A quiet Friday evening here in the dead center of Hollywood – with the pretty people just down the block on the Sunset Strip, hitting the famous clubs, and the twenty-something crowd off to the left a few blocks, at the hot techno-thump trance sites in Hollywood proper. At the bottom of the hill, at CBS Television City, Bill Maher has just wrapped another episode of Real Time, and down south of the city Jack Nicholson is courtside at the evening’s Lakers game. All is as it should be, depending on your point of view. Downtown, at the Disney Hall – an odd place – the LA Philharmonic is doing a new violin concerto they commissioned, and Strauss – Ein Heldenleben – a hero’s life. To each his own – and people do get into the grooves they find comfortable. And, for some of us, sitting back on a Friday evening and thinking about the week that was is what Friday evenings are for.
And it was an odd week for those of us who follow politics. There was a Tuesday of key Republican primaries – Arizona and Michigan – where, in Michigan, Rick Santorum, poised to beat Mitt Romney in Romney’s home state (sort of), managed to throw away his chances there by coming out against college education and Jack Kennedy and contraception, and perhaps sex itself, and against Satan, even as Romney robotically bumbled along as usual. The voters, by a small margin, chose the tone-deaf and clueless rich guy over the wild-eyed impossibly strange nasty man in the sweater-vest. It was Bob Forehead versus Torquemada. Take your choice.
And too, the week ended with an odd flurry – America’s Toughest Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, whose endorsement all Republicans seek, went all Birther, claiming all of Obama’s documents were forgeries and Obama was simply not eligible to be president – creating a problem for those who were courting him. And then the Blunt Amendment – allowing all employers to ignore the law and not offer any health plan which had provisions that they didn’t like – contraception for women, who really shouldn’t be having sex, or vaccinations, which they might see as undermining God’s will, failed in the Senate. But it failed by a whisker. Soon your boss may get to decide what your health plan covers, no matter what you or your doctor thinks or, what the law says is the basic minimum. His religious convictions are what matter, of course. That was odd, as was the federal judge, Glenn Grothman, posting that email joke about Obama’s mother loving group sex with black men and dogs, and not even knowing the difference, if there was any. He said it touched his heart, and then he apologized and promised to investigate himself. And there was that Wisconsin legislator who wants to define being a single parent as felony child abuse – a hero of the right in Wisconsin, where he’s good buddies with the governor the Koch brothers got elected up there, Scott Walker. And all this was followed by Rush Limbaugh on a roll, with two full days of him calling Sandra Fluke a slut and no more than a common prostitute. She was the young Georgetown Law student the Republicans would not let testify on matters pertaining to employer health plans covering the legal minimum, like contraception, because she wasn’t qualified to speak on such matters – she wasn’t clergy. When she did testify, to an alternative Democratic panel, and suggested birth control pills were useful as hormonal therapy too, to treat ovarian cancer for example (she almost lost a friend to that) – well, that set Rush off. She just wanted sex, and lot of it, and if America was going to pay for those birth control pills the America people had the right to watch her have sex, so get the video camera out – he likes watching common whores have sex, or something.
This was a problem. Would the Republicans echo what he said, as they always do? And then Obama calling this woman and thanking her for her testimony, and telling her that her parents should be proud of her, infuriated Limbaugh. The president supports sluts, not decent responsible women who will have nothing to do with sex, and who, as he said, simply press an aspirin tablet between their knees. He offered to buy her lots of aspirin, because he’s a compassionate fellow. Would this be the new Republican line? The party was silent. They’re still trying to figure out how to play this. John Boehner said Rush got the idea sort of right, but used the wrong words. Rick Santorum says this Rush guy is just an entertainer and not to be taken seriously – thus throwing away many millions of votes from the Rush fans, who hang on his every word. But Santorum is good at throwing away votes. And Romney said something, but no one remembers what it was.
