Dispatches from Nowhere

Gilbert and Sullivan may have invented and perfected the patter-song with that Model Major-General ditty – and Noel Coward was no slouch with his Mad Dogs and Englishmen number – both rather amazing. Maybe it’s a British thing. You have to really love language in all its pesky and absurd but wonderful complexity, and not see it a difficult tool you’re forced to use to get along in this world, a tool that’s always getting in your way. George Bush, famous for his exasperation with actually having to use words to say what he thought he might mean, would be befuddled by Noel Coward. Bush is more a Country and Westen kind of guy. But then there’s the Man in Black, the sad and surly Johnny Cash, and he actually recorded a patter-song of sorts – I’ve Been Everywhere, Man – a breakneck rhyming don’t-mess-with-me list of just about everywhere in North and South America the narrator has seen – so you can’t pull off anything on him, damn it – he’s seen it all. Yes, it’s angry and chip-on-the-shoulder defensive, but that only makes it more America. We’re not effete Brits, after all.

But, curiously, that Johnny Cash song doesn’t mention New Hampshire, so New Hampshire must be nowhere, really. And that’s probably fine with them. The state’s motto is Live Free or Die. They don’t care what Johnny Cash thinks. And really, it’s a small state with a tiny population – not quite one and a half million folks. That’s less than half the population of Brooklyn. The place shouldn’t matter. But they do know they’re important enough. All the Republican hopefuls are there at the moment, a few days before their primary – where once again we will see which of these Republicans is most likely to be chosen to run against Obama in the fall. It’s a gauntlet politicians must run every four years – Iowa then New Hampshire, and then South Carolina followed by Florida, and on and on, primary after primary. Perhaps one of them this year will ask whoever manages the rights to the song catalogue of the late Johnny Cash for permission to use that grumpy don’t-mess-with-me song as their campaign anthem.

But this is a strange gauntlet. Iowa is, on the Republican side, mainly those social conservatives, the values-voters, for the most part white born-again evangelicals. What plays there is talk of what Jesus would do, or would want done, or who He would vote for. It’s a unique place. But so is New Hampshire. It’s just as overwhelmingly white but you can forget that Jesus stuff. New Hampshire is the second-least religious state in America – after Vermont. They don’t give a damn, literally. Their issues are economic, and they basically hate government – period. It’s a different crowd.

So Mitt Romney, late of Bain Capital, will surely win there. And the man who tied with him in Iowa, the severe if not puritanical social conservative, Rick Santorum, will not. It’s a matter of his message not matching the crowd.

But there’s a wild card this time, the calm and seemingly sane Jon Huntsman, and in New Hampshire, Time’s Joe Klein watched Huntsman deliver what he calls “the most sane and substantive, but still conservative, stump speech” from a Republican this year. And he wonders why Huntsman polls at rock-bottom:

Others have suggested that he “offended” the Republican base by acknowledging his belief in evolution and man-made climate change. If so, the Republican base badly needed offending. But Huntsman’s real sin is deeper than that: his is a vitriol-free candidacy. There is no gratuitous sliming of Barack Obama or his fellow Republican candidates. There is no spurious talk of “socialism.” He pays not the slightest heed to the various licks and chops that Rush Limbaugh has made into Stations of the Cross for Republican candidates.

Huntsman really is the odd man out:

He is out-of-step with the anger that has overwhelmed his party and puts it at odds with the vast, sensible mainstream of this country. Because he has refused to engage in such carnival tactics – because he hasn’t had any “oops!” moments, extramarital affairs, lobbying deals with Freddie Mac or flip-flops – the media have largely ignored him. That makes us complicit in a national political calamity. But Republican voters have been complicit, too: a conservative party that doesn’t take Huntsman seriously as a candidate has truly lost its way.

And Klein is no fan of Santorum:

Rick Santorum had a terrible and deeply silly day of campaigning yesterday. I watched him work at two events. He got into a foolish and unnecessary argument over gay marriage with students at a college convention – and then he wasted an evening speaking to a truly lunatic fringe assemblage of Glenn Beck viewers in the town of Windham.

His performance with college students was amateur hour, a childish attempt at Socratic dialogue, witlessly demeaning to those–especially those conservatives–who believe that marriage shouldn’t be subject to state intervention. It was demeaning because he asked the students if it was ok if 3 people wanted to get married, which started the mayhem. The question was, as a student quickly pointed out, irrelevant: it was about polygamy, not gay marriage. Santorum would have been much better off if he had said, “Look, my church teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe that to be true traditionally, biologically and spiritually. In my mind, marriage has everything to do with bringing new life into this world. Only a marriage between a man and a woman is conducive to that. You may disagree with my view. I hope, at least, you’ll give it some thought. But let’s move on to other issues that are crucial this year, issues we might agree on.”

