Not Even an Echo

Barry Goldwater was never going to be president. Back in 1964, when he ran against Lyndon Johnson, what he offered America, America wasn’t buying. Johnson won in a landslide, probably because Goldwater actually did offer what he liked to call a choice, not an echo – a vision of an every-man-for-himself small-if-not-meaningless-government America, with next to no taxes, or services, with no safety net at all, and with no stupid civil rights legislation telling free people they couldn’t do what they wanted to do – but with a massive military ready for global thermonuclear war at the drop of a hat, if the Soviets didn’t behave themselves. It was too stark a choice. Half the Republicans walked out of the Republican convention, including George Romney, dragging his teenage son Mitt with him. Goldwater would be the death of the party, and, fact, Goldwater carried only his home state of Arizona and the few core states of the Old South. Voters there may not have given much thought to Goldwater’s radical libertarian ideas, but the man hated all that civil rights crap and that was good enough for them. The rest of the nation heard Goldwater saying that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice – and disagreed. Maybe it wasn’t a vice, but it sure was stupid, and dangerous.

Goldwater’s candidacy was a Republican experiment that failed. America wasn’t ready for the unleashed raw id of the party – the logical extension of all their policy positions since FDR and the New Deal suggested, and proved, government could be useful. If you hold that the more government you have, the less freedom you have, and if you really believe in total freedom, and if you’re honest about it, you get Goldwater saying blow it all up. It was a real choice, not an echo of anything – but Americans decided they’d rather not blow up their government. Republicans discovered it was probably wiser to be an opposition party, one with policy ideas on how to fix things, not abandon it all in the name of pure and unsullied freedom.

The party didn’t recover until Ronald Reagan, who put a benign and smiling mask on the raw id of the party. He was, by all accounts, a nice man, even if, now and then, the mask slipped. He did go on and on about how Medicare would be the end of freedom in America, if not the end of America itself – exactly twenty years before he became president. He was fine with