Auditioning for the Clown Show

The Republicans had a hard time settling on John McCain as their candidate in 2008 – he’d been all over the map, ideologically, all for immigration reform, on humanitarian grounds, and his name was on the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act that froze out the big donors, the important people, from the political process, until the Supreme Court ended that nonsense with their Citizens United decision, ruling that money was actually free speech. You see, keeping rich donors from pouring in ten million a week into this election and that, when you think about it, was denying rich folks their free speech rights. McCain came around on both issues, suddenly disgusted with brown people and sorry he had once treated the absurdly wealthy so shabbily. It wasn’t enough. He had wanted Joe Lieberman, who had been Al Gore’s 2004 running mate, to be the guy to run with him this time, to offer a unity government where both sides would work together, but the base would have none of it. McCain had the best chance of all the available Republicans to win in November – he was a war hero and all – but he was too amiable and pleasant. They wanted McCain’s affability to be balanced by someone who was angry and nasty trailer-park trash, proudly ignorant of all that fancy-pants stuff about the stupid and boring so-called real world, and who’d never compromise on anything, no matter what the facts turned out to be. The best McCain could come up with was Sarah Palin, not exactly trailer-park trash but at least a hockey mom – close enough – and the rest is history. Obama won that one rather easily.

Now McCain, just a senator from Arizona still, is toast, given the latest PPP poll from that state:

John McCain is unpopular with Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike and has now become the least popular Senator in the country. Only 30% of Arizonans approve of the job McCain is doing to 54% who disapprove. There isn’t much variability in his numbers by party – he’s at 35/55 with Republicans, 29/53 with Democrats, and 25/55 with independents, suggesting he could be vulnerable to challenges in both the primary and general elections the next time he’s up.

As Sartre would say, les jeux sont faits, and Andrew Sullivan lets it rip:

The buffoon from Arizona is one of the most frequent guests on cable news and on the Sunday morning talk shows. He was dead wrong about Iraq, Afghanistan and has never copped to it, clinging to his fantasy that his beloved “surge” made it all worthwhile. It didn’t, as the resilient sectarian warfare in that benighted country demonstrates day after day. He caved to Karl Rove on the torture question in 2006, leaving the CIA program in place. He picked a delusional maniac to be a vice-presidential candidate after close to no vetting whatsoever. He was jumping up and down trying to foment a war with Russia over Georgia in 2008. This week, he was dyspeptically assaulting the president of the United States at a time when one might imagine, wise souls in Washington might see the benefit in a temporary united front vis-a-vis Putin. He is determined to sabotage any deal with Iran, which would necessitate another war in the Middle East, a war for which there is close to no public support, and which could have incalculable consequences in the region and the world.

A simple question: why does anyone still take him even faintly seriously?

Why did anyone take him even faintly seriously in the first place? He really wasn’t going to win in 2008 – he satisfied no one on the right and no one on the left and no one in the middle. He wasn’t even a nice guy any longer, or could only be one in private, among friends, and now he’s not much of anything. It’s just that he was the best the Republicans could do that year.

The same thing happened with Mitt Romney, although Romney chose Paul Ryan to run with him. Romney chose a policy wonk, but a young and handsome one, who was also one of those Ayn Rand deep thinkers, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Ryan wasn’t angry nor was he proud that his mind hadn’t been dirtied by too much basic knowledge about that stupid and boring so-called real world. He loved facts and figures, the more obscure the better. He was the anti-Palin and that should have done the trick, but it didn’t. Ryan was cold and boring where Palin had been anything but, and as much as Mitt Romney had said, as often as he could, that he himself had always been “severely conservative” – don’t think about Romneycare in Massachusetts – no one believed it for a minute. It’s just that Mitt Romney was the least-worse option for the Republicans. They had auditioned Michele “Wild-Eyed” Bachmann and the ever-odd Donald Trump, and Rick “Oops” Perry, and Herman Cain the Pizza Man, and the otherworldly (but not in a good sense) Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, perpetually obsessed with how dirty sex actually is – and those were just the headliners. At least Romney and Ryan were tethered to this planet. People would rather vote for members of their species, but the problem was becoming clear. The party had no way to choose a candidate that might win in the general election. The primary process, with all the debates, might weed out the clowns, but it also weeded out the severely conservative.

They didn’t see the real problem. Outside their own circle, where folks don’t limit their knowledge of what’s going on in the big bad world by watching only Fox News and only listening to Rush Limbaugh, most everyone finds the severely conservative to be actual clowns. Americans seem to be a moderate people, always a bit put off by those who boast that they are pure of mind and pure of heart. Those are the kind of people you cross the street to avoid. At best they’re tiresome, and most of the time they’re dangerous. They’re outraged and you should be outraged too, and everyone should be outraged? Give it a rest, buddy. Get a life.

