The Biggest Loser

Henry David Thoreau was wrong. Most men don’t lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them – they just find another song to sing. It’s called acceptance, even if that’s hard for some Americans to achieve. Those of us who are baby-boomers know this. In your sixties no makeover is going to make you young again. People widen and sag, and slow down. Perhaps, as compensation, they get wiser, but that’s always open to dispute – one man’s wisdom is another man’s foolishness. Some people, after more than six decades of experience on this earth, decide that there’s a vast conspiracy to turn everyone into socialist turnips or fascist thugs. Some don’t, and just putter along assuming life is generally good and somewhat randomly so – but everyone eventually accepts that some severe exercise regime will not give them back their young hard body, and no miracle diet will make them thin and elegant. That’s not going to happen. They know that popular reality show Biggest Loser – where contestants are bullied and badgered and abused and shamed into losing vast amounts of weight, to win a few bucks – is ironically named. Losers think they can transform themselves. These folks will be fat again soon enough. Some of that is genetic, having to do with the hand you were dealt, but much of that is existential. Time passes. People ripen then peak and then fade and slowly decay. They get fat too. There’s nothing much anyone can do about all this, save for shifting the inevitable arch of the process a few months one way or the other, although they say Viagra helps a bit, for a time. Those who say they’re heroically going to change everything about themselves, to create the person they should have been in the first place, are kidding themselves. They’re setting themselves up for Thoreau’s quiet desperation. Take a look at bodybuilders, who have so carefully sculpted themselves over all the years, once time has passed, as it always does – look at Arnold Schwarzenegger for example. It’s not pretty. Everyone eventually becomes what they were meant to be. No makeover can change that.

That means Karl Rove is not going to transform the Republican Party. He has a new Super PAC to keep the Tea Party crazies from getting nominated and then losing by a mile to Democrats again and again and again – and the base of the party is mad as hell at him. See Karl Rove Is NOT a Conservative and so forth, and now that the Republicans have tapped young Marco Rubio to deliver the response to the president’s State of the Union address, the Tea Party has tapped Rand Paul to deliver the Tea Party response to what Obama might or might not say – so Karl Rove is out of luck. Transforming the party will be difficult – there seem to be two of them. Yes, Marco Rubio made the cover of Time as The Republican Savior – but even he didn’t like it much – so using him to transform the party is questionable.

Talking Points Memo reviews the situation rather well:

A battle between Karl Rove and the far right is the latest front in a growing civil war for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and clarifies the contours of the struggle.

On one side are the establishment Republicans, who recognize the changing face of the American electorate and want their party to win elections in the future. In this battle, they are represented by Rove and his new Conservative Victory Project, unveiled this week, which is targeting unelectable (read: extremely conservative) candidates in Republican Senate primaries.

“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” Steven Law, who will run Rove’s new effort, told the New York Times. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.” Law is also president of the Rove-backed American Crossroads and CrossroadsGPS.

On the other side are the ultraconservatives, who believe the road to success involves full-fledged, uncompromising dedication to their tea party principles. These are right-wing groups like FreedomWorks and GOP Senate hopefuls like Reps. Paul Broun (GA) and Steve King (IA), who are the types of far-right candidates Rove is expected to target.

Those are the players, and Rove seems to be saying that it’s time to bully and badger and abuse and shame the fools in the party, to whip the sagging old party into shape, but one man’s wisdom is another man’s foolishness:

“The Conservative Victory Project represents the latest round in a fight that’s been going on for decades,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Since the origins of the modern conservative movement in the mid-1950s, purists and pragmatists have been battling for dominance in the GOP.”

So this was inevitable:

“The Empire is striking back,” warned Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks.

Tea party-backed former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) told Talking Points Memo he’ll start a super PAC to counter Rove’s effort, declaring, “If Rove wants a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, bring it on.”

In the Georgia Senate race, Congressman Broun vowed not to be “intimidated” by the establishment. In Iowa, Congressman King declared that “nobody can bully me out of running for the U.S. Senate, not even Karl Rove and his hefty war chest.”

RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote: “I dare say any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement.”

Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Center slammed Rove’s group, calling it “shamelessly” named, arguing that right-wing candidates like Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Pat Toomey (PA) have won Senate seats. In response, Rove’s spokesman Jonathan Collegio called Bozell a “hater.”

