Look, the thing about the GOP is…
The other night I wrote a response to a post by Michael Lofgren’s GOP takedown that Erik brought to my attention, and when I got up the next morning the comment thread made it obvious that I had done an extremely poor job of communicating what I was trying to say. (Worse was going back in the morning and rereading my actual post; the degree with which I sounded like an old man telling Lofgren to get off my lawn was truly cringe-worthy.) So I’m going to try again, in longer and more measured form to explain why even though I think that Lofgren’s observations about the GOP are dead on, I think his (and most other people’s) subsequent conclusions about where the GOP is, where it’s going, and what that means for the country miss the mark.
First, let’s start with the observations that Lorgren, Erik, myself and I think most people that are not solid Righties agree on:
The GOP is being purposefully obstructionist these days, and it is annoying at best and destructive at worst. Given the choice to work with the majority and find solutions to very real and acute problems, they are content to let the problems fester if it means greater dissatisfaction by the general public – which most often leads to regime change at the voting block. Also, the GOP has long looked to turn voter dissatisfaction with government and tax payments into a mainstay coalition without bothering to create a plan for what their alternative might look like. They cater to those that either don’t understand or don’t like the changes the country has gone through in the past 30-50 years – and when I say changes, I mean those that otherwise seem to be either OK or even great with the rest of the country. Because of the way power has shifted during that time, this usually means older white, socially conservative Christians. This often leads to purposeful (and icky) political stoking of the fires of bigotry against blacks, Latinos, Muslims and the gay and lesbian community. As long as I have been of voting age, they have also been the party that looks to pick up the Nationalism votes, which means that on a whole they are far more hawkish. This frequently leads to political accusations that those that aren’t OK with any war at any price are Blame America First, pro-terrorism p**sies. Though I find great value in right-wing intellectual arguments that the poor and disenfranchised would be better off in the long run without government support, the GOP often goes one step further to demonize the poor and disenfranchised for political gain.
For all of those reasons, I actually admire Lofgren’s choice to not only leave the GOP, but to be willing to do so in such a vocal and public fashion. People here well know that I think that most of our allegiance to political parties has more to do with hard-wired tribalism than the rational matching-of-values story that we tell ourselves; considering the additional career challenges, lost friendships and effigy burning Lofgren is sure to face because of his decision I find that I am instinctively liking and rooting for him.
Where I disagree with Lofgren, Erik, and frankly most other people I know is this whole idea that the GOP today is apocalyptic, scary, or really even anything new and different. And while I think that the party is far worse than its counterpart today, I think this is largely due to its current circumstances and don’t think it worse than its counterpart has been in the past. Lets’ take what I think are the general common-sense givens that Lofgren and/or the GOP critics seem to agree on that I think are off base:
The Tea Party Has Made the GOP Into a Brand New Thing
I understand why this is a compelling narrative, but I remain unconvinced. Instead, I think this is shouted so often by pundits on the Right (to convince voters that next time they are in power they will have humbly learned their lesson) and the Left (to convince voters that the GOP is far scarier than anything we’ve seen before) that it has become Common Wisdom without being actually true.
Now, this isn’t to say that the Tea Party has had no effect on the GOP, or that a certain number of more radical sounding politicians have been elected because of it. However, I still have a hard time thinking in terms of the Tea Party being a game changer for anything other than internal management issues. There are two main reasons I have come to believe this.
The first is because of what I call the Tom Cruise Rule. The Tom Cruise Rule is this: If you have a movie about anything and you put Tom Cruise in it will instantly and almost magically become a movie that’s about an arrogant and successful upstart who stumbles, rights himself and Learns Something Valuable while growing as a person. It will always be this way, because if the movie can’t be that Tom Cruise just doesn’t show up to take the part. Similarly, running for political office today (maybe always?) takes a certain kind of person, regardless of political party or platform. If being in the spotlight and living for being told you are Important isn’t your bag, you’re just not going to be that electable guy. Being successful at national campaigning and politicking today requires the kind of personality that is a more than a little vain and self-centered. This is why Washington culture never changes – even those who when elected went there to Shake Things Up find they really, really like it the way it is when they get there. Until I see some proof otherwise, I am assuming the new Tea Party Upstarts in Congress are the same folks as before, with a new storyline and mailers featuring them wearing three corner hats. And if I’m wrong and they are the real deal? Let them introduce bills eliminating their constituents’ Medicare and Social Security and we’ll see how long they last.
