises: What should Republicans do to right our state and country?
The short answer to that question is this: The party should become less like Mr. Weicker and more like Mr. Buckley; which is to say – the party should unapologetically and energetically embrace conservative ideas, the only effective antidote to a wayward and destructive progressivism.
The Republican Party in Connecticut has a rare opportunity to show others the way out of the progressive briar patch in which both the state and the GOP have lingered for nearly half a century.
We know where we are. In almost every important index measuring progress and prosperity, Connecticut lags far behind other states. We know how we got here. Democrats and moderate Republicans have led us into the Dark Forest of a Grimm fairy tale. We spend too much; we regulate creative capital too often, and destructively; we have become for all practical purposes a one-party state, and one-party states are notoriously corrupt enterprises; we have fallen into the crony capitalism trap; we have abandoned our cities to solicitous Democrats who have constructed gorgeous gilded cages for the poor; we have accepted uncritically such idiotic and false categories as “social conservatives” and “economic conservatives” – rather as if conservative economic prescriptions will never affect the nature of society; rather as if destructive progressive prescriptions will never effect our economic condition. If you surrender the social sphere to progressives, it will be only a matter of time before they claim ownership of the economic sphere, and that is exactly what happened during the last presidential contest.
In the thrice told fairy tale, it is most often the third son or daughter who leads the way out of the perilous forest – usually after marking the way into the forest by laying down a path of beans. The way out then becomes the way in – in reverse. It is the third son and the third daughter who is, of all the siblings, the most beautiful, the most courageous, the most resourceful, the most determined and the most intelligent.
You here in this room – every one of you – very likely have the courage, the fortitude and the intelligence to become that third son or daughter. The way we get out of a difficulty is to reverse the way we got into it, and let no wicked sorcerer on the way tell you that the way home is not forward progress.
It may be proper to end this retrospective and prospective view by quoting Bill Buckley crying out from the center of the Dark Forest, way back in 1955, immediately after he had launched National Review magazine:
“We have nothing to offer but the best that is in us. That, a thousand Liberals who read this sentiment will say with relief, is clearly not enough! It isn’t enough. But it is at this point that we steal the march. For we offer, besides ourselves, a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D’s in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.”
It’s always liberating, isn’t it, to hew fast to a view that places you on the cutting edge of real progress?
Before I leave the rostrum, I’d like to fold in with your own my applause for Marilyn Giuliano, whom you are honoring here tonight. I don’t want to damn Mrs. Giuliano with extravagant praise – often the kiss of political commentators is the kiss of death – but I may say she is an extraordinarily bright and accomplished legislator who serves on very important committees: education, appropriations and program review. You already know that. Westbrook, and the whole of the 23rd House District, appears to be well represented. So too in the State Senate: Art Linares certainly has a promising career ahead of him. The rest of the state should be so fortunate.
I’d like to thank everyone for making it possible for me to speak to you tonight and, if you have not already had too much of me, I’ll take a few of your questions.