Republicans have wrestled with this since 1964, when Barry Goldwater roused them by saying that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue – a notion that the nation rejected rather dramatically when Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater in one of the biggest landslides in American history. That landslide still must puzzle many of them. Goldwater was pure of heart after all. Their buttons and bumper stickers that year said “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” – to drive home the point. That was cool, but the quip that year was “In Your Mind You Know He’s Nuts” – which seemed to be the general opinion.

It’s been that way ever since. The base of the party hated running John McCain and then Mitt Romney. There would never be another as pure of heart as Barry Goldwater. Only Ronald Reagan came close, but then he raised taxes now and then and made nice with the Soviets, signing arms treaties rather than punching them in the nose, and the Bush guys were hopeless. The father, basically a careful technocrat who only made severely conservative sounds when he had to, couldn’t win a second term, and the hapless son screwed up big time on everything, leaving a trail of geopolitical and economic ruin we’re still dealing with. Things haven’t gone well.

And now it’s once again time to figure all this out, and that always starts with the American Conservative Union hosting its annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where those considering the 2016 Republican presidential race take the stage to demonstrate that they really are severely conservative, to their core, but they’re no clowns either. They want to hit that sweet spot, so this year it was at the Gaylord National Resort just south of Washington, where they came to strut their stuff, made even more interesting this year because they had to strut their stuff in front of the now even more powerful tea party wing of the party. They did invite Chris Christie this year – he wasn’t invited last year after getting all buddy-buddy with Obama after the Sandy disaster – but he’s forgiven because the hopelessly liberal press had been picking on him for either being a thug or being too incompetent to know what his own people were doing. MSNBC put him back in their good graces, and the stage was set. They’d kicked out the atheists and the Log Cabin Republicans (they’re gay you know, but quite conservative) refused to show up – so all was well. They had a panel on minority outreach in a big auditorium and no one showed up to listen in – as one might expect, because the oppressed minorities in America are the very rich and the vastly outnumbered Christians in this utterly godless nation, as everyone knows. So it was time for the auditions. Send in the clowns.

The Los Angeles Times’ Robin Abcarian covered the first day, with notes on who said what, like Bobby Jindal:

I want to start my remarks with a heartfelt and sincere apology, and I mean this. You know, I spent a lot of 2012 going around the country saying that President Obama was the most liberal and most incompetent president in my lifetime, ever since Jimmy Carter.

Now, having witnessed the events abroad these last several days, as we see the president of Russia invade a neighboring country while our president wants to downsize our military, while our president brags about the increased spending on food stamps – seeing a president … who doesn’t seem to understand that our allies and our enemies alike need and want a strong America.

You know, we have long thought and said this president is a smart man. It may be time to revisit that assumption, or at least to make a distinction between being book-smart and being truly wise. And so today, let it be heard – and I hope he’s watching – to President Carter, I want to issue a sincere apology. It is no longer fair to say he was the worst president of this great country in my lifetime. President Obama has proven me wrong.

The crowd cheered. Everyone else has forgiven Jimmy Carter, or forgotten him. They haven’t, and then there was Donald Trump:

You know, I just left Trump National Doral in Miami. Great place! I just spent $250 million rebuilding it, making it the best resort in the country. I saw Tiger Woods this morning, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. And I was dressed like this and they said, ‘Where are you going?’ And I said, “I’m going to CPAC.” Now, I don’t know if they knew what I was talking about. They acted like they did. So that was very impressive.

Yep, he spent a quarter billion on a golf course, not on charity crap for pathetic losers, and he knows all the big golf stars, and they were all in awe that he was invited to CPAC – so maybe, if asked, he will run for president again, or at least bless whoever they choose. The Donald will descend from on high to make everything come out right. It was an interesting pitch, and Slate’s John Dickerson reports on how careful Chris Christie’s pitch was:

On Thursday, the political task before Christie was to get a good reception from a skeptical crowd without saying anything that might be used against him in a 2016 presidential bid. He achieved that modest goal. The Democratic Party, in its instant analysis of Christie’s CPAC speech, couldn’t actually find anything noteworthy in the speech. It criticized him for what he “didn’t talk about.”

The first notable elision was Christie’s defense of the Koch brothers, the wealthy backers of Americans for Prosperity, the pro-free-markets activist group. You wouldn’t know that’s who he was defending, because Christie never mentioned their names. Instead he attacked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been going after the Koch brothers by name and at length on the Senate floor. This attack on “two American entrepreneurs” was a sign of how pointless Washington had become, according to the governor. Reid should “get back to work and stop picking on great Americans who are creating jobs.” No ad can be run in which Christie can be found praising the Koch brothers, whom liberals are working hard to make household names of horror.