Perhaps the party needs a makeover, but no one agrees on how it should be made over, and Rove went on Fox News and said he didn’t want a fight – but he’s got one anyway. Donald Trump called Rove “a total loser” – but not like on that weight-loss reality show. There’s no prize, and Josh Marshall sees the real problem here:

Rove is not an ideologue, not a Movement guy and so by Movement standards not really a conservative at all. Really he’s a guy who’s about power and he’s spent a decent amount of his career clipping the wings of kinds of far right wingers who make it hard for the more mainstream money Republican types to get elected. In other words, he’s spent a lot of his career trying to do on smaller stages in the South what he’s now nominated himself to do nationwide.

A lot of this gets obscured because Rove better than anyone else played the gay-bashing and liberals-hating-America card with gusto in the Bush years. But being ruthless and willing to peddle the ugliest kind of politics doesn’t make you conservative, though the two things are certainly not exclusive of each other. Remember, Lee Atwater, who came up with Rove in GOP politics, practiced his dark arts (remember Willie Horton) on behalf of George H. W. Bush who conservatives, rightly, never accepted as their own.

Marshall wants to reframe the dispute:

A lot of this story is getting played as conservatives versus moderates. But that’s not quite how I see it. There’s a big part of this which is the ideologues against the money Republican Party. The Chamber of Commerce and similar outfits want low taxes, a low regulatory regime in Washington and anything that gets in the way of that is a problem. They definitely don’t want endless wars in the Middle East, and gays and guns and contraception are problems to whatever extent they get in the way of the low taxes and light regulation. Mainly they want a party that can win and keep the taxes and regulations low.

Allied with them are the Rove types who mainly want to win elections. The fact that the consultants make massive personal incomes through running outfits like Crossroads is an additional incentive.

That means Rove might not be able to pull this off:

The layer of the party behind Rove seems very thin and brittle. They have lots of money. So that makes them consequential. But the Tea Party isn’t the fringe of the GOP. It’s actually most of the party. And a little discussed aspect of the post-2008 crash period (combined with the rise of Obama but distinct from it) is the rise of hard right ideology within significant sectors of the business community – especially Wall Street which used to lean relatively Democratic.

This all makes what Rove’s trying to do very difficult.

The party became what it was supposed to be, and while Rove may be able to shift the inevitable arch of the process a few months, one way or the other, there’s no fixing this. On the other hand, Slate’s John Dickerson argues that Rove is both brave and smart to at least try to make the party what it should have been in the first place. Rove’s critics are wrong. If the Republican Party wants to evolve and the Tea Party wants a place in it, they should embrace Rove’s efforts, and they know it:

Almost everyone connected to the GOP has opined recently about how the Republican Party needs to evolve after the 2012 election defeats. Gov. Bobby Jindal has given speeches, Rep. Paul Ryan has offered views, and this week House Majority Leader Eric Cantor invited everyone down to AEI to offer a few thin policy proposals aimed at rebranding. This paddling around in the shallow end is fine, but if there’s going to be transformation, the Republican Party needs leadership and clear choices. Rove is offering both.

It’s just that it’s not easy:

Movement conservatives raise money by turning Karl Rove into a bogeyman. And Rove raises money, too, because the attention attracts donors who want to see the irrational grass-roots neutralized. Acts of performance umbrage may start taking place on the mall.

I just got one such solicitation from a Rove critic, an email from Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell, the 2010 failed GOP senate candidate from Delaware, who was raising money off of the Rove outrage. (You remember O’Donnell as the candidate who had to deny that she was a witch.) Hers was a race of just the type Rove is trying to shape. Had Mike Castle been the GOP nominee, he’d probably be Sen. Castle right now. Rove believes that candidates like O’Donnell gave away likely seats in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, and Missouri during the last two election cycles. The GOP might control the Senate today if sharper candidates had prevailed.

This line of thinking outrages movement conservatives and Tea Party activists. They chalk up the defeats to the liberal media, which lampooned true conservatives by fixating on their minor missteps. By pledging to support more electable candidates, Rove is buying in to the frame that the media puts around true conservatives.

Maybe so, but one man’s wisdom is another man’s foolishness:

This theory may be reasonable or it may be poppycock. Either way, Rove’s detractors should thank him for bringing the debate into the open. Rove’s new effort is good for the Tea Party in the way that doubters are good for religions. No faith worthy of its Sunday parishioners crumbles under a challenge.

Leaving aside whether Rove is really challenging the core of Tea Party beliefs, his efforts force those who hold a different view into being clearer about what they believe. Only if they go through that process can they make their case to Republicans who aren’t already true believers. Plus, if they can’t beat Karl Rove at the internal game, they’re not going to be able to beat the Democrats.