But the other reason is that for all the attention it gets for being so radical and revolutionary, I have yet to be convinced that the Tea Party is either. There was a moment when it first appeared on the scene where I thought it might be the real deal that it touts itself to be, but the HRC struggles last summer convinced me otherwise. The big tell? When trying to rally the TPs against the government sticking its nose into our health care, its leaders got the most traction with the “They’ll take away your Medicare!” line. This kind of populist “I Don’t Want Entitlements Except When I Want Them” sentiment doesn’t strike me as anything New, Radical, Scary or Revolutionary. It strikes me as being life in a democracy as it ever was, only with more cameras pointing at it.
The GOP is Apocalyptic
I think this conclusion is really the combination of two other conclusions GOP critics have come to: That the GOP is in its death throws, and that rather than bow out gracefully it’s going to take the country with it. Both of these seem hyperbolic.
First off, its hard to remember with the way they froth at the mouth at the subject but all that happened to the GOP power-wise is they got temporarily downgraded in 2008, and got a slight but not equally significant upgrade in 2010. We all have a tendency to look at what is happening today and give it a level of import that it just won’t have in even a year or two. I think its healthy to remember that the same pundits who are burying the GOP today were seriously discussing the possibility of a multi-generational super majority for them just six or seven years ago. (You may remember that back then common consensus was that the Democratic Party was in its last death spiral.)
I also don’t believe that these gnashing of teeth tactics used today will continue in the long run. To me, the Right today seems like nothing so much as the Left did in Reagan’s first term. I was in college and starting to get involved with politics then, and I have very clear and fond memories of those times. Like the GOP in post-2008, the Dems had just gotten their asses kicked by a country that desperately wanted anyone but them and were struggling to find a cohesive and productive direction. Not being able to agree on how to do this, they instead demonized Reagan in a way that made him seem inhuman. It was a startlingly common belief on the Left in those days that Reagan actually wanted to start a nuclear war to either end mankind, leave the Earth for a small elite, or kill all communist men, women and children. Today those same Lefties don’t much acknowledge that this was what they themselves believed (“Oh, it was those other guys that used to say that!”) in the same way that in 20 years no one will cop to having really thought that the Federal government was out to impose Sharia Law and convert everyone to Islam. And without a clear direction they could agree upon, the Dems of that era became The Party That Opposes The Usurper, and really nothing else. Because of this they seemed perpetually unelectable in both 84 and in 88, but they eventually figured it out. The GOP will too – my guess is sometime after they lose in 2012.
(By the way, I should add that I don’t think this dynamic is just a political one. I see it all the time in the private sector: A company is on top, gets its ass handed to it by a competitor, and temporarily goes way off the deep end finding radical ways to rebrand itself that ultimately hurt the company even more. Which means that in a way today’s GOP also reminds me of New Coke.)
But the main reason I don’ think the GOP or the Right will do anything too radical is that despite our incessant whining otherwise things are pretty damn good right now, historically speaking. Are we involved in several wars we shouldn’t be? Sure, but for most of the country the effects are far removed and indirect, and I suspect most people go days or weeks without even remembering we are at war. We are in the middle of a pretty bad recession, but despite that we are still remarkably successful; a devastating recession in America today just doesn’t mean what it has historically here or elsewhere. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t those suffering because of our economic woes, but on whole we are still pretty vibrant. (How vibrant? Here is a debate we’ve been having this year with the First Lady at the forefront: How to deal with the fact that the nations poorer classes are suffering long-term health problems in part because they are eating foods that have way too many calories. Think about that.) At the end of the day, even those on the Right that are clamoring for Big Radical Change will, I believe, ultimately reject it. Because as I stated above, its one thing to talk about Medicare and Social Security being an evil librul plot with your buddies over a beer; it’s another to have it taken away from you.
I am hoping that whether or not anyone agrees, this posting will at least be clearer about what I was trying to say.