Where to Go Now

Sometimes even news junkies and policy wonks can be stopped dead in their tracks by a single well-written paragraph:

It is unclear why the bear, which was wearing ice skates at the time, attacked Mr Potapov. The bear was later shot by police. Deadly attacks are rare in the country’s circuses, which often train bears to wear skates and play ice hockey.

Franz Kafka? Donald Barthelme? No, just the Times of London – and such a perfect paragraph can make you smile, because it reminds you of the Republicans:

Many top Republicans are growing worried that the party’s chances for reversing its electoral routs of 2006 and 2008 are being wounded by the flamboyant rhetoric and angry tone of conservative activists and media personalities, according to interviews with GOP officials and operatives.

Congressional leaders talk in private of being boxed in by commentators such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – figures who are wildly popular with the conservative base but wildly controversial among other parts of the electorate, and who have proven records of making life miserable for senators and House members critical of their views or influence.

Some of the leading 2012 candidates are described by operatives as grappling with the same tension. The challenge is to tap into the richest source of energy in the party – the disgust of grass-roots conservative activists with President Barack Obama and their hunger for a full-throated attack on his agenda – without coming off to the broader public as cranky and extreme.

That’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen in Politico, and they go into great detail describing how many established and establishment Republicans must feel they’re being trained to wear skates and play ice hockey. And they don’t like it much. But then, you don’t want to get shot, do you?

Of course, part of the problem is Glenn Beck:

Warning of the influence of the Fox host, who recently accused Obama of racism against whites, George W. Bush White House veteran Peter Wehner wrote last month: “Beck seems to be a roiling mix of fear, resentment and anger – the antithesis of Ronald Reagan.” Still, these concerns apparently are not powerful enough to prompt most elected Republicans to take public stands against the rhetoric coming from the web of conservative talk show hosts, websites and public activists.

So, formerly solid Republicans find themselves in an odd sort of circus, feeling like trained bears. And that Beck and Limbaugh are cracking the whip.

Democrats, being what they are – fractious, disorganized, lacking in discipline – are of course in trouble too. But they don’t have their own Beck or Limbaugh. As usual, they won’t do the precise bidding of MoveOn.org or Michael Moore and such folks – that would be too decisive. Keep your options open. That’s the ticket. Most established and establishment Democrats, like Harry Reid, drive the left nuts. Crack the whip and they look puzzled, and want to talk about it – thus their reputation for uselessness.

This is quite a mess, but in the Washington Independent, David Weigel argues that at least they have the Republicans:

The Democrats are in worse political shape than they were a year ago because unemployment is at 9.8 percent, the war in Afghanistan has grown less popular, and the bailouts of struggling banks are seen as wastes of money that haven’t worked. Republicans benefit when they talk about this stuff. But Beck and the others don’t let them talk about this stuff. For the past few months, they have moved the discussion onto fantasy terrain, accusing the president of reaching for dictatorial powers and surrounding himself with “radicals” who want to destroy capitalism.

Weigel considers this a classic Republican blunder:

In the current political context, it seems like they’re missing the forest for some shrubs. It’s as if Democrats tried to press their advantages in 2005 not by going after the Iraq War or the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, but by spending weeks attacking mid-ranking members of his administration and claiming that President George W. Bush was driving the nation toward fascism. And remember, one of the huge political mistakes of 2005 was the Republican decision to do a full-court press on an issue that had come from conservative activists and pundits: the fate of Terri Schiavo.

Remember her? No Republicans mention her any longer, and Bill Frist, the senator-doctor who diagnosed her condition from the Senate floor, after seeing a few highly edited video clips, is long gone. The nation was offended any way you cut it – this was not the government’s business. And rescuing people in New Orleans after Karina was. It was a matter of missing the forest for some shrubs. But then, their president was named Bush.

Of course the result of this odd focus on abstract notions and broad and ominous social trends is painfully obvious. On Friday, October 23, CNN released the results of its new poll – “The Republican Party’s favorable rating among Americans is at its lowest level in at least a decade, according to a new national poll.”

Of course it is, and Steve Benen comments:

If this doesn’t make the GOP nervous, it should. According to the poll, just 36% have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, while 54% have a negative opinion. When was the last time a CNN poll showed Republicans with a worse rating? According to the internals (pdf), it was December 1998 – 11 years ago – the same week House Republicans impeached then-President Bill Clinton and the GOP’s favorability rating dropped to 31%.

And a 53% majority has a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party. Something is not working. Folks aren’t impressed with trained bears on roller skates playing hockey, although Benen argues that “it’s certainly possible that by this time next year, an anti-incumbent attitude will be strong enough to deliver significant gains for the GOP in the midterms.”