But the Republicans may have just thrown away the women’s vote, unless they come down hard on Rush Limbaugh, which they’ve never done before and cannot really do now. The man is their party. And perhaps most women really are immoral sluts – so to hell with them, literally. And with all the Birther talk – Obama can’t be a real American – they long ago threw away the black vote, even if they said they weren’t racist, just being precise about the rules. And they long ago threw away the Hispanic vote with all the anti-immigrant stuff, like Herman Cain’s gleeful call for an electrified fence at the Mexican border that would fry every man, woman and child who tried to cross to a crisp. Yes, secure borders matter, but the tone of seething heartless scorn didn’t go unnoticed. Janet Brewer in Arizona didn’t help either. But who needs the Hispanic vote, even if Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in America, and in key states more than thirty percent of the population? Let the Real Americans decide the election. But of course that excludes the gays too – those people shouldn’t marry each other and be happy. So they never wanted their vote either. And remember Sarah Palin campaigning, with all the talk about Real Americans – who live in the heartland, in small towns, not in big cities, like New York or Obama’s Chicago, or evil Hollywood. And these people, the Real Americans, don’t have fancy-pants degrees and think they’re so damned smart. Who needs them? But who is left? Yes, you can change the voter registration rules in key areas to make sure blacks and Hispanics and college kids can’t easily vote – they’re working on it. And Ann Coulter did argue that women just should not be allowed to vote at all – the fools keep voting for Democrats. But we’re talking about stopgap measures in the first instance, and with Coulter, what might be hard to change now. But there has been a great deal of discussion of this odd attempt to focus the Republican Party on its pure core, and how that ongoing effort makes the party narrower and smaller and smaller until it simply disappears.
But the immediate problem is Rush Limbaugh, offending most women in America, to the delight of the Democrats. How could the Republican Party allow that to happen?
Well, Tod Kelly at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen – one of the better named websites around – has a few thoughts on that, as almost a year ago he made this prediction:
The economy will be slightly better than it is now, but not much. And though that should mean that the Republicans have a great shot at getting the White House they won’t. Their campaign will be forced to take aggressively hostile sounding positions on social issues that their base will be convinced is their key to victory but will turn off and irritate the center. Positions the candidate swore to when they tried to win the nomination will come back to kill him or her (Ha! No, seriously, him) as the general race heats up. The White House, on the other hand, will continue its current trend of presenting the President as a centrist – and will truly look like one in comparison.
And now he says he is having a hard time being outraged by Rush Limbaugh:
When your mother drops the f-bomb in the grocery store checkout line, it’s shocking. When the guy down the block, that everyone knows has Tourette’s, does it, it kind of starts coming off as a “meh” after a while. For me, however, the whole episode kind of wraps up all the GOP’s problems today in a nutshell. (Or, perhaps more precisely, maybe it wraps them up in a round, flat plastic dispenser that comes with twenty one white pills and seven pink ones.)
He thinks that what happened here was inevitable:
In the late 90s through the early and mid 00s, the GOP found that it could increase both number of voters and voter passion by aligning itself with a media machine that was initially created to build ratings from shock value. The wide success and popularity of conservative talk radio hosts in general, and of Limbaugh in particular, had already been widely acknowledged as the force that had delivered the house to the Republicans in ’94. Republican heavy hitters as well as Righty wannabes began to find that their success in the polls was often directly related to their exposure on these shows, where they were treated as mythic folk heroes. The advent of FOX News took that trend and increased it exponentially with TV coverage. The GOP found, much to its delight, that by using the segment of the media that it controlled, it could continually rally its base and win elections without dealing with the traditional difficulties of having to sell superior policy proposals. Rather than giving detailed stances on what they might do in power, they were instead able to focus on demonizing the opposition to self-selected media people who neither asked them to clarify their own plans or ever questioned the claims about their opponents. In a world as hard and difficult as politics, the GOP found a way to make everything easy.
But, as Terry Pratchett has oft said, the problem with the easy way is that eventually it makes everything so damn hard.
The problem was with the concept:
The media business model the Right chose to embrace was based on the shock-radio model. An inherent flaw with this type of model is that while it leads to quick ratings and advertising profits, it can be difficult to sustain. If you spend one week calling the President a liar and an idiot, it’s not going to be long before calling him a lying idiot isn’t really all that shocking. You have to continually push just a little bit more as you go, or risk being relevant in the shock-media world. This started happening in the 00s, with the rise into the mainstream of people such an Ann Coulter and Mark Levine. At first you could tell that the rank and file of the right were aware that their envelope was being pushed, but their response was usually some form of the following: “Yeah, Coulter is a little nutty when she says that Democrats actually want the terrorists to kill US citizens, but it’s okay because when she says it, it really bothers the liberals.” And so, as time went on and claims became more and more outrageous, the excuse that if things bothered liberals it was okay grew within both the media machine and its base.
