Hastert and the Illinois Combine foreshadowed GOP revolt

Someday, the mysterious Individual A in the Dennis Hastert $3.5 million hush-money case may come forward and tell stories about Hastert, the former Republican House Speaker.

I figure he’ll show up on some network TV morning show, wedged in between recipes and celebrity news. And then we’ll learn why the former speaker felt the need to lie the FBI about all the $952,000 he took out of the bank before he was indicted.

Hastert’s lawyers were finalizing a deal for him to plead guilty at a federal hearing on Oct. 28. Some think the deal is being done to avoid a thorough explanation of whether Hastert, as sources have told the Tribune, sexually preyed upon young men.

So that could remain a mystery. But what’s not a mystery is that Hastert is a creature of Illinois politics. And if the rest of the country had paid attention to the political culture of Illinois, the nation may have had a foreshadowing of the political wreckage of today:

Revolution engulfing the Republican Party; an inevitable fight against the GOP establishment in the U.S. House; the weird rise of Donald Trump. And there’s another coming fight down the road, between Wall Street Democrats like Hillary Clinton and her party’s far left wing that is beginning to #FeeltheBern.

But the Beltway media/political hive wasn’t interested in what was really happening in Illinois, and what Illinois could have told America about itself.

Instead the state was portrayed as place of eccentrics, some larcenous perhaps, but a place where the political parties worked together to “get things done.” What wasn’t said is when the politicians work together, taxpayers better grab on to their wallets.

Illinois is the political birthplace of President Barack Obama. And though the president complains about Republican obstructionism, Obama governs the nation via executive order, like some post-constitutional Chicago boss issuing edicts to hapless aldermen.

Illinois is also Hastert’s home, where he coached wrestling at Yorkville High School and reportedly met Individual A, and they did whatever it is they did, and where Hastert prospered as a politician, was sent to Congress and later became the nation’s longest-serving Republican speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007.

A wise man once said that the past is prologue. And if you look at Washington, that fellow was right.

Because Illinois is where big-spending, big-government Republicans served as handmaidens to big-spending, big-government Democratic machine bosses from Chicago. They made deal after deal, and got fatter and fatter, and spent and spent, decade upon decade upon decade.

Now Illinois is broke and can’t pay its bills.

The Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, one of the oligarchs, is fighting the Democratic bosses and refuses to cave. For this Rauner is condemned by insiders. Illinois Republicans are historically expected to roll over and let the Democratic bosses rub their bellies.

The way we do things here is called the Chicago Way for a reason.

Illinois, the state where immigrants once came to work, is bleeding jobs. Many young people and what’s left of the middle class flee as economic refugees.

Years ago, I began calling the political arrangement here the Combine, a play on the farm machinery chopping down everything before it, and on bipartisan bosses who ran things in combination.

Chicago’s business leaders funded both parties. They relied on the Daleys and other Machine Democrats to maintain control of the city and give them what they wanted and if Republicans balked, they would have their ears pulled by the money guys.

And now in Washington even the meat puppets can’t deny the Illinois Combine dynamic has been writ large: Big corporate and big government interests on one side — the Combine driving the Leviathan — while American taxpayers and families and small businesses are fed into the hopper.

Hastert was House speaker as President George W. Bush became President Big Government. And Hastert’s pudgy hand was all over it.

For all the legitimate shrieking from Republicans condemning Obama for profligate spending, they conveniently skip over the Bush years and the ridiculous 15,000 congressional earmarks in 2005, and that Bridge to Nowhere, and so much more.

The deals allowed Bush to buy political support for his disastrous invasion of Iraq, another reason why wars are always corrosive. The political garbage — the earmarks, the deals, the overspending to buy today’s politics with tomorrow’s money — was liquefied. It seeped out upon America from under the Orwellian phrase of the day, “Big Government Conservatism.”

“There was this pent-up demand for public works, and they kind of went crazy,” Bruce Bartlett, the economist and former Treasury official under Bush told The New York Times. Bartlett’s book, “Impostor,” accused Bush of being anything but conservative when it came to spending.

Hastert, Bartlett told the Times, “was a hands-off guy. He was picked because he didn’t do anything” to control the spending under Bush.

“If Capitol Hill is still run by what often seems a bunch of bungling, spend-thrift, unreformable, tin-eared, unimaginative, hysterical pols, not much is going to change,” said National Review editor Rich Lowry near the end of Hastert’s reign.

Of course he was right. And Hastert was the Combine ringmaster from Illinois, a cartoon establishment Washington Republican, getting fat, watching the clowns.

There’s absolutely no mystery there.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is[email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

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