But that is questionable, as yet, and “results like these have to be disheartening.”

Just look at things:

President Obama’s poll numbers have fallen in recent months, and so has the Democrats’ support in general. But Republicans have not only failed to capitalize, they’re actually getting less popular and finding fewer Americans willing to even consider themselves members of the party. The GOP is simply moving backwards.

It occurs to me that the most frightening electoral scenario imaginable for Democrats right now would be a Republican Party that cleaned up its act, started taking public policy seriously, moved towards the American mainstream, and stopped taking orders from talk radio and tea-baggers – the kind of steps that might improve a 36% favorable rating.

But Benen is with Weigel, and “there’s no reason to think this might happen.”

Yes, they trotted out Dick Cheney, but that’s not going well:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had a blunt response on Friday to the latest broadsides from former Vice President Dick Cheney: “Who cares?”

In the latest exchange between old and new administrations, Mr. Biden rebuffed his predecessor’s criticism about President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan as “absolutely wrong.” And Mr. Biden rejected the last review of the war conducted by the White House under former President George W. Bush and Mr. Cheney as “irrelevant.”

The dismissive reply, which came at the end of Mr. Biden’s three-day swing through Eastern Europe during an interview with reporters traveling with him, underscored the weariness in the current White House with Mr. Cheney’s periodic assaults. At the same time, advisers to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden consider the former vice president a useful public foil and have not shied away from escalating the debate by taking him on directly.

There are a few embedded messages here. This stuff from Cheney is tiresome, it makes everyone weary. And it’s irrelevant, anyone can see that. And it’s oddly fun and useful. Trained bears on ice skates are funny, especially when they’re old, declawed, and pretending to be deadly powerful. Their growls make everyone giggle.

But some Republicans get it. See Greg Sargent at the Plum Line:

There seems to be a growing consensus among former GOP officials that their party has been successfully defined – or has defined itself – in very damaging terms as reflexively obstructionist and opposed at all costs to helping the majority party govern the country.

Along these lines, former governor Jeb Bush offered a scathing assessment of his party’s political difficulties in a speech yesterday at George Washington University, calling the GOP the “old white guy party” and insisting it must shed its image as the “party of No.”

Now that’s odd. Beck and Limbaugh will have him drawn and quartered, but the university’s newspaper does report this:

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that in order for a political party to be successful it has to reach out to everyone,” Bush said. “In politics, you never win when you say ‘us and them.’ We need a more welcoming message.”

Bush added that his party needs to modernize and embrace 21st ideals and technology.

“I sense that our party is kind of in a nostalgic mode where we look back to the good old days,” Bush said. “However good they were, and there were some good days, is completely irrelevant in 2009.”

Bush discussed the need for reform in education, particularly the embracement of technology in the classroom. Bush said the Republicans need to lead the charge on education issues, as well as on energy policy, immigration policy and a foreign policy that defends America’s interests.

“We just can’t be the party of no.

“Republicans need to offer, based on their own principles, solutions to these problems,” he said.

Sargent reports that the local Republicans, who hosted the speech, confirmed the accuracy of the account, but said Bush didn’t use the precise words “party of No.” Fine, but what does that matter?

Sargent:

Dems have been pushing the line that the GOP’s knee-jerk obstructionism has effectively exiled the party from participating meaningfully in the great debates over the direction of our country, and it doesn’t hurt Dems when someone like Jeb Bush offers a similar diagnosis.

Of course many, mainly at Fox News, would argue that the nation loves knee-jerk obstructionism – that’s exactly what they want, and they hate Obama and everything he stands for, and hate his dog Bo too, or something.

Of course that led to the big non-story of the day from Mike Allen – FRIENDS PUSH AILES FOR PRESIDENT – “Friends and associates are encouraging Fox News chief Roger Ailes to jump into the political arena for real by running for president in 2012, top sources tell POLITICO.” And a few hours later, from Mike Allen – ROGER AILES SAYS HE WILL NOT RUN IN 2012 RACE.

And America says, yeah, whatever.

So, if you were a big time political consultant, what would you recommend the Republican Party do now? In the American Interest, Steve Teles suggests they look to the past, and become the Whigs again.

No, really. All you have to do is look at the current state of affairs:

All but the most ostrich-like of conservatives recognize that their movement is at its lowest ebb in more than three decades. Democrats control the presidency and both chambers of Congress, and the polarization of the two major parties has rendered conservatives more isolated and irrelevant to policymaking than in their previous stints in the minority. Democrats are using their majorities to pass sweeping changes in public policy that will reshape the contours of the American state for decades to come, and it hardly matters whether these changes are impelled by the exigencies of crisis, pre-existing ideology or some of both. Whatever its engine, the upward ratchet of American state-building, which conservatives thought they had stopped, has suddenly sprung back to life.

