Many of us, when we were growing up, had that otherwise happy dog, who would suddenly tear off down the street in a fury, chasing a car, yapping at the back tires as it sped away. That was scary. It was dangerous. A little miscalculation in angle and velocity and Spot could have his head whipped under that tire and be Spot no more. So you scolded the dog – no, no, no, no – but he’d look up at you, knowing he’d done something very wrong, but have not the slightest idea what that might be. Dogs don’t do introspection. And like a fool you might have tried to reason with the dog. What the hell were you going to do if you caught the damned car? You got a blank look in return. If dogs could shrug, Spot would shrug.
But that’s not so odd. You want something so very badly, something seemingly impossible – you imagine finally having it, you fantasize about that – and you have no idea what you’d do if you got what you want. Or maybe you do know. There is that brilliant novel of destructive and obsessive longing – Of Human Bondage – but Somerset Maugham was being very dark there. Mildred is a slut, and casually abusive, for the fun of it, and Phillip Carey is a bit of a twit. A better example is in Dickens – Pip’s lifelong true love for the distant and impossibly beautiful and quite defective Estella, in Great Expectations. There Pip is a good sort – generous, kind and intelligent – and beautiful Estella is somewhat damaged goods, as she really does not have an ounce of sympathy for anyone at all, as that sort of thing had been trained out of her. So Pip is in a bad way, as her indifference and what he takes as her cruelty torment him. But he can’t help himself – “I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.”
Every male everywhere knows exactly what that’s about. We’ve all been there. Some of us still are there. And yes, Pip does know something is wrong here. But like Spot, he keeps chasing the car.
Of course the odd thing about that Dickens novel is that, at the end, Pip and Estella walk off together arm in arm. That’s the revised ending. Edward Bulwer-Lytton talked Dickens into providing a happy ending – but Dickens knew better. He had Pip say it early on. Bad things happen when Spot actually catches the car. Bulwer-Lytton, who knew a thing or two about what we now call marketing, argued that wouldn’t sell. And maybe he was right.
And of course the furious dog chasing the car, enraged and yapping, not having the slightest idea regarding the implications of actually catching the car or of the deadly danger of the chase itself, turns one’s thoughts to politics in general, and to the Tea Party folks in particular. No, really – and the happy ending is that their folks win, and go to Washington. Perhaps Edward Bulwer-Lytton is advising them.
But like Pip, David Frum knows better:
After the election, says Frum, after the GOP has recovered in record time, either it’s going to have to move away from its campaign rhetoric or it’s going to be unable to govern. “What happens in January,” Frum says, “when the GOP majority arrives and the Bush tax cuts expire, the U.S. economy has deflationary shock, we don’t have a program for pulling the economy out of inflation, and we don’t have permission from party supporters or permission from voters to compromise? You have people arriving in office with highly apocalyptic vision of a president but programs they don’t know how to execute on their own. It’s a formula for crisis.”
That’s from this column by David Weigel and the resurgence of the Republican Party, fueled by the energy of the Tea Party crowd:
The Great Recession has done wonders for the Republican Party. Two years after being tossed out of power at every level, it’s about to waltz right back in, kicking aside the corpses of Democrats foolish enough to go along with the designs of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. This is good news for most conservatives. It’s slightly worse news for a smaller group of conservatives – namely, the ones who spent the end of the ’00s explaining why a Republican comeback like this was not really possible.
They did say that. Weigel cites Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in the 2005 Weekly Standard cover story, The Party of Sam’s Club – the end of the Bush presidency was going to be a challenge for Republicans. Those two said it would now be necessary to “take the ‘big-government conservatism’ vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability.” It was time to get serious, and they had some ideas – wage subsidies, a mandate to purchase health insurance, and “pro-family” tax reforms that would raise rates for some people. Yep, that would be tax increases.
Weigel also notes that three years later Douthat and Salam had turned all that into a book, Grand New Party – “Some combination of the populist Left and the neoliberal center is likely to emerge as America’s next political majority.” Weigel notes that they did have data to back up their arguments, but “it now appears that the GOP is about to win without tapping into any of that stuff.” Those guys were left out in the cold, not that it mattered:
I checked in with Douthat, Salam, and David Frum, all conservatives who opened the Obama era with prescriptions for conservative comebacks that played no role in the current conservative comeback. They stood by almost all of their analyses. And they greeted the coming Republican rout as an opportunity that might be wasted, because the party hadn’t done enough deep thinking and wearing of hairshirts.
