There was that 1967 French film directed by the consistently odd Luis Buñuel – Belle de Jour – with France’s ice queen, Catherine Deneuve, the blond with the emotional range of a slab of wallboard, playing the housewife who decides to spend her days as a prostitute while her husband is at work. He’s boring, or she’s bored – whichever it might be. He’s a doctor, and she has her masochistic fantasies about elaborate floggings and bondage. But that’s almost beside the point. She settled for the sensible husband, with his success and well-deserved respect, which attaches to her. But she settled for the boring guy. He tries to understand and support her odd personal struggles and what has happened – this is a French movie after all – but the point is that she settled for what was sensible, and accepted by all, and seemed to be a success in some way. But it was a bad choice. Sometimes you just have to go with what’s wrong, even if it’s bad for you.
Of course the casting was inspired. If you need a woman to look vacant and confused, sort of sleepwalking through life as it disintegrates around her, who understands really nothing of what is happening around her, and to her, Catherine Deneuve is perfect. She was made for the part. But she does eventually realize that she settled for the fellow who would do nicely, but not the guy she really wanted, if such a guy even exists. And that’s fairly common. Married women do fantasize about the exciting bad-boy they might have married, instead of Fred, the successful insurance executive, snoring in the next room. Life is all about compromise, damn it. You don’t get what you really want. But most women – and most men – simply learn to live with that. We’re not French after all. And anyway, that exciting bad-boy from back in high school is probably in jail now.
But there is the lure of those masochistic fantasies about elaborate floggings and bondage, and of course that can refer to the Republican Party, now in the throes of its current struggle to decide who will run against Obama in 2012 – the sensible but boring fellow who will do, and might just beat Obama, Mitt Romney – or the exciting bad-boy who certainly will not, Newt Gingrich. Both of course do support elaborate floggings and bondage, as national policy – it excites them. The rest of the world calls that torture but they call it the necessary business of keeping us all safe, and say its patriotic and morally right, and pretty damned cool. But otherwise the two are very different. And the Republican voters are Catherine Deneuve – vacant and confused and not quite understanding just what is happening. They do argue amongst themselves about which of the two is the right man for them.
And you can see how this is playing out. Ezra Klein in this item suggests that they see Romney’s ideological reincarnation, so to speak, as the main reason they just cannot support him:
Whatever Gingrich’s heterodoxies, conservatives never worry that he’s not, on some fundamental level, a committed member of their tribe. He’s an odd member, maybe. A member who has unexpected ideas about the moon, perhaps. But a member. With Romney, they worry about it constantly.
Mitt is just not one of them. He doesn’t get it. And also, he’s boring, or they’re bored – whichever it might be. But Jonathan Chait here points out the Democratic Party’s perspective on all this:
Democrats fear Romney precisely because his history suggests he will try to escape the GOP primary with minimal ideological commitment and then run to the center, and that his progressive record in Massachusetts will help him appeal to moderates. Obviously they would rather run against a Republican who’s more heavily encumbered by actual beliefs. For the same reason, Romney is the one Republican (also save Huntsman) they’d most want to be president.
For the Republicans, Romney will do nicely, as exciting bad boys lose elections. And even the Democrats see that Romney would make a somewhat acceptable president – if you’re going to lose the election, somehow, it would be best for the country if the new guy is merely boring and careful and sensible. That’ll do.
And what is going on with the Republicans really isn’t about policy or anything like that, even tax policy, as Matthew Yglesias notes here:
Romney has quietly managed to skate through this whole campaign while hewing to a much more moderate line on taxes than his rivals. Now, moderation is a relative concept. Romney wants to extend all the current Bush tax cuts, which on its own terms implies major long-term cutbacks to federal retirement programs, and would add to that a pretty expensive proposal to eliminate capital gains taxes for everyone earning less than $200,000. But there’s tons of daylight between Romney and Perry/Gingrich on this front. Under the circumstances it’s strange that the candidates have spent much more time engaged in hair-splitting disagreements about immigration than they have on taxes.
Ah, but tax policy is boring, and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat says this is really a battle for the soul of the Tea Party in Iowa – but there he says the battle is between Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, the two boys. Mitt Romney isn’t part of the equation, and Douthat calls Ron Paul “the kind of conservative that Tea Partiers want to believe themselves to be” – and Gingrich is “the kind of conservative that liberals believe most Tea Partiers to be.” So the issue here is deciding which of these two guys is the exciting bad boy, the real thing:
If the town hall crashers and Washington Mall marchers of 2009 settle on a Medicare Part D-supporting, Freddie Mac-advising, Nancy Pelosi-snuggling Washington insider as their not-Romney standard bearer in 2012, then every liberal who ever sneered at the Tea Party will get to say “I told you so.” If Paul wins the caucuses, on the other hand, the movement will keep its honor – but also deliver the Republican nomination gift-wrapped to Mitt Romney.
