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Gilchrest Unloads On Know-Nothing Pols--And Us, Too

Wayne Gilchrest, the nine-term Republican congressman who represents Maryland's Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel County, has had it, and he's ready to talk.

He's had it with his own party, which he says "has become more narrow, more self-serving, more centered around 'I want, I want, I want.' " He's finished with his party's presidential candidate, John McCain, who Gilchrest says "recites memorized pieces of information in a narrow way, whereas Barack Obama is constantly evaluating information, using his judgment. One guy just recites what's in front of him, and the other has initiative and reason and prudence and wisdom."

Gilchrest, a moderate who was defeated by a conservative challenger in February's primary, hit the boiling point after Monday's House vote rejecting the big financial bailout package. After much struggle and study, Gilchrest voted for the bailout; what appalls him about his many colleagues who went the other way was that they appeared to do so based neither on a close examination of the issues nor on principle, but rather with a finger to the wind and an eye on the e-mail inbox.

The congressman, whose strongly Republican district stretches from the Pennsylvania line to the border with Virginia, tells me that he's had it with colleagues who "don't understand the issues, who not only don't read the Financial Times, they have never heard of the Financial Times."

Gilchrest isn't done. "We're in this bad place as a country because of the evangelicals, the neocons, the nasty, bitter and mean . . . very clever ideological groups that use money, technology, fear and bigotry to lead people around," he says. "Voting according to your knowledge and experience -- that's out the window. Competence and prudence? Forget it."

Before you start cheering on the congressman who finally let loose, his frustration has one more target: Us.

"We've become a country that sits down in front of the boob tube and listens to people shouting about freedom, but now people equate freedom not with the acquisition of knowledge, but with comfort," Gilchrest says. " 'Give me my flat-screen TV, the gas-guzzling car, the goods made in China.' The whole concept of freedom has become the idea of comfort, with a complete lack of responsibility."

So, yes, Gilchrest argues, the Wall Street fat cats and greed heads brought us this economic crisis, but their flimsy financial structures grew out of our collective hunger for stuff we cannot afford. "Maybe living in luxury diminishes the intellect," he says.

Still cheering?

I am. To be sure, Gilchrest's outburst might not meet the definition of a profile in courage. After all, Gilchrest didn't talk like this while he still had a chance to win reelection. And his endorsement of Democrat Frank Kratovil in the race to succeed him could be perceived as less than purely disinterested. But his straight talk is no mere spewing of post-defeat bitterness.

Gilchrest, who was wounded in combat in Vietnam, where he served as a Marine, voted for the Iraq war but came to believe that the Bush administration had bungled it. Gilchrest favors abortion rights and pushed for faster action on climate change, positions that led conservative Republicans to target him this year.

Gilchrest is on his way out, but the Republican Party, long in decline in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia, is now in free fall in this region.

Long-serving members of Congress and the state legislatures are not only leaving office but also blasting their party on the way out. Just a few years after running his party's national congressional campaign effort, Rep. Tom Davis of Fairfax County is leaving Congress embittered by the Republicans' hard-right positions and frustrated that there appears to be no home for moderates who might appeal to suburban voters.

Virginia's GOP "gave me the middle finger," Davis said after party leaders maneuvered to hand its nomination for the retiring John Warner's U.S. Senate seat to former governor Jim Gilmore, rather than allow a primary between the hard-right Gilmore and the moderate Davis. "Anybody who compromises, you go back to your party base and you're an apostate. You're squishy. You're weak."

Two of Virginia's longest-serving GOP leaders, Sen. John Chichester of Stafford County and Del. Vince Callahan of Fairfax, left the legislature this year with harsh words for their own party -- and both have endorsed Democrat Mark Warner in this fall's Senate race.

"I'm extremely distressed by the path it's taking," Callahan told me of the GOP in Virginia. "It could end up being a minority debating society. We can't be a party about immigrant-bashing or gay-bashing or any other bashing. We should be a party of fiscal responsibility, which is how I got into it."

This is more than the usual bitterness of politicians who have lost a race for office or been displaced by a new generation. This is a collective cry for help.

"I haven't stepped away from my party," Gilchrest says. "The party has stepped away from Eisenhower and Goldwater and Nixon and Ford and even Ronald Reagan. It's been driven away by this anti-government combination of Milton Friedman and Jerry Falwell."

In a republic, leaders must occasionally tell the people that they are wrong, just as the people sometimes have to throw the bums out. Last week, we watched as two presidential candidates danced away from any serious discussion about pain or responsibility in this financial crisis. We have no Lincoln, no FDR. But at least we have a few smaller voices on their way out the door, liberated to tell some truths.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  October 2, 2008; 8:21 AM ET
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Comments

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If they'd lay off guns and preferential treatment I could go Dem.