The man is careful:

When Christie stood up for his pro-life abortion views that was recognizable enough, but he didn’t make a moral point about the sanctity of life. He turned the issue into a weapon to use against Democrats. When had they invited pro-life Democrats to speak at their conventions? Never, he pointed out. It was Republicans who have invited Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Tom Ridge to speak, all of whom support abortion rights. It was a sturdy partisan attack, but not one that would turn off a single pro-choice voter who might someday consider Christie.

As the younger George Bush would say, mission accomplished, maybe:

A recent Washington Post poll found that 30 percent of Republicans say they definitely would not vote for Christie, the highest percentage for any Republican tested. Among those who identified themselves as conservatives, 35 percent said they would not vote for him. Christie might have changed a few minds by not overtly offending anyone, but in a conference where so many speakers referred to the divisions within the party – especially the rift between the establishment and grassroots wings – there will be thousands of chances for Christie’s fortunes to rise and fall among conservatives before he becomes the party’s nominee or even before next year’s CPAC.

He still has work to do, but this is a start, and that leaves Paul Ryan, who gave only a brief speech that was mostly pleasantries, but for this:

What the Left is offering people is a full stomach – and an empty soul. The American people want more than that. People don’t just want a life of comfort. They want a life of dignity. They want a life of self-determination.

This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my friend Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch – one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.

That’s touching, but Jonathan Chait isn’t impressed:

Okay, fine. Some kid would rather have his parents pack him a lunch than get it for free at school. Most kids would also rather have their parents drive them to school and drop them off than ride the bus. But just as not ever child has a parent who can drive them to school, not every kid has parents who can afford to give them lunches every day. That’s why “the left” supports things like school buses and free and reduced-price school lunches. Because a free bus ride and a free lunch may not be the best possible way to transport and feed children, but it’s better than nothing.

Ryan’s plan is to reduce funding for the school lunch program. So more kids will have empty stomachs, but their souls will be full.

Ed Kilgore adds this:

Totally aside from whether it is the role of government to fill the souls of children, the idea that the first step towards soul food is to eliminate the food is a mite cruel. The very basic fact that safety net programs do in fact reduce hunger and homelessness and disease does not register into the equation – which is why Ryan’s own measures of poverty exclude the tangible value of government benefits.

The old saying about minimal income from whatever source that it is just enough “to keep body and soul together” is actually pretty profound. Poverty may improve the spiritual condition of mystics, but it’s really bad for kids and sick people and people who have to work long hours in difficult physical jobs to make ends meet. And if you look at and listen to Paul Ryan, the notion that this is a man of great moral and spiritual depth entitled to lecture the poor on their slavery to government is a bigger outrage than all the actual “welfare fraud” that has ever existed.

As for a life of dignity, Paul Krugman offers this:

Um, yes, but how dignified can you be on an empty stomach? How much self-determination do you have? And who is supposed to value dignity over having enough to eat? Children… And if the child’s mother can’t provide that lunch in a brown paper bag… then what?

The total failure to accept that the poor face real physical hardship, that affluent politicians have no business lecturing people having trouble buying food or having trouble paying for health care about dignity, is just stunning.

Of course it is, but these are only the auditions, for the job, two years from now, of winning the presidency by being severely conservative but not a clown at all. It’s a tough gig. Only Ronald Reagan pulled that off, but he was a highly-trained actor. With those acting skills he actually managed to make his severe conservatism sound almost kind of sunny, but then once in office he turned out to be not all that severely conservative when things needed to get done. That was the performance of his life and we won’t see his like again. Everyone else since Reagan has been an amateur, auditioning for a nearly impossible role, and the CPAC convention will end with a grand finale – a major speech from Sarah Palin – to prove it.

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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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One Response to Auditioning for the Clown Show

  1. Rick says:

    I know how ironical you can get sometimes, Alan, making it hard for us to grasp what you really think, but that high praise of Ronald Reagan in the last paragraph really puts your irony to the test.

    Yes, I appreciate that times change, and that people these days say Reagan couldn’t get the nod in today’s Republican party because he’s not “severely conservative” enough, in the genuinely severe sense of being conservative, and I know that Obama himself said some nice things about him during the campaign, but I still think we liberals need to remind ourselves that, during his lifetime, Reagan was against everything that we liberals were (and are) for.

    It’s much like the dilemma we have with guys like McCain and Romney and even Christie:

    Sure, these guys may be the best that the Republicans have to offer — mostly because, unlike so many of their fellow Republicans, they are not total Kool-Aid guzzlers, since they often seem to agree with Democrats on at least some things, such as immigration reform — but I guess the point is, why vote for someone who agrees with me on only one or two things, when there are so many candidates around who agree with me on lots of things?

    Rick

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