Alan Zendell, May 28, 2021
We could capture all the political problems our country faces today with a single question – where have all the conservative leaders of the past two decades gone? I’m thinking of a select few: George W. Bush, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Jeff Flake. They all have a couple of things in common. When in office, they were viewed as nice guy conservatives with whom the other party could negotiate. Since having left office, they have all been absent from the public scene when the country most needs them.
Boehner is happily hawking marijuana and writing books. When he appears in the media these days, those are the things he talks about. When he’s asked about the split in the Republican Party, he makes jokes about Donald Trump but has no interest in fighting to restore the party to its pre-Trump values.
Paul Ryan, who reluctantly accepted the role of House Speaker when Boehner quit, was a very popular conservative who could have capitalized on his status when Trump began changing the party into a racist, divisive cheering section. But he never had the stomach for the kind of confrontation that required. He knew that with Mitch McConnell’s help, he could achieve his decades-long goal of massive tax cuts for big business and the wealthiest Americans because it was in Trump’s wheel house. Like the others, when his personal objective was met he quit, leaving the rest of us to survive Trump. Unfortunately, almost 600,000 of us didn’t.
Flake is the heir of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative movement. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, he showed some backbone in defense of his values, publishing a scathing book about Trump’s dishonesty and immorality. But in doing so he became an inadvertent role model for other conservatives who saw Trump react by assuring that Flake would lose Arizona’s Republican primary in 2018. Flake could have fought back, but instead he folded his cards and went home to the Barry Goldwater Institute, where he still impotently sits watching Trump destroy his party. After Flake’s principled stand against whitewashing the confirmation of Bret Kavanaugh as Supreme Court Justice, CNN must have thought they had a bonanza when they signed him as a contributor, but his toothless attacks on Trump never got traction.
Given his family heritage, Bush 43 could have played a significant leadership role in his party after leaving office. It was understandable that after ending his term with the worst popularity rating of any modern era president, with anger over his Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures still tangible, he would want to lay low and avoid the spotlight. But six years later, when Trump came on the political scene with his hateful rhetoric and complete disregard for conservative values, even the vicious attacks leveled against the entire Bush family weren’t enough to wake him from his stupor. The sound of silence as these four former leaders sat quietly on the sidelines living their lives and enjoying their wealth was not what Paul Simon had in mind when he wrote about it.
Although he still serves as U. S. Senator, it’s only fair to include Mitt Romney in the group of leaders who might have made a difference if they’d been willing to. Romney has his own base of support in Utah independent of Trump’s, and more money than he can ever spend. Yet, his mild-mannered opposition to Trump’s behavior hasn’t impressed anyone. Instead of working to form a coalition of Republicans willing to fight for their party, he has allowed himself to become a pariah to the other forty-nine Republican Senators.
After hiding out during the worst of Trump’s crimes as president, Ryan could have struck a meaningful blow against Trumpism to kick off the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation’s effort to take back the Republican Party. But his criticisms of Trump, to whom he was not willing refer by name, were diminished by his attacks on President Biden’s political agenda, hardly a way to convince fellow Republicans that their current enemy is Trump. And Trump’s typical response, calling Ryan a curse to the party and a weak, ineffective leader blunted whatever Ryan was attempting to do.
Was Ryan’s speech a one-off or will he finally take on the fight in earnest? Will the Bushes or Boehner or Flake? Or will the enormous vacuum created by their exit continue to be filled by the likes of Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene? I wonder what other world leaders think as they watch the former party of principled statesmen succumb to the vile rhetoric of Trump’s sycophants.