Posted by: Stick | October 2, 2008 9:46 AM

It's heartening to hear such insightful critique coming from inside the system. It is very troubling that as the issues we are facing as a nation become more and more serious, the conventional political conversation remains childish. Former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, and former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney are leading the way for us -- actually breaking from the two-party system to attempt to build third-party alternatives. Republican Congressman Ron Paul has ignited a firestorm of activism towards taking back the country for the people, and has boldly pointed the way -- away from the two-party system -- and asked his supporters to vote for third party candidates.

The debates, the punditry, the conventional analysis of the bailout, ignoring the war (the Senate on Saturday passed a $620 billion Pentagon budget on a voice vote!), ignoring repeated Constitutional abuses by our elected officials -- this is all political theater and nothing more.

And yet the financial crisis that looms is very real for the vast majority of American citizens. The energy crisis that looms is very real for the vast majority of industry. And the environmental crisis that looms is very real for the vast majority of the earth's inhabitants -- humans and non-humans alike.

While I support Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente who are the Green Party's ticket for Prez and VP, I think it is more important for all the people of this nation who believe in the virtues of its people and of its Constitution to put aside their differences and work together to break open the political process. Visit sites like thirdpartyticket.com and breakthematrix.com and opendebates.org and add your voice to their important calls for democratic participation in our political system.

Thanks Rep. Gilchrest for keeping an open-mind, and more importantly for speaking truth to power.

Posted by: Eli B. | October 2, 2008 10:59 AM

Hey Mark, how often do you intend to dehumanize conservative Republicans before actually talking to some of them to get their points of view?

Oh, and if Mr. Gilchrest were as bigoted toward Jews, Catholics, or Muslims as he is toward evangelicals, would you still sing his praises?

Posted by: D.J. McGuire | October 2, 2008 11:28 AM

Wayne Gilchrest is an accidental congressman who is lucky he had the best job he ever had for eighteen years. He was lucky in that the previous two congressmen had homosexual scandals that disgusted most of the Maryland First(the Eastern Shore, parts of Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties) which allowed him to fall into his seat.

Gilchrest was not only way too liberal for his party but he is too liberal for his constituents. The Democratic candidate this year, Frank Kratovil, is to Gilchrest's right. I and many conservatives would have voted Kratovil had Gilchrest won re-nomination. Thankfully, when a conservative with campaign skills came to rid us of Gilchrest, Dr. Andy Harris, the Maryland First Republicans blasted Gilchrest out of office. Even with the advantages of incumbency, Gilchrest won only about 35 % of the vote against two serious primary challengers.

Gilchrest is just an angry, aging spoil-sport who is bitter that his $ 145,000 a year plum job is coming to an end. He had nothing of value to say in eighteen years and he had nothing to say now.

Posted by: D Leaberry | October 2, 2008 1:52 PM

Mr. Gilchrest is just telling the truth. Living in Easton at the moment, I can hardly wait until the housing market improves so we can escape this town and Talbot County.

It's a republican stronghold with huge, massive McCain/Palin signs lining the fields on Route 50 going East.

Once you enter the commercial district of Easton on Route 50, you are greeted with even more massive McCain/Palin signs, most in front of local businesses, which hardly seems professional. But, what the heck, after the last presidential election when the locals pulled this sign stunt in front of their businesses, I have refused to purchase very little, if anything, from local merchants. We shop in Delaware for almost everything now.

So many people in Easton are so provincial and backward. Please let the housing market improve soon. We would be happy to sell our house to someone who feels comfortable in the oppressive environment of Talbot County.

Posted by: JaneDoe4 | October 2, 2008 2:17 PM

Don't let the door hit ya' in yer' brains.

Posted by: D Leaberry | October 2, 2008 4:49 PM

Please notice how he was still running in the primary as a Republican and didn't have any harsh words until he left the primary. In other words, he was ready and willing to use the party mechanisms including fundraising and fine with attaching that (r) to the end of his name - until he lost.

That, Mr. Gilchrest, is the classic example of sour grapes.

Posted by: FB | October 3, 2008 9:30 AM

An even greater insight into Gilchrest's bitter soul is that he has disowned John McCain, who has campaigned for Gilchrest at the congressman's fundraising bull roasts in the past.

Posted by: D Leaberry | October 3, 2008 12:16 PM

Wow, I amazed at how easily the Republican party is willing to chop its nose off to spite its face. I was once a Republican because of Moderates like Gilchrest and Connie Morella who favored fiscal responsibility while not trying to alienate their voting districts with silly issues. Too bad the extremists in both parties are making representatives like them a thing of the past.
If I were in Gilchrest's shoes I would be bitter as well. The issues that once made the Republican party great are now non-issues on the National stage, replaced by things like banning abortion and limiting the rights of people based on their sexual orientation. And to top it off if you criticize anyone for thinking these are important you are accused of being intolerant of the Christian far right. I am tired of this drivel. Until the Republican party stops sticking its nose where it does not belong (in a woman's personal decisions and what goes on in people's bedrooms) they will continue to alienate most of voting public who once voted for them.

Posted by: TG | October 3, 2008 3:28 PM

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