And Klein identifies the problem. Santorum’s view of homosexuality is what Klein goes on record as calling it archaic and inhumane:

I believe that the acknowledgment of homosexuality as a natural state has reduced the sum of unnecessary anguish in the world. I also believe that two men or two women who love each other, and want to share their resources, and be responsible for each other, especially late in life, should be able to do so legally – and that such couples should be allowed to adopt and raise children. Whether these sorts of arrangements should be consecrated by various religious sects is up to those sects (and that means that private agencies, like Catholic Charities, can’t be forced to provide adoptive children to gay couples – a current controversy). I know more than a few such couples; they are my friends and neighbors; they are active, positive citizens who add stability and social capital to our community. Any denigration of these people, even the slightest suggestion – implicit in Santorum’s question – that their love is comparable to bestiality, polygamy or anything less than the love of a man and a woman – is an act of anti-social violence.

But Santorum clearly wanted the fight on this stuff, which Klein calls “six different kinds of stupid” these days:

Watching him at both events yesterday, he seemed completely inept as a big league candidate. A professional politician would have emphasized his economic plan in a state traditionally obsessed with economics. Santorum’s desire to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturing could be a very popular issue in New Hampshire, but he barely mentioned it. At the Glenn Beck event in Windham, he spent much of the evening responding to lunatic conspiracy theories about United Nations threats to U.S. sovereignty, promulgated by the ridiculous Beck. He didn’t pander, which was good. But he didn’t really get his message across either, which was bad.

And there’s the other guy:

Huntsman was sharp this morning, much better than the last time I saw him on the stump. He focused on the issues that actually matter – the economy, the deficit, energy and foreign policy, as well as the larger problem of trust or, rather, how to deal with the lack of trust in any of our big institutions, from Congress to the Presidency to Wall Street. Huntsman is a conservative. He is pro-life (with no flip-flops), he imposed a flat tax in Utah (and would have a lower, flatter but still progressive federal income tax structure), he favors Paul Ryan-style entitlement reform, he is opposed to Dodd-Frank and other government schemes to over-regulate the business community (but he has a plan to break up the “too big to fail” banks). He knows a lot and communicates it easily. But he’s going nowhere in this primary.

This is indeed an odd business and David Corn reports here on that Santorum-faces-the-students exchange:

Santorum has been in this spot before, and he easily adopted a here-we-go-again stance, and, in a somewhat condescending manner, struck back with…logic. Or what he claimed to be logic. He asked the students to justify gay marriage. When one said, “How about the idea that all men are created equal and [have] the right to happiness and liberty,” Santorum asked – Are you saying that everyone should have the right to marry anyone?

The student said yes. And Santorum quickly retorted. “So anyone can marry several people?”

No, the student said.

But what if someone can only be happy if he or she was married to five people? Santorum asked her.

Others in the crowd starting jeering him. “That’s not the point,” one shouted.

But Santorum, who kept cutting off the students, stuck to this argument. When the students talked about equal rights, he repeatedly interrupted, “What about three men?”

This was pathetic, and Andrew Sullivan comments:

That Santorum has regurgitated the polygamy point reveals, it seems to me, the weakness of his thinking on this issue. Gay people are not seeking the right to marry anyone. They are seeking the right merely to marry someone. Currently we are denied that basic civil right that every heterosexual takes completely for granted, in most states. The issue of polygamy is completely different and separate. Currently, no straight people have a right to a three-way marriage, let alone gay ones. I think there are very good social reasons for that, although it’s certainly worth debating. But it’s another debate. The only way Santorum’s argument works is with the premise that gays denied any right to marry are denied no right at all. They are not in the same category as heterosexuals, and their relationships, and the benefits they bring, are inherently inferior, indeed morally repugnant.

That’s Santorum’s view. It’s his view that private gay sex can and should be regulated by the government to prevent the evil of sodomy from destroying society. And sodomy, remember, means any non-procreative sex act: oral sex, masturbation and, worst of all, contraception: a deliberate flouting of natural law. If this is the position of the GOP, it is essentially turning itself into an irrelevance for the vast majority of those under forty, and hefty proportion of everyone above.

The boos are a harbinger. But they may turn to cheers, of course, in South Carolina.

Maybe the party has truly lost its way. And at salon.com Linda Hirshman plies on:

Rick Santorum’s candidacy – and the Republican Party that hungers for it – looks like a handful of the left-behind fighting a rear-guard action against modernity, which has passed them by. … Western history since the Enlightenment has been peppered with such revolts against the modern world. Usually they are a sign of desperation and find their way, unassisted, to the dustbin of history. On the rare occasion when they take hold, however, they can be extremely dangerous.

And Jen McCreight speaks to the press:

Can the media please stop referring to politicians like Santorum as running on a platform of “family values”? How is it “family values” to refuse gay people the right to form families? Represent his platform for what it is – homophobia. Don’t accept the labels these bigots want you to use.

New Hampshire may be a nowhere place, but things may settle out there, and James Poulos in this item calls Santorum the “Zombie Bush” – Santorum is only doing well because of the other candidates’ “awkward conspiracy of silence surrounding the Bush years.” And Daniel Larison reminds us all that Santorum was one of two senators to vote against Bob Gates’ confirmation after Rumsfeld resigned in 2006:

He was intensifying his hawkishness at the same time that even the Bush administration was beginning to pull back from some of the ideological enthusiasms and mistakes of its first five years. Santorum’s foreign policy might actually be more aggressive than that of Bush’s first term … Romney represents a return to Bush-era policies, and that’s bad enough, but Santorum would represent a full-blown revival of the worst elements of the Bush administration’s policies and mentality during its early years.

