Will Rogers used to get big laughs when he said he wasn’t a member of any organized political party, he was a Democrat. All successful quips have to ring true, and back in the late twenties and early thirties that one did – even after FDR took over there was always something improvisational about anything the Democrats were doing. If something didn’t work FDR would try something else – it was all experiment after experiment, to save what could be saved and fix what could be fixed after the whole economy collapsed.
Republicans weren’t like that. They told you exactly what they’d do, and if they got the chance, they’d do it – even if it was really dumb. Those who are uncomfortable with ambiguity, by nature, voted for Republicans. You might not like what you’d be getting, but damn it, you did know what you’d be getting. That’s precisely what was comforting, and that may be why George W. Bush won the presidency twice, if he really did. Just enough people wanted a man who would always stick to what he said he was going to do, even long after he realized he had been wrong all along. There’s something appealing about a man who holds firm to his convictions, no matter how the situation changes or what new facts turn up. That’s what makes a strong leader, or so we were told. Just enough people believed that, twice. Those who didn’t believe that didn’t belong to an organized political party, as Will Rogers noted.
Rogers also would have understood what happened in Chicago in 1968 – the Democratic Party was tearing itself apart, with riots in the streets and chaos in the hall at their convention that year. The antiwar left was at war with the moderate establishment and with the machine bosses like Mayor Daley, who was a bit of a thug. There was no possibility of the party coming up with a unifying message and a big theme, based on rock-solid principles. The party came up with the cheerfully ambiguous Hubert Humphrey instead, and a few weeks later the Republicans met in Miami and quickly nominated Richard Nixon, with no fuss at all. Nixon spoke of law and order and doing what the silent majority wanted, even if they weren’t saying anything out loud, and said he would bring peace with honor in Vietnam, with the emphasis on honor. It was all empty nonsense, but it wasn’t ambiguous. Humphrey didn’t stand a chance, and four years later, George McGovern stood less of a chance. Most of his own party didn’t really like him that much, but the peace and love folks finally got what they wanted. That was a second disaster.
It took Bill Clinton to save the Democratic Party from itself. He put an end to the internal squabbling and outdid the Republicans at their own game, ending welfare as we knew it with work requirements and declaring the age of big government was over. Republicans were stunned and the nation thought they knew they had someone who knew his stuff. Early on, in the 1992 campaign, Clinton also had that Sister Souljah Moment – he told that self-righteous black woman to get over herself and get serious. That was a message to the party. Let’s get it together, folks – you might not like every detail here but bitching about every little this and that will kill us, as it has so many times in the past, so think of the big picture.
They did just that and Clinton had a fine eight years, save for that business with young Monica and the impeachment, but even that didn’t hurt him all that much. The Republicans came off as sniggering prudes and lost the midterm elections after the impeachment. Clinton was doing a fine job, and the right job, and the business with the buxom lass was a minor matter, best left for him to work out with Hillary. Something had changed about Democrats – they were the organized political party, which made them able to withstand purely personal scandals. The big picture mattered more. They had one.
That didn’t last – Al Gore was uninspiring and John Kerry too thoughtful, as they claimed that he changed positions when the facts changed, which made him a flip-flopper. The parties reverted to type, until Obama came along and the Tea Party popped up, to serve the same function the antiwar left did for the Democrats long ago, to tear the party apart. The 2012 Republican primaries showed that – the savior of the party was Donald Trump, then Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich, then Rick Santorum and then Gingrich again, and then Santorum again. Each had to prove that they were more severely conservative than any of the others, and the Tea Party base was momentarily enthralled, again and again, while the pundits wondered what the hell was up with the now-crazy Republican Party. Fox News tried to salvage what they could from this mess, excusing this and that as well-meaning enthusiasm and not that crazy if you really thought about it – or maybe the liberal media had it out for conservatives and were reporting what was said far too much, making a big deal out of little eccentricities. But after those twenty primary debates it was obvious that none of these people would save the party.
