In his NY Times column today, Frank Rich makes several excellent points about the ideological corner the GOP have painted themselves into. Discussing Sarah Palin’s absence from the recent CPAC confab, Rich writes:
What may at long last be dawning on some Republican grandees is that a provocateur who puts her political adversaries in the cross hairs and then instructs her acolytes to “RELOAD” frightens most voters.
Rich is quite correct that after the Giffords shooting in Arizona, many non-GOP-base voters are starting to take a second look at the violent imagery so commonly used by right wing candidates and (especially) media figures, and finding it over-the-top, if not frightening. Rich goes on to observe that this realization among many GOP 2012 Presidential hopefuls has made some of their recent speeches not just a bit awkward but nearly contentless, as they try to balance the need to be rabidly conservative for the base against not seeming like a frothing kook to the rest of the electorate, and come up mostly empty:
This shortfall of substance was showcased by last weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a premier Republican rite that doubles as a cattle call for potential presidential candidates. Palin didn’t appear — CPAC, as the event is known, doesn’t pay — and neither did her fellow Fox News personality Mike Huckabee. But all the others were there, including that great white hope of un-Palin Republicans, Mitt Romney. What they said — and didn’t say — from the CPAC podium not only shows a political opposition running on empty but also dramatizes the remarkable leadership opportunity their fecklessness has handed to the incumbent president in post-shellacking Washington.
Again, I agree completely: the modern GOP has run so far to the right they’ve begun to hit the ideological equivalent of the event horizon, or point of no return. They’ve doubled-down on failure so often and ginned up so much fear and so many straw-bogeymen for their base that they no longer have much ability to stop or even alter the rightward drift. Even former maverick John McCain had to twist himself almost unrecognizably into a cartoonishly right-wing repudiation of much he previously stood for, in order to even have a shot at remaining viable among the conservative base. And that was 2008; the GOP base and commentariat has drifted even further rightward since then. In a different political universe, Rich would probably be right that the spot between the rock of appeasing base-voters with their preferred toxic stew of suitably apocalyptic rhetoric and observably bad policy prescriptions, and the hard place of seeming too extreme for ordinary people into which the GOP has placed themselves would spell trouble, big trouble, for their 2012 hopes.
But doesn’t anyone remember the recent 2010 midterms? You know, the “shellacking” which everyone now agrees the Republicans handed Democrats? That wasn’t that long ago, and not much has changed since then. The GOP ran on most of the same stuff then they’re still pushing now. So why should it be different in 2012? Rich appears to be answering that question by pointing out that in the wake of the Giffords shooting, voters are finally starting to wake up and think “hey, wait a minute here….” I wish I could agree. Some are, to be sure, but if there are two things we can count on in American politics, it’s the short memory and easy distractibility of the voters, and the effectiveness of the GOP’s relentless permanent campaign mode.
To break this dynamic, Democrats have to dislodge one of those two things. The voters’ short memories can’t really be fixed, so that leaves the GOP campaign machine’s assault. And Rich is right; though it’s always relied on stage management, image and sound bites to cover up shortfalls in ideology and get non-wealthy voters to side with the corporate agenda of billionaires and Wall Street, the GOP message machine has never had less to work with than it does today. The failures of Bush-era policies combined with the extreme, cartoonish conservatism all GOP contenders today either possess or have to feign in order to secure the base make the GOP myth-making machine work harder than it ever has, and makes it more vulnerable than ever.
Will it be enough?
Unfortunately, I’m not convinced. Because when it comes to squandering opportunities for genuine, FDR-style political leadership in favor of either a never-ending quest for an ever-starboard shifting political center or a bloodless political stewardship which at worst merely hopes and at best ensures only that things will not get worse, few can compete with Barack Obama.
That means the upcoming election will be a real nail-biter, just as the last one was, right up until the September collapse of Lehman and the beginnings of TARP. The media are bored by a blowout contest; it’s in their own pecuniary interest to make each quadrennial Presidential contest as much of an exciting horse race between Team D and Team R as they can. Add to that the Obama team’s baffling lack of willingness or possibly desire to crow about what accomplishments they have achieved, and the President’s now-legendary distaste for appearing pugnaciously partisan, and we’ve got yet another perfect setup for whatever weak-cheese candidate the GOP chooses to toss up for 2012 from among the tepid field Rich mentions in his column.
Far too much of the media love a strong, tough-talking GOP-daddy figure, even if they know it’s all a stage-managed PR confection. And, while the smart, soaring, “yes-we-can” rhetoric of Barack Obama’s campaign speeches were enough to do the trick in 2008 for the then-relatively unknown Senator from Illinois (who was also aided immeasurably simply by virtue of being not-George-Bush) voters have had two-plus years to see where the President’s rhetoric matches the reality – and where it does not. Unfortunately for Obama, unlike the inexplicable poetic license accorded Republican Presidential candidates, both the public and the media decidedly do pay attention to any discrepancies between rhetoric and reality when the speaker is a Democrat.