And Sullivan tries to wrap all this up:

Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum believe in Greater Israel, the non-existence of a Palestinian people, the permanent annexation of the occupied territories, and a war of aggression against Iran because it wants some kind of nuclear deterrent to Israel’s 300 or so nuclear warheads. And in a sign of this radical development, you can begin to see more arguments on the right for an explicitly religious fusion of Judaism and evangelical Christianity in creating a permanent fusion of the US and Israel as religiously defined nation-states.

And he cites this Barbara Lerner piece in National Review as an example:

Two things stand out for me: It explicitly makes religious, Biblical arguments for Greater Israel, and it has no reference to what to do with all those Palestinians who are made de facto non-citizens in Greater Israel. But it seems pretty obvious that equal rights for non-Jews in all of Greater Israel would end the exclusively Jewish nature of the state. So they must either exist in enclaves of disenfranchisement – having less electoral clout in Israel than slaves did in the Ante-Bellum South – or be cleansed from the scene entirely.

Which is it? You will also notice there is scant attention paid to what this position – essentially isolating the US from everyone else on the planet and rendering a complete end to any relationship with the Arab or Muslim world – would do to the interests of the US – because the interests of the US are not part of this equation. Religion is.

And you don’t take religion with you to New Hampshire. Basically you don’t settle a modern territorial dispute in terms of Scripture. That’s Iowa stuff.

But then, even though Romney had been governor down there, the Boston Globe endorsed Jon Huntsman:

There is a widespread belief that Romney’s campaign, like a well-designed corporate strategy, is bound for success. But even if Romney emerges as the nominee, it matters how he gets there. Already, the religious right, represented by Rick Santorum, and Tea Party activists, represented by Ron Paul, have pushed Romney in unwanted directions. In New Hampshire, Republican and independent voters have a chance, through Huntsman, to show him a sturdier model. Jon Huntsman would be a better president. But if he fails, he could still make Romney a better candidate.

But maybe the party has truly lost its way.

But E. J. Dionne in this Washington Post column says the battle within conservatism is between the visions of Santorum and Huntsman, really, and it must be resolved:

If the Republicans want to have a genuinely searching debate about the future of their party, they’d send Santorum and Huntsman off for the long fight. Huntsman is a forceful economic conservative but also resolutely modern. He’s a defender of science, a hard-eyed realist on foreign affairs who rejects Santorum’s neoconservative moralism, and he speaks the policy language of an upper middle class that likes its politics to focus on deficits and our future competition with China.

But David Atkins is having none of that:

It would be nice if Dionne could assemble just one piece of evidence to suggest that the upper middle class is obsessed with deficits and China. … But most middle-class people, even those making six figures, are usually more concerned about their mortgages, their jobs and their health insurance. Instead, modernism is linked inextricably in Dionne’s mind with deficit hysteria.

The pundit class really, really wants Huntsman to be relevant because he culturally reflects their worldview. Fortunately, polling realities show Huntsman’s ethic to be as out of touch with actual voters as those of Washington pundits.

Dionne also seems to fail to grasp that whatever Santorum’s outward Spanish Inquisition moral sensibilities, his economic views are almost exactly aligned with Huntsman’s. On economics, theirs would be less a debate than a love-in.

No, the real battle within the conservative movement is between the hard-line full-on Objectivists who want their totalizing philosophy to come fully out of the closet, and elitist plutocrats who subscribe to some Objectivist views but know that they can’t fully admit it and still win elections, and that their staying rich depends on preserving at least the veneer of a middle class.

The bible-thumping crap isn’t a part of the debate, so much as a way to keep people in line and pacified once all other social supports have been removed. But that’s nothing new. That’s just the latest edition of right-wing feudalism.

Ayn Rand is the winner here? Maybe, but this is what Sullivan sees:

What we’re seeing, I think, is Romney as the last, dying gasp of Republican fusionism. The old alliance – free market capitalism, social conservatism and anti-Communism – has morphed into a new one – libertarianism, Christianism and anti-Jihadism. Each faction has become more extreme as they have marinated in their own media complex, and responded to their fantasies about president Obama. And there is therefore no fusion possible between them. Maybe a charismatic figure like Reagan could somehow bind them together again; but such a figure comes along rarely.

Romney’s problem is that he understands he has to unite all these strands, but so obviously sees each of them as merely marketing tools for Romney Inc. that he inspires real confidence from none of them. They may get over it. But this feels like a loaf that won’t rise in the oven. The fusionist yeast has disappeared. And Obama, far from uniting them all, seems only, in his inimitable way, to drive them into suicidal distraction.

But it all comes back to that Johnny Cash song. I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve seen it all. You can’t pull anything off on me. But these guys, while they’ve been in Iowa, and are now in New Hampshire, and have been all over, seem as if they’ve been nowhere, really. What have they learned?

Well, they’ve learned to patter. That genre has always been about absurd nonsense.

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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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