David Frum wrote Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again and says this – “When you have an incumbent president who has launched a bold plan to save the economy and it hasn’t worked and the economy is worse than ever, the opposition doesn’t need any plan at all. There’s probably not going to be reform right after the GOP wins. Organizations that are highly successful don’t make changes rapidly.”
Weigel notes this is not what Frum expected:
As the GOP was hitting the reef, he published Comeback. He launched a new Web site, New Majority, the day that Obama was inaugurated. (The site was subsequently renamed FrumForum.) In March 2009, he made a splash with a cover story for Newsweek warning of the damage Rush Limbaugh was doing to the GOP’s comeback hopes. “The worse conservatives do,” wrote Frum, “the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.”
In reality, conservatives succeeded and Rush grew, impossibly, even more prominent and influential. “In the fall of 2010, nobody needs Comeback and nobody needs Grand New Party,” says Frum.
Frum seems bitter, and perhaps he should be:
Rush and his listeners couldn’t have planned it better. They argued then, and argue now, that people like Frum, Salam, Douthat, Sam Tanenhaus, and others care more about the fabled “Georgetown cocktail circuit” than they care about conservative principles. And they may have a point that a conservative apostate gets more media attention, and more Diet Coke in the green rooms, than a standard-issue true believer.
But Weigel says that misses the point, and not what those folks wrote their article and subsequent books:
Yes, they were written with the assumption that the GOP was going to serve more time in detention – and that detention was actually necessary. If the GOP came roaring back by going further to the right, their theory went, that would prove that they didn’t understand why they governed so poorly in the first place. They would think that all they needed to do was bang on about tax cuts and the Constitution, and that would not only win the election but make them govern more intelligently.
Of course, to the horror of the smart set, this is exactly what is happening. The conservative base looked at any attempt to answer the Democrats on policy as a cave-in to socialism. When they’re making the case for their research, Douthat and Salam acknowledge that reality. But they argue that Republicans have been using their key insights anyway and that the hot rhetoric of the GOP obscures what actually happened.
So you get stuff like this:
“I think the way a lot of Republicans are campaigning now – as resolute foes of big government who are also going to save Medicare from the Democrats – suggests that they understand the point of Grand New Party pretty well,” says Douthat. “They’re just taking our insight, that even many conservative voters like the welfare state, and running with it in a cynical rather than a constructive direction.”
Salam agrees. “The base of the Republican Party is what we thought it was,” he says, “namely whites with economic anxieties. That explains the backlash to Social Security reform and immigration reform under Bush. And the Democrats gave us another opening, because they funded health care reform with Medicare cuts. That’s a big validation of Grand New Party’s argument.”
Weigel isn’t buying it – “It’s an ingenious argument: We’re not wrong. We’re just not yet right.” But then he cites Frum – when the yapping dog actually catches the car expect trouble. Winning office in a blaze of glory is one thing, and governing is another. Even young Pip knew that the happiness of having Estella with him unto death would be hell on earth.
And Weigel isn’t so sure there is a Republican resurgence anyway. He cites Mickey Edwards, a former congressman, now an Aspen Institute fellow, and the author of Reclaiming Conservatism:
The Republicans didn’t turn around their own fortunes at all. They were bystanders. When I read their new “Contract from America” or whatever they’re calling it, there’s nothing really new there, other than we didn’t do a good job last time and need to do better. I don’t know what that means. But the first Contract with America was a really dumb thing in the first place.
And nothing much is going to change, really. In response to Arnold Schwarzenegger saying that he thinks that Obama will get re-elected, James Joyner lays it out:
Barack Obama should win a second term unless:
He dies in office. Let’s hope he doesn’t.
The economy remains a disaster. Let’s hope it doesn’t, for our sake. He’s got about 18 months for it to turn around, though, in time for it to sink in.
There’s a significant third party challenger that hurts him more than his opponent. That seems quite unlikely. (Just for kicks, I’ll nominate Al Gore.) Indeed, the opposite seems more likely.
He decides not to seek re-election. Incredibly unlikely, absent a double dip so steep that he’s in danger of not being re-nominated.
He’s presiding over a highly unpopular war. Possible. But he does seem to be looking for the door in Afghanistan.