For those reasons, despite my complete agreement that the 2012 GOP field is in an ideological and rhetorical corner, and that the actual candidates themselves are indeed all substantially flawed vessels at best, I have no doubt that especially in a post-Citizens United America, the 2012 race will be close indeed. In fact, should a significant terrorist attack or financial dip take place at a critical point – say, anywhere from next winter to mid-summer of next year – Obama could very well still lose this one. Because the sad reality of the political atmosphere in America today, as we begin to crank up the 2012 machinery, is that Obama and the Dems have not done nearly enough to push back against not just the worst policy overreaches of the Bush years (torture, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, bankster-appeasing), but against the increasingly conservative mindset that produced them, a mindset which has only gotten more extreme since Bush departed.
That’s the real chance that Obama squandered: not the chance to repair some of the actual damage done by Bush & Company. Obama’s team has actually done a decent job at some of that: they passed a health care bill which, while horribly flawed, has now assumed the weight of not only law
but of inevitability and permanence, etc. No, the chance Team Obama has really missed was the much more important chance to permanently discredit and re-marginalize the extremist conservative wing of the GOP which is now manifest in the tea party and exerting ever-greater ideological influence over GOP policy ideas. Fixing (or sometimes only quasi-fixing) the actual problems created by ruinous Bush-era conservative policies without conclusively and persistently discrediting the awful political philosophy behind them is like clipping the top of a weed out of your garden without pulling out the root: it’ll be back, with a vengeance, stronger than before because the root system was allowed to grow and thrive. Make no mistake, it’s the faux-free market, trickle-down ideology that are at the root of these horrible GOP policy ideas which needs to be weeded out. Leaving them untouched by reflexively insisting in public that he’s “open to good ideas from friends across the aisle” gives voters the impression that Obama believes there’s nothing really fundamentally wrong with these GOP ideas. And that’s why the candidate who eventually emerges from the octagon of the Republican primary, whether it be Palin or Romney or Ron Paul or even (a la George Will) Santorum (gulp), will have not only a built in constituency of insanely conservative tea partiers, but also a receptive ear in the American media and in the all-important swing-vote, independent and low-information voter demographic: because the person who counted most chose not to aggressively pin the blame on bankrupt GOTea ideology where it was (more than) deserved.
Barack Obama has spent his Presidency working very hard on policy issues, and he’s gotten many good things accomplished. He’s to be commended for that. He’s also capitulated far too early and too easily to intransigent, unyielding GOP demands, even when they were in a tiny minority for the first two years of his Presidency. That willingness to try to compromise with crazy instead of reject it outright – even at the cost of possibly losing a battle or two – comprises a failure to graphically demonstrate to the public (not just his own base) that these ultra-conservative, pro-corporate, anti-worker ideas and policies ARE what led us off the cliff, and are so bad for the country they cannot be countenanced, compromised with nor appeased. That die is cast now, the public has had two years and change to form a picture of Obama which it could not have had in the fall of 2008. By the time they go to cast their votes, it will be nearly four years. We may yet wind up, perversely, with a situation in which the very thing that Obama assumed would make him attractive to the widest spectrum of American voters – focusing on policy and not being so gauche as to call out and categorically denounce the worst of the GOP ideology – is the very thing that may cause many of those so-coveted swing voters to turn away from Obama in disappoinent and to once again turn to the simple, certain-sounding platitudes of the party of nostalgia and fear. That’s why this race will be close, no matter which flawed vessel the GOP nominates.
Like the Lorax, that one word, “unless.” Can this die which has been cast be recalled? Can the near-certain closeness of this upcoming election be changed? Can Obama and Democrats capitalize on the embarrassment of riches that is poor GOP policy prescriptions and weak, nutty candidates? Yes. But not unless Obama undergoes a sea-change and comes out swinging. He doesn’t have to match the GOP rant for rant. That’s not his style and it would seem false. But he absolutely must begin to place the blame for the problems of the last four years (or, if you prefer, ten) where it belongs: on the GOP. Fortunately, as I said before and everyone already knows anyway, we are entering campaign season. Drawing distinctions between yourself and the other guy is what one does in campaign season, if one wishes to get elected. You can bet the Republicans will be doing it. They did it in 2010, to great effect, and they will unquestionably be doing it again on every level in 2012 when the big prize is up for grabs.
The question is: will Obama do the same? Will he not only recapture the soaring and hopeful rhetoric of his 2008 campaign which galvanized so many, but also forcefully and in no uncertain terms confront the bad ideology behind the GOP’s disastrous policy prescriptions of the past decade which continue right up to today? Or will he continue to attempt to remain the cautious, reflexively centrist technocrat we’ve all gotten to know over the past twenty-six months, who eschews icky partisan bickering in favor of appeals to bipartisanship and the belief that his policy accomplishments will speak for themselves? The answer to that question will likely determine the answer to the question: will he be reelected? And if the Obama team can’t discern from their own experience last November how well that strategy of letting accomplishments speak for themselves while the opposition paints you as a Kenyan-born Mao-Hitler hybrid works, it might be worth the President’s time to stroll up to capitol hill and have a chat with his old Senate colleague John Kerry, who could tell him a thing or two about believing the public would never fall for such nonsense.