And then you hit a wall, or really a ceiling:
Somewhere along the line, however, this model has to break down – partly because you eventually reach a ceiling where the base that believes the ever-increasingly shocking claims is small enough to make the party you’re backing politically irrelevant, and partly because to those who aren’t part of the machine or the base you begin to look increasingly out of touch. Birtherism is a fairly good example of this ceiling being reached, as are the Death Panels and Obama/Hitler youth programs.
Unfortunately for the Right, however, once you tie yourself and your success so inexorably to the machine it becomes almost impossible to untangle yourself from it. Back in 2009, a number of GOP elected and appointed officials were at different times critical of some particularly outrageous statements by Limbaugh in front of the press. And each time they have quickly been forced by both the machine and the base to publicly grovel their apologies, the most notably being a sitting RNC Chair.
Yes, that would be Micheal Steele apologizing for calling Rush Limbaugh just an entertainer – and the Republican Nation Committee tossed Steele out on his ear, and Rush was the hero, and thus Kelly sees the problem here:
The people behind the people in the GOP aren’t idiots. They know perfectly well that this whole battle on contraception is going to kill them in a few months; they certainly know that the Right’s most visible pundits lamely and uncomfortably trying to rally around Limbaugh is especially bad news for them. What does it say about today’s GOP, then, that even though they know this they feel so resigned to letting it unfold as it is anyway?
For a while now the Right has held tight to the belief that if the ratings are high and whatever you do pisses off other people, you must be doing something right. And in a way, they are correct: Battling contraception and calling women that are on the pill sluts that should have to be taped having sex, so they can whack to it, does indeed increase ratings, and it does indeed piss off other people. So they’ve got those things down pat.
What it doesn’t do is win elections, contribute to the dialogue we should be having, or make your party particularly relevant. But for what it’s worth, I understand that Obama is thankful. So there’s that.
Well, we now have Rush saying, for two days running, that here we have a young woman who just wants to have sex all the time, anywhere, with anyone, and has to keep popping birth control pills like candy – God knows how many times a day – who wants someone else to pay for the cost of the tab she’s running up being a total slut – and the damned black president, who is certainly not his president, is proud of her! No, the pills don’t work that way. They’re not like Viagra. And Conor Friedersdorf is simply exasperated:
It isn’t just that he seems to misunderstand that birth-control pills cost the same whether someone has sex once per month or twice every single day. The problem isn’t just that he misrepresented the fullness of her testimony. Beyond all that, he has once again shown himself to be coarse, vulgar, bullying, callous, and needlessly cruel.
Friedersdorf is one dismayed conservative, and Time’s Massimo Calabresi points out the obvious:
Limbaugh and Santorum’s hostility to contraception will appear to many female voters as an attempt to roll back fifty years of progress for women. Limbaugh’s final over-the-top assertion – that if Fluke wants to be paid by taxpayers for sex, he “wants something in return,” namely, that she post videos online of herself having sex – just ties up the whole alienating package with a big “Vote for Obama” bow.
How did this happen? How do you solve a problem like Rush?
But now it’s endemic, and in the Economist, their anonymous Democracy in America blogger points out how widely this has now spread:
Support for oil and gas exploration is American, period. Opposing it is European. Just like the argument over Obamacare is not really a debate over how to ensure that as many Americans as possible have access to affordable and at least adequate health care. Obamacare is “European socialism” – opposing it is American. Anything less than a full-throated war against Iran is appeasement, as is negotiating with the Taliban; never mind how America will pay for a war with Iran, or what its consequences will be, or whether Mr Gingrich’s stated goal of leaving Afghanistan and leaving it safe could be furthered by finding some common ground with the Taliban. Outside America it is Europe in 1939; in Washington it’s Haight-Asbury in 1968. To quibble over policy is to side with the enemy.
And that’s where the week ended up. People do get into the grooves they find comfortable – techno-thump trance music or Strauss or a night at the Lakers game – or political nonsense. And some of us think about such things even in Hollywood late on a quiet evening. No wait – Paris Hilton just knocked on the door and wants to play. Enough of this!