Looking forward, the picture darkens. Two thirds of younger voters supported Obama in 2008, and if the past is any indication, these voters will maintain their political preferences into adulthood. Combining this trend with a profound weakness among ethnic minorities and unmarried women, Republicans are likely to become weaker still in the great expanses beyond their Southern firewall. And in the South, Obama’s victories in North Carolina and Virginia suggest that the more cosmopolitan Southern states are far from safe for the GOP. Worst of all, conservative politicians and the movement’s intelligentsia seem incapable of finding a plausible path out of their current doldrums. Most resist any reassessment of the nostrums they have peddled for the past three decades. Even as the world around them calls their orthodoxies into question, conservative ideas seem set in stone.

And that stone of which he speaks is in their heroes:

These challenges have led some Republicans to look back to the Reagan presidency for inspiration. While the presidencies of Bush the elder and younger and the era of Republican control of Congress now seem tarnished at best, the Reagan presidency shines on as an inspiring example of what a popular, ambitious, optimistic and reforming conservatism would look like. And indeed, a good argument can be made that our current era holds many similarities to what Steven Hayward calls the “Age of Reagan.” The difference is that President Obama is the one who resembles Reagan while the Republicans look increasingly like the hapless Democrats of the 1980s. It’s Obama who is the avatar of change, Obama who has captured the rhetoric of renewal, Obama who epitomizes a new “can do” tone – and above all, Obama who symbolizes the American capacity for reinvention.

Yep, Obama grabbed that Reagan thing out from under them, just like he said he would. They were warned.

And they can forget the Iron Lady too:

An observer with an even darker perspective might look across the Atlantic for parallels, seeing Obama in the role of Margaret Thatcher and the Republicans as the Michael Foot-era Labour Party. A more recent example is that of Britain’s Conservative Party, which took a dozen years to transform itself into a plausible alternative to the Labour government. One could cite plenty of other examples, but the point is already clear enough: Successful political parties in Western electoral democracies typically owe their accomplishments less to their own virtues than to the vices of their opponents.

So Teles says Republicans “may need to look farther back in time for inspiration.” And that’s where the Whigs come in:

The Whigs were first and foremost enemies of Jacksonian democracy, but they also represented the positive legacy of Alexander Hamilton. They recognized that national power was dependent on industrialization and the financial system the latter required. Unlike the Jacksonians, who thought of national development largely in terms of territorial expansion, the Whigs were fervent believers in a vision of America that would grow “up” (through national investments in infrastructure) rather than simply “out.” They resisted populist interpretations of the democratic spirit, believing that strong constitutional restraints on power were necessary for decent government – including limits on executive power. This belief in formalities extended to their respect for the sovereignty of other nations, which manifested itself in opposition to the U.S.-Mexican War (among whose opponents was a young Abraham Lincoln) and to the annexation of Texas. The Whigs were nationalists, to be sure, seeing the nation “not as some temporary contractual agreement but as something venerable and eternal.” But they didn’t assume that American nationalism justified any and all uses of the nation’s armed forces (despite a penchant for nominating military heroes – William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and later Winfield Scott – as presidential candidates).

At the same time, the Whigs’ nationalism was far from provincial, for they understood the dangers generated by insularity and the populism that went with it. The Whigs recognized the importance of cities to a modern republic, seeing in them “centers of civilization, where wealth-generating industries could be sited, bringing prosperity to all.” They believed that the development of American civilization required the country’s elites to be in touch with the civilizational achievements of other nations. Indeed, they thought that “America could become fully civilized only by emulating what was best in British and European high culture.” Resisting the spirit of Jacksonian democracy also meant supporting the dignity of public service and the need for high, intensely moral standards of governmental conduct, a view expressed most eloquently by the party’s intellectual leaders, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. They saw in the party of Jackson a normalization of the spirit of corruption. They were democrats, to be sure, but democrats tempered by constitutional restraints and a commitment to “ennobling” democracy through moral standards and civilizational aspiration.

Okay then – resisting populist interpretations of the democratic spirit – that won’t fly these days. Respect for the sovereignty of other nations – so much for the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war. Not assuming that American nationalism justified any and all uses of the nation’s armed forces – they hated the troops. As for recognizing the importance of cities to a modern republic – so much for all that crap about the Heartland and the Real Americans. Emulating what was best in British and European high culture? But that’s the French and what Rumsfeld sneered and called the utterly useless Old Europe. Extolling the dignity of public service is, of course, socialism and hating the free-market.