When you bomb people and kill their family, friends, and neighbors, burn down their homes and burn down their businesses and kill their livestock, spewing unexploded ordnance and munitions in fields where they work and their children play, it pisses them off. Many of them even get pissed off enough to fight back against the people they think are responsible for the bombing. They probably even form lifelong grudges when they find their mother and children in thousands of bloody pieces in their former homes.
Obama has an issue there. This could be trouble, and regarding another item on the Joyner list. Jan Hatzius, Chief Economist at Goldman Sachs, has a really bleak forecast:
We see two main scenarios for the economy over the next 6-9 months – a fairly bad one in which the economy grows at a 1½%-2 percent rate through the middle of next year and the unemployment rate rises moderately to 10 percent, and a very bad one in which the economy returns to an outright recession. There is not much probability of a significantly better outcome. The reason is that “short-cycle” factors such as the inventory cycle and the impulse from fiscal policy are likely to continue deteriorating through early 2011, keeping GDP growth very sluggish.
And see Matthew Yglesias:
One note about this is that they don’t try to model geopolitical risks, which as best I can tell are all on the downside. Say Israel launches a war with Iran and Iranian countermeasures end up disrupting global oil supplies, then we’re really doomed.
And then what will our new Tea Part government do – lower taxes on millionaires even more and move to have the government “regulate” homosexuality? Yap at the tires, but you really don’t want to catch the car.
And see Matt Bai in the New York Times. Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues:
The focus group that met here in New Jersey on Monday included a bartender, a lawyer and a school bus driver. The dominant theme of the discussion, in which jobs and taxes came up only in passing, seemed to be the larger breakdown of civil society – the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices, the proliferation of lawsuits and the insidious influence of media on their children.
One woman described a food fight at the middle school that left a mess school employees were obliged to clean up, presumably because the children couldn’t be subjected to physical labor. A man complained about drivers who had grown increasingly hostile and inconsiderate on the roads, which drew nods of assent all around. Another described the Internet as just plain “bad.”
The economy was discussed mostly in connection with these other stresses. “We all think that if we had a lot of money,” one woman said, “everything would slow down and we could enjoy ourselves.”
These voters did not hate politicians. They simply saw both parties, along with the news media and big business, as symptoms of the larger societal ailment. And this underlying perception, that politicians in Washington conduct themselves just as childishly and with the same lack of accountability as the students throwing chicken casserole in the lunchroom, may well be the principal emotion behind the electorate’s propensity to vote out whoever holds power.
It seems that governing is hard:
Bill Clinton certainly thought so, which is why his rhetorical emphasis on personal responsibility resonated with many independent voters. But as president, Mr. Clinton immediately found himself pulled into polarizing debates (gays in the military, “Hillarycare,” and so on) that contributed to his party’s undoing in the 1994 midterm elections. The same thing ultimately happened to George W. Bush, who promised a return to civility and core values and ended up running a White House in which every issue, from war to welfare, was heavily politicized. Now the tide threatens to swamp Mr. Obama, whose stirring call to “put away childish things” seems 100 years in the past.
Modern presidents win elections by promising to reform Washington, to make it more ennobling and more responsive to Americans overwhelmed by the speed of change. But once they are elected, they find themselves sucked into the capital’s partisan culture, caught up in familiar debates while the people who supported them struggle with a growing sense of chaos. And so the voters rebel again.
Ken Layne at Wonkette puts it this way:
What drove you bonkers this morning, so far? A stale three-dollar bagel with half-defrosted cream cheese? Not having a job at all? Did the cretins next door – the ones with the tattoos around their mouths and five kids crawling around pooping in the weeds – stay up all night blasting “Godsmack” and fighting their pit bulls and ripping out the copper piping? Are you oppressed by the banal horror of American architecture? Sickened by the double anus-burger super-size combo you got for lunch yesterday because it’s that or Quizno’s, every day, forever? While you stood at the pump breathing cancer fumes and funding Al Qaeda, did ABC blast you with some teevee promos, at 7:36 a.m.? Do you feel like crying all the time? Experts say your problem may not be exclusively political.
Layne sums it up:
It’s just that we lack the vocabulary to articulate everything that’s cheap and awful about life in this horrid slob nation in its Final Days, so we naturally jabber about “the politicians” or “the Muslims” because, lacking a national culture or any personal dignity, we return to the default “issues” that have been completely defined for us by the jabbering content-mill bullshit of talk radio, cable news and (of course!) the Internet.
We daydream about what-if – and you fill in the blank. We yap away and want to catch that car. Bad idea – bad doggie – don’t even think about it.