Ah, it’s the Belle de Jour dilemma. You do want to be what your believe yourself to be, and not settle for boring – even if you destroy yourself. And in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin says this seems familiar, as 2012 and 1964 are beginning to look very much alike:
In 1964, Republican insurgents seized control of the party. They recognized that their views were not held by a majority of Americans – at least not yet. As Rick Perlstein wrote in “Before the Storm,” his fascinating history of the Barry Goldwater campaign, the Republican Party was taken over by “a little circle of political diehards whose every move was out of step with the times”—which did not bother them much at all. For their moment, they were political missionaries who came to introduce a nation raised on the New Deal to an alternative approach to governing. Goldwater embraced “extremism” in the fond hope that its time, if not his time, would come. Goldwater and his aides didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about “electability.” They didn’t expect to win, and, emphatically, they did not. Lyndon B. Johnson won sixty-one per cent of the popular vote, and carried forty-four states.
That Perlstein book is good – Goldwater got creamed, and the true believers really didn’t give a damn. They knew they’d win eventually, and they sort of did with Reagan, many years later. And in American Prospect, Paul Waldman sees the same thing as Toobin:
For the base of the party, beating Obama may be a secondary goal, and this is where the 1964 comparison makes the most sense.
And he cites Ed Kilgore in the New Republic explaining that “the conservative activists who dominate the Republican presidential nominating contest are split between those who simply don’t believe adverse polls about Gingrich, and those who would rather control the GOP than the White House, if forced to choose.”
Ah, better life in the bondage brothel than in a boring marriage. And Waldman adds this:
If this is a conflict between the establishment, which would rather nominate Romney, and the base, which would rather (at this point anyway) nominate Gingrich, then right now the establishment is losing, and they don’t have too many ways of stopping Gingrich if he were to win the early contests.
And they must feel like the boring doctor did in that Catherine Deneuve movie. There are some things you just cannot stop from happening.
And Steve Kornacki takes up this theme in his salon.com article in what happens when Republicans just don’t care about electability – he says Republican voters “will obliviously walk off a cliff with Newt Gingrich, as long as they like him.”
And that’s pretty obvious:
The headline from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is that Mitt Romney performs significantly better against Barack Obama than Newt Gingrich. In a trial heat with the president, Romney trails by two points, 47 to 45 percent, while Gingrich is crushed 51 to 40 percent. Other recent polls have shown similar results, with Gingrich seemingly falling farther behind Obama as Gingrich critics raised their volume over the past week.
As president, Gingrich would be forced to repudiate his previous views out of strategic necessity. But those views demonstrate a disturbing tendency: the passionate embrace of shallow ideas.
And there’s Kathleen Parker:
No one other than Callista Gingrich thinks her husband can prevail in a general election. No. One…. Instead of rallying to support him, former colleagues are going out of their way to politely say, “He can’t lead.” … Another insider speaking to me privately was blunter: “He’s unstable, and everybody knows it, but no one wants to say it.”
And there’s Jonah Goldberg:
The other night while having drinks with some prominent conservatives, I said I thought there was a significant chance that Gingrich will not only win the nomination but that he might be the next president. Going by their expressions, I might as well have said I put a slow-acting poison in their cocktails.
Kornacki says that this “seems like persuasive evidence for Romney’s claim that he’s the GOP’s best general election bet.” But he adds that “electability can be a funny issue with Republican primary voters, who tend to connect their own personal candidate preference to their sense of who’s most likely to win in the fall.”
And there is history:
The classic example of this came back in 2000, when polls showed John McCain performing far better against Al Gore than George W. Bush. In late February of that year, for instance, an ABC News/Washington Post survey had McCain beating Al Gore by 17 points, 56 to 39 percent, with Bush leading by just a 50-44 percent margin. Another poll for Fox News around the same time showed McCain outperforming Bush by ten points against Gore. McCain tried desperately to play this all up, telling Republicans that he was Gore’s worst nightmare and that he’d beat him “like a drum.” But Republican voters didn’t like McCain, who was fiercely opposed by all sorts of influential party leaders, conservative activists, and media personalities. So when Bush claimed that McCain only looked so strong against Gore because “mischievous” Democrats were lying to pollsters in an effort to bait the GOP into nominating a weak candidate, Republican voters played along – by a 62-27 percent margin they said Bush had the best chance of winning in November.
