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Peggy Noonan: Normal Republicans, Stand Up to the Fringe

Normal Republicans, Stand Up to the Fringe

The party is struggling to become something new. It has to find a way to restore its peace and poise.

Peggy Noonan, WSJ

Jan. 5, 2023 6:52 pm ET

Two stories. I suppose they have to do with navigating one’s professional life, though they could apply personally too. One stayed with me for decades, the other is recent; either might be helpful to a reader as the new year begins.

The first is about David Letterman. In 1992 he was famously passed over to succeed Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show” in favor of Jay Leno. Months passed, Mr. Leno’s ratings wobbled, NBC offered Mr. Letterman a second chance. And even though he was now fielding better offers from other networks and syndicators, he still had to have Carson—it was his dream from childhood to succeed that brilliant performer, have that show. He couldn’t give it up.

His advisers, in the crunch, told him a truth that is said to have released him from his idée fixe. There is no Johnny Carson show anymore, they said, it’s gone. It’s the Jay Leno show now, and you never wanted to inherit that.

Soon after, Mr. Letterman accepted the CBS show where he finally became what he wanted to be, No. 1 in late night.

Sometimes you have to realize a dream is a fixation, its object no longer achievable because it doesn’t exist.

The other story involves Norman Lear, who produced many of the greatest television comedies of the latter half of the 20th century, the television century. At a recent 100th birthday party, he shared wisdom with friends. He said there are two words we don’t honor enough. One is “over” and the other is “next.” There’s a kind of hammock between the two and it is right now, this moment we’re sharing. He was saying: Be present. But as he talked, I heard embedded within his words a layer of advice: That it’s actually a key skill to be able to see when something’s over, when it’s the past, not the future; that you have to have eyes that can find the next area of constructiveness, which may take time; and in the time between, the hammock, you must maintain your peace and poise.

So—here we sigh—I’ve been thinking of this because of what happened in the House this week. It was a bit of a disaster, bad for America (they’ve lost their gift for self-government) and its conservative party (they don’t even know who they are anymore). Some of the spectacle connects in my mind to the fact that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had a longtime idea that he must be speaker, and would do anything for it, and left his colleagues thinking eh, he just wants to be speaker—he’s two-faced, believes in little, blows with the wind. So they enjoyed torturing him. And in the end he made the kind of concessions that make a speakership hardly worth having. (A single member can force a vote to remove him?)

If you cede the power of the job to get the job, the job has no point. The job itself is diminished.

As this is written, the balloting will continue into a fourth day. I guess Mr. McCarthy’s strategy is simply to wear his foes down. However it ends, a better path would have been for him to protect the speakership, and himself, by saying: I can’t be speaker under the conditions you ask, because that office can’t function with much of its authority sacrificed. So I will take myself out of the race. With so much tension and division I must be part of the cause, anyway, so I’ll remove myself from the drama and help you resolve it.

How modest this would be. The chaos that would follow could hardly be worse than the chaos we’ve seen. And if no new leader emerged, they might come back begging: Please, get back in! But to play that cool game you’ve gotta be a cool cat. Instead we’re in classic when-you-want-it-bad-you-get-it-bad territory.

It must be said of his foes that a lot of them, maybe all, have never been part of a functioning institution. Congress hasn’t worked as a governing body in a long time. Many of their frustrations are justified.

Beyond that this is the old House Freedom Caucus reasserting itself. They are Trumpian but preceded Donald Trump, and showed this Wednesday when he publicly called on them to back off and support Mr. McCarthy. None did; they picked up a vote. They aren’t afraid of Mr. Trump anymore, which means they know their voters won’t punish them for defying him.

The problem with the Freedom Caucus people is and always has been that they do not have the numbers to win, to dominate. America, a big, broad place, doesn’t like them. They represent a tendency within the party in which they are seceding from “the establishment,” “the swamp.” They think throwing snares and making Congress ungovernable is progress. It isn’t progress but nihilism, and it is connected to the endless loop of performance art that has taken over our politics. Once, you had to be a legislator and pass bills. Now you just have to play a legislator on media. You do TV hits, enact indignation, show you’re the kind of tough person who gets things done. You don’t have to do anything. If that is your business model—and these people are in business, and fundraising off this week’s spectacle—it isn’t bad for you if Republican leadership flounders (they’re squishes anyway) or the Democrats take over (you get to be the fiery opposition.) They tell themselves they are speaking truth to power, but real conservatism involves an ability to see and respect reality and to move constructively within it, nudging it in desirable directions.

Many of them are stupid and highly emotional, especially the men. Most have no historical depth. If they have little respect for institutions, it’s because they have no idea how institutions help us live as a nation, and they’ve never helped build one.

They aren’t serious and don’t have a plan, only an attitude and a talking point. They present themselves as freedom fighters, but that isn’t what they are. I would actually like Rep. Lauren Boebert if just once she would identify herself during roll call as the member from Late Weimar. Or Rep. Matt Gaetz insisted his name be recorded as The Devil’s Flying Monkey.

This fight has been going on since 2015, that epochal year when Mr. Trump rode down the elevator and, three months later, Mr. Boehner stepped down as speaker, his leadership made impossible by the Freedom Caucus.

Someone is going to have to win this fight.

A hard-core group of 20 have so far stopped Mr. McCarthy, but 10 times that number supported him, including moderates, centrists, old- and new-style conservatives. The 200 have to find a way to re-establish their power and face down the fringe. They are being pushed around by a small minority, which once again is being painted as the face of the party, and the 200 need to push back, with or without Mr. McCarthy.

Flood the airwaves, take to the floor, go for broke. For eight years you’ve tried to humor and mollify. It hasn’t worked. Show America what normal, serious Republicans look like. It’s your party too. Normies, arise.

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