Only Mitt Romney survived, never winning big in any of the state primaries or caucuses, but never getting blown out anywhere – winning the nomination by being just crazy enough when a specific setting demanded that, and being general and inoffensive the rest of the time. No one ever knew what he really believed, and by the time the general election rolled around, the party’s unifying message was that Mitt probably wasn’t quite the right man, or very good at politics, but at least he wasn’t Obama. That wasn’t a unified or unifying message, or even a position about anything. The party’s positions were all over the map – on immigration issues and women’s issues and science and everything else. There was something to offend everyone who wasn’t a born-again old white man with a gun or a corporate officer, and in the background the Tea Party seethed. Back in the sixties the antiwar left seethed too – Hubert Humphrey was a joke. It was the same sort of thing. Mitt Romney was the joke this time. He stood for nothing much and represented no one in particular.
The problem now is to find someone who’s not a joke – and everyone in the Republican Party has to agree who that someone is, which is proving to be difficult. The invitations went out for the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and it seems they invited only previous jokes – Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin and Herman Cain and so on. Much has been said about their decision not to invite Chris Christie to speak, and the conservative-to-the-bone Ramesh Ponnuru thinks it’s the CPAC crowd who just doesn’t get it:
I wish New Jersey were governed more conservatively: that Christie had not, for example, agreed to expand Medicaid last week on federal taxpayers’ tab. But we’re talking about New Jersey here. It’s a state that last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1972 and last went for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988. It went for President Barack Obama by a larger margin than any other state governed by a Republican.
Conservatives shouldn’t just cut Christie some slack. They ought to listen to him to find out how a pro-life critic of unions has become so popular in unfriendly territory – if, that is, they want the political map of the country to get any redder.
Democrats listened to Bill Clinton when he told his party to cut the crap and see the big picture. Maybe Chris Christie can do the same, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza says they’ve been longing for it:
In the spring of 2012, many Republicans called on Romney, then the presumptive presidential nominee, to condemn conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh for his comments about Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke. Romney’s response – “It’s not the language I would have used” – left many establishment Republicans cold. That summer, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, an outspoken moderate in the party, said that Romney had missed “some moments where I thought he had a freebie” to stand up to the GOP base…
That sort of thing has been in the air, not that it did much good, and there are few Republicans who can pull off any sort of a Sister Souljah Moment:
At the top of that list is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush whose last name, conservative credentials and status as a Bigfoot in the party would give him the sort of standing necessary to offer a meaningful rebuke to the party base. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is also on that list and is trying to do a sort of mini-Souljah with his push for an immigration reform plan that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal seemed to dabble in a bit of Souljah-ism in a speech to the Republican National Committee last month in which he called on the party to “recalibrate the compass of conservatism.”
No one within the party, however, has stepped forward to make clear that the GOP as currently constituted isn’t a majority party in the country and, unless change is made, won’t be one in 2016 and beyond either.
Someone has to step forward. It’s adapt-or-die time. Get over yourself.
Of course that is easier said than done:
Jeb Bush made a surprising return to the immigration reform debate by announcing he no longer supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But after a backlash from immigration activists, he seems to be opening the door the slightest bit to changing his mind once again.
Bush acknowledged his previous backing for a path to citizenship in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
“I have supported both – both a path to legalization or a path to citizenship – with the underlining principle being that there should be no incentive for people to come illegally at the expense of coming legally,” he told CNN.
Bush added, however, that he was interested in creating a vastly expanded legal immigration process to accept more low-skilled and high-skilled immigrants in the future.
What? This item goes on to document how Jeb Bush had carefully established himself as the sane one over the last several years – articles and statements on how a path to citizenship was a fine idea – and then a week before the CPAC meeting he said no, read his book, he doesn’t think that and never did, or people didn’t understand what he was really saying, but now, after a day of getting hammered for saying what he was saying he wasn’t saying, he takes back what he just took back, sort of.
There’s no point in citing any more of this item – it’s as nutty as it seems – and then there’s this:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Tuesday took a swipe at Jeb Bush after he came out against a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in his new book.
“Let’s wait for a few months to see how Jeb Bush changes his mind again,” Reid told reporters. He said Bush is “not evolving, he’s devolving” on immigration. “He keeps going backwards.”
The Democratic leader said the former Florida governor has made “a fool of himself.”
Yes, stand for something. Hell, stand for the wrong thing, but at least stand for something. Will Rogers would be talking about Republicans now, at least these Republicans:
A number of Republican senators Tuesday either didn’t know or wouldn’t say if they consider the Voting Rights Act to be constitutional, even though many of them voted to reauthorize it in 2006 and the Supreme Court is currently considering whether to invalidate a key section of it.
