Since George W. Bush became president, the Republican Party has presided over massive, out-of-control government spending, converted a federal budget surplus into a half-trillion-dollar deficit, and looked the other way while Wall Street’s greed and stupidity turned the hallowed free market into scorched earth. Now the party has to watch as a Republican president orchestrates the biggest government intervention into the workings of the private sector since the New Deal.

Can any Republican candidate claim with a straight face to represent the party of small government? For that matter, can any Republican candidate plausibly explain what the party is supposed to stand for these days?

It’s pathetic to hear right-wing talk radio blowhards try to associate Barack Obama with “radical” or “socialist” views when a Republican administration is tossing aside “Atlas Shrugged” and speed-reading “Das Kapital.”

The Federal Reserve even announced Monday that it will make unlimited quantities of dollars available for currency swaps with the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank, as these institutions scramble to keep major commercial banks from failing — and potentially taking U.S. banks with them. None of Bush’s Cabinet members could be heard sniffing about the effete irrelevance of “Old Europe.”

This attitude adjustment is necessary, mind you. The question isn’t whether some kind of drastic, frankly socialistic measures are needed to save the American economy, but which ones — buying up toxic mortgage-based investments (as the White House said it would do), buying up the troubled mortgages themselves (as John McCain wants to do), or pouring money into selected banks and taking part ownership (as the White House now says it will do). Sitting back and letting the dire situation correct itself is not an option, because the market’s phoenix-like solution begins with self-immolation.

Politically, though, there is at least some justice in the fact that a Republican president has to deal with this Republican-made crisis. That little piece of irony isn’t worth $700 billion, but so far it’s all we’re getting.

After eight years of the Bush administration, the Republican Party — to put it bluntly — is a mess and a fraud.

There is an intellectual case to be made for the economic philosophy that the party purports to represent. I disagree with it strongly, but I respect its integrity — in a way that this administration and the Republican leadership in Congress clearly did not.

The Republican Party said it believed in free and unfettered competition, but it picked winners and losers through a system of crony capitalism. All it takes to make my point is a name: Jack Abramoff.

The Bush tax cuts, which heavily favored the wealthy, showed that the president and his allies in Congress didn’t believe in progressive taxation. I think that’s outrageous, but the administration goes further and actually seems to prefer a regressive tax scheme. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why hedge fund managers making hundreds of millions of dollars a year pay taxes at a lower rate than their chauffeurs.

Now that it’s election time, the party — as usual — is trying to convince Americans that it stands on the side of the little guy. Sarah Palin has been trotted out to convince everyone that the party cares deeply about the eternal roster of cultural issues — God, guns, gays, abortion, etc. If McCain and Palin were elected, the party would doubtless return these issues to the storage locker until the next election, at which point they would be dusted off once more.

Oh, and isn’t the Republican Party supposed to stand foursquare against intrusions on privacy? Then why were Republicans so unmoved when it was revealed that the Bush administration had been conducting unprecedented surveillance of Americans’ private electronic communications?

When Ronald Reagan was president, I had a sense of what ideas and principles his party stood for. When Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America” brigade took Washington by storm in 1994, I knew what they believed — loopy though it was — and what they hoped to accomplish. I defy anyone to give a coherent explanation of what today’s Republican Party, under George Bush and now John McCain, wants to do except perpetuate itself in power.

When a political party reaches the point of lurching incoherence, the most effective cure is a good, long spell in the wilderness. Americans should help Republicans out by sending them home to get their act together.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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