It’s not surprising, then, that just as Gingrich has soared in the polls these past few weeks, so has the number of Republicans who think he’s the most electable.
It’s delusional, but Kornacki cites a new Gallup poll showing that a plurality of Republicans see Gingrich as the best choice to beat Obama, even though there is another recent Gallup poll that shows Mitt Romney running five points better against Obama. Go figure.
But here it gets tricky:
What this suggests is that head-on arguments about electability are not going to sway a GOP electorate that has already decided it likes one candidate more than the other. But that doesn’t mean Republicans who see Gingrich as a sure loser can’t bring the masses around. They just have to do it in a backhanded way, undermining Gingrich’s overall image among Republicans instead of making a specific argument about electability. There are some tentative signs that this is happening. Between last week’s Gallup poll and the new one, Gingrich has lost six points in the GOP race, falling from 37 to 31 percent. This comes a day after a PPP poll in Iowa showed Gingrich slipping five points there, into a virtual dead-heat with Ron Paul.
The base may think Gingrich would beat Obama like a drum, but Gingrich can be shown to be not the exciting bad boy after all – just an unstable jerk and a shameless opportunist and insufferable nerd:
The more success that anti-Newt conservatives have in challenging his character and ideological credentials, the more Republican voters will decide he’s not the most electable candidate in the race.
But earlier Kornacki had said this:
It’s possible that Gingrich, if he surges into a clear, sustained lead over Romney and continues to erase what were once sky-high negative ratings, will come to be seen by Republicans as their best general election bet – no matter how flawed such a conclusion would be.
The reason has to do with a human tendency to work backward in forming opinions – deciding first what you want the outcome to be, then coming up with a rationale for it. When it comes to politics, this means that the more that voters want to support a certain candidate, the harder they will strain to justify it. …
When it comes to Gingrich, we may now be seeing the basis for a similarly flawed-but-potent argument emerge.
It starts with the increasingly popular notion among conservatives that Gingrich, with his dramatic delivery and constant smart-sounding references to history and policy minutiae, is uniquely suited to go toe-to-toe with Obama in debates.
But he cites the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg saying this:
Talk to rank-and-file conservatives about such a matchup and they grow giddy, like nerds asked if they’d like to see a battle between Darth Vader and Gandalf the wizard. Ask them if they’d like to see an Obama versus Romney debate (the thrilla with vanilla!) and they shrug. Meanwhile, if you nominate Gingrich, you’ll get a ticket to the fight of the century.
Gingrich has been doing his best to reinforce this, vowing to challenge Obama to a series of three-hour, moderator-less debates (and to chase him around the country if he refuses to accept) and boasting that he’ll even allow the president to use a teleprompter if he wants. These taunts delight conservatives, many of whom are convinced that a skillful debater could easily expose Obama as a mindless dolt whose only talent involves reciting words written by others.
In reality, the idea that Gingrich is Obama’s worst nightmare is ridiculous… there would be a celebration for the ages inside the White House if he somehow wins the nomination. But on the right, it seems to be gaining resonance.
And Kornacki cites the blowback from Rush Limbaugh, shouting on the radio – “They’re all electable!” And Kornacki cites Sean Hannity on his television and radio shows for months now saying the same thing – everyone in the country absolutely hates Obama – every man, woman and child – so Obama is going down – any Republican would win in a landslide.
So Kornacki comes to this conclusion:
This suggests that electability probably isn’t the primary season weapon that Romney’s camp hopes it is. If Republicans decide that they want to nominate Gingrich, then they’ll convince themselves that he’s as electable – or more electable – than Romney. And if Gingrich, like every other non-Romney candidate who’s surged to the front of the pack this year, ends up shooting himself in the foot and fading, then Republicans will keep saying what they’ve been saying until now – that Romney is the electable guy.
The key, though, is that impressions of the candidates will probably drive impressions of electability, not the other way around.
It seems you can make anybody that exciting bad-boy, if you squint hard enough. But fantasies are like that.
And Belle de Jour is, really, a sad movie. Life is all about compromise, and you don’t get what you really want. Pretending otherwise – or acting otherwise – is madness. So fantasies remain just fantasies, as they should.
But consider the lilies of the field. Belle de Jour is also the French name for the daylily – literally “daylight beauty” – the flower that blooms only during the day. And then it dies. That’s Newt too. He may have had his day in the sun.