There is that, and Jonathan Bernstein suggests here that Republicans really ought to elevate “real issues that have immediate material effects on large primary electorates, as opposed to purely symbolic issues” – as real life matters more to voters than abstract talk of personal responsibility and what Jesus would say about corporate tax rates and so on:

The drawback to relying on symbolic issues is that sane candidates are at a disadvantage. After all, they tend to be constrained by reality, and so they’re less likely to outbid the nuts when it comes to who loves the flag the most or who hates the “Ground Zero Mosque” the most; they’re more likely to slip up and admit that all candidates are patriotic or that not every Muslim community center is necessarily part of a jihadist plot. If the debate is on real policies with real consequences, however, reality-based conservatives are playing on ground that favors them.

Yes, but Steve Kornacki argues here that Rove’s plan could easily backfire:

While it’s possible the Conservative Victory Fund could save the GOP a few seats in 2014, there’s also the potential that its existence will only strengthen the right’s resolve to fight the party establishment – and to help the very candidates it’s designed to stop.

Yep, and those folks who lose all that weight on The Biggest Loser will get fat again, eventually – there are things you really can’t change.

That may, however, be just scratching the surface. Karl Rove just wants the party to run more candidates who might actually win elections. In any primary the Tea Party crowd will always vote for the most conservative candidate, on principle, and damn the consequences, even losing badly in the general election, as their consciences will be clear. Maybe they can work something out. They should, as there really are larger issues with the party.

A reader at Talking Points Memo identifies some of those issues:

Neither side in this putative civil war has been willing to reckon honestly with the consequences of the Bush administration for the country (substantively) or the Republican Party (politically). Both do their best to present their views to the public as if the last Republican President had never existed. This has left both groups of activists somewhat unmoored; in politics, you talk ideology and principles when you can’t brag about accomplishments, because voters are a lot better at relating the latter to their own lives.

Since neither the Tea Party types or the big donors and the campaign operatives working for them are thinking of repudiating a Republican administration that lost two wars and wrecked the economy, they are left to air their differences on issues no one besides campaign junkies cares about. The self-styled conservatives complain that Rove and his people say mean things about them; the moneybags wing is dedicated to recruiting candidates who will avoid gaffes. Big deal…

If you want to reinvent the party, to make the party what it should have been in the first place, it might be best to start with He Who Must Not Be Named. You do need to know what to fix, and Andrew Sullivan explains that nicely:

This was also clear in the Hagel hearings. When you have a party that hasn’t been able to repudiate the worst administration in modern times, and actually still attempt to hail it as some kind of achievement with respect to Iraq or Afghanistan or the debt, you cannot persuade anyone you have changed, or want to change.

Here’s Sullivan’s advice:

Someone in the GOP needs to take Bush-Cheney apart, to show how they created the debt crisis we are in, by throwing away a surplus on unaffordable tax cuts, launching two unfunded wars, and one new unfunded entitlement. They need to take on the war crimes that have deeply undermined the soul of the United States. They need to note the catastrophic negligence that gave us the worst national security lapse since Pearl Harbor (9/11) despite being warned explicitly in advance, accept weak and false intelligence to launch a war they were too incompetent to fight or win, sat back as one of the worst hurricanes all but took out a major city, and was so negligent in bank regulation that we ended up with Lehman and all that subsequently took place.

People do remember these things, so if Karl Rove wants to remake the party, he might want to dump the old stuff:

These were not minor errors. They were catastrophic misjudgments which took an era of peace, surplus and prosperity and replaced it with a dystopia of massive debt, a lawless executive branch, two unwinnable wars, and a record of war crimes that had their source in the very Oval Office.

When will the Republicans hold themselves accountable for the things that have persuaded so many that this bunch of fanatics and deniers are unfit for government? When will they speak of Bush and Cheney and repudiate them?

Think of it this way. If you want to lose weight you repudiate junk food – you stop eating it. Hell, that stuff will kill you. You don’t keep stuffing your face and say everything is going to change now and you’ll be thin and elegant momentarily. People will laugh at you, and it’s the same with policy. We had eight years of junk-food domestic policy and junk-food foreign policy and it nearly killed us. Republicans need to swear-off junk food.

They won’t. They can’t, because it’s existential. Political parties, like people, ripen and then peak and then fade and slowly decay. There’s nothing much anyone can do about that, save for shifting the inevitable arch of the process a few months one way or the other, maybe with more plausible candidates, or door-prizes or something. That’s about it. And we only watch that reality show about desperate people who will do anything to lose weight because we like to pretend it isn’t so, just as some like to watch the Republican Party try to totally remake itself. We have a morbid fascination with the impossible, hoping that time and age and circumstance don’t matter, even if we know they do. But as on the television show, we do know that the biggest loser really is the biggest loser. Things change, but they don’t get better.

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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