Steve Teles is asking a lot here, a new leadership which “inspired by the Whigs could pull back from the Party’s temptation toward cheap cultural populism, which has cost it support among the nation’s more educated classes.” Yes, it might be that “a Whiggish Republicanism could also contrast its respect for constitutional formalism with Democratic anything-goes constitutionalism.” And pigs might fly. They have enough problems with the bears on ice skates playing hockey.

UCLA’s Mark Kleiman adds this:

I can see the ideological attractiveness of such a party.

What I can’t see is its social basis. Steve suggests that the Republicans ought to stand firmly by opposition to redistribution, corruption, and the capture of government by provider interests.

But that doesn’t sound to me like a fighting faith. I doubt such a party could hold the racist/nativist/gun-nut/homophobe/creationist/Muslim-basher constituency that now makes up a large chunk of the Republican base.

And there’s the serious problem of governing:

Let’s not forget that the historical Whigs had something very specific to deliver to their constituency: not just “internal improvements” (infrastructure such as canals and railroads), but the tariffs to pay for them, which protected American manufacturing from European competition. I don’t see the comparable feature of Steve’s imagined neo-Whiggery.

Yes, governing matters, as Digby notes:

One of the more annoying right wing mantras, especially now, is the endless, tiresome insistence that “government is the problem.” But it’s more than just tiresome, it’s dangerous. As I have said one too many times, it empowers the malefactors of great wealth to escape responsibility for what they do.

But there’s more to it than that. As Jeff Madrick writes at OurFuture.org, the myth of government being the problem leads to a starvation of society and ultimately hurts economic growth…

Here’s Madrick:

All myths are by definition simplistic. The one that became entrenched in the late 1970s and early 1980s had as its core claim that government’s presence was usually an impediment to prosperity and that the best course for the American economy was to reduce aggressively government’s size and reach. So popular was this destructive notion that the end of the “era of big government” was announced proudly in 1996 by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

In the past 30 years, government, with a few exceptions, did not adequately sustain and nurture society, or help it adapt to change. Government invested less in America, it regulated less, and it led less. It was a lost generation.

The financial crisis occurred because of this widespread disdain for and distrust of government. Under ideological pressure to which both political parties subscribed and under the influence of powerful vested interests, government stepped back and gave financial markets largely free rein. Very risky investments were made with enormous levels of debt; the failure of one firm could take down an entire industry. Common sense was discarded and new, highfalutin theories about the rationality and efficiency of markets dominated thinking at the best universities, the halls of Congress, and the boardroom of the nation’s central bank. Always, the argument was the financial community understood risk better than any government could.

It’s almost as if we tried to step outside history:

When you comb the serious academic evidence about how and why economies grow, you will find that no case can be made that big government or even high taxes impede economic growth over time. History offers no lesson about the values of minimal government. There has never been a laissez-faire modern economy. To the contrary, the evidence shows that government typically contributed vitally to growth. As odd as it is to have to say this, without effective government, America would be poor today.

Digby adds this:

Of course we need to be skeptical of government power. But fundamentally it is simply an organizing institution and is required as a mediator and facilitator to make our freedoms real and our opportunities equal. The right wing’s self-serving demonization of government has twisted Americans’ understanding of how to look out for their own self-interest, and it’s skewed everything.

But then some people prefer trained bears on skates playing hockey. The polling shows most folks find that tiresome. Who knows what will save the party?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Where to Go Now

  1. M. Bouffant says:

    This is becoming a daily read.

    Especially liked the piece from The American Interest. Not a chance in hell though.

  2. raymond mcinnis says:

    yes, it is a daily “read”, but responding as usual to alan is not easy. why? i guess i’m simply holding my breath until the vote on health care and the public option is settled.

    if the public option is included in the final bill — as public opinion polls favor — the issue of the role of the gop will change, significantly in the sense that the “party of no” will suffer a rebuff from the electorate that cannot be denied or avoided. no longer can the right claim that the american public is, politically, “right of center”, as they have for years.

    second, while the two don’t seem related, the health care vote will have an impact on the other arrow in the gop quiver, “the Dems are soft on defence”, that false charge will have less cachet, and either the gop will transform into a party that reflects the demographic changes of america, or it will perish and be replaced by something else.

    not a realistic scenario? we’ll see.

  3. Randall says:

    Thank you for using the metaphor of a bear on skates to describe a party dedicated to improving the conditions for the rich while trying to keep their entire poor white base voting against their own self-interest. Brilliant!
    Is it by design or accident that as the Republicans drift off into right-wing wingnut land Jeb Bush appears as the moderate voice and thus the likely next presidential candidate?

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