For a full discussion of this see this – or accept a summary. Congress has renewed the Voting Rights Act four times, the last time in 2006, for twenty-five more years. The 2006 vote was 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House – and Justice Antonin Scalia said that was simple cowardice. The Supreme Court knows better – “This is not the kind of question you can leave to Congress.” Scalia also said the law now amounted to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” What makes black folks think they are entitled to protection in these matters? Let them fend for themselves. It’s almost as if no one trusts Southern white men, who manage the voting process.
Sahil Kapur started asking questions of Republican senators about all this:
“Uh,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), before a long, awkward pause, “I haven’t even thought about it.” He laughed and said, “I’ll leave that to the courts. I’m having a hard enough time being a senator, much less a Supreme Court justice.”
I asked the same question to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who, like Graham, voted to renew the law in 2006. “The Voting Rights Act?” he asked. Yes, I said. Should it be upheld? “Oh, I don’t know,” Inhofe replied. “I’ll let someone else answer that.”
This is not inspiring, and it continues:
I asked Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who was exiting a conference meeting and walking into the same senators-only elevator, if the law should be upheld. “Uh, I’m not…” he said. As the elevator door closed, he shrugged his shoulders.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a former leadership member who also voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006, similarly declined to answer.
“No, I am not going to try to be a Supreme Court [justice] and senator at the same time,” he told reporters. Is it constitutional? “That’s the question before the Supreme Court.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the vice chairman of the GOP conference, also wouldn’t answer.
There were no answers, really, as, like Mitt, they’d rather not stand for anything much, which leaves the other folks:
One month ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed an amicus brief urging the justices to vote in its favor.
“Voting is the most fundamental of our rights as Americans, and the Voting Rights Act is one of the most important laws Congress has ever passed. The Voting Rights Act, and in particular Section 5 of the law, provides crucial protection for minority voters living in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination,” Reid wrote. “This law was reauthorized in 2006 and passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 98-0, based on an extensive legislative record. Congress recognized that unfortunately bigotry still exists in this nation, and that there are still those who would seek to suppress the vote on the basis of race. Indeed, during the 2012 election cycle, insidious efforts were made in various states to suppress voter turnout in minority communities.”
Harry Reid is the big-picture guy here. The other guys don’t even know if they now oppose the Voting Rights Act. As the elevator door closed, he shrugged his shoulders. Pat Toomey doesn’t belong to any organized political party. None of these guys do, which leads Ramesh Ponnuru to propose this:
People who want to see American politics take a turn to the right, and a few who don’t, have been giving a lot of advice to conservatives lately. Move this way on the social issues; move that way on economics; get more technology-savvy. You’ve heard it all, sometimes from me.
Maybe all this advice is based on a false premise. We’ve been assuming that conservatives want to start winning political and policy victories again.
He’s not sure they do:
Some Republicans have seemed to dislike one another more than they like defeating Democrats and enacting conservative policies. After elections in which conservatives attracted the allegiance of only a minority of voters, they have reacted by trying to kick people out rather than bring people in. (You can see the same impulse at work among Republican critics of religious conservatives.)
Michael Kinsley once remarked that liberals were always looking for heretics while conservatives were always looking for converts. But that was a long time ago, when conservatives were on the upswing.
And now there’s hardly a party there at all, so it has become necessary to invent one:
President Barack Obama, unable to persuade Republicans to accept higher taxes, is attempting to cobble together what he calls a “common-sense caucus” among lawmakers to help resolve U.S. budget woes and push his legislative agenda.
On Monday and in recent days, Obama has made individual phone calls to a number of senators in a search for common ground on $85 billion in budget cuts that went into effect last week, as well as his top priorities like deficit reduction, gun control and an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
Gene Sperling, the White House senior economic official, said on the CNN program “State of the Union” on Sunday that Obama was contacting lawmakers to talk about compromises that could include reforms to both the tax code and entitlement programs, which include Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare healthcare for the elderly and disabled.
If you want to get something done in our structure of government – with its legislative and administrative branches that must work together and agree, at least a little, with two parties representing two different philosophies – you sometimes have to create that other party out of thin air. The one you thought was there isn’t an organized political party anymore. Perhaps they’d rather be decorative and amusing – but they’re not even that. People sometimes say we need a third party. Two would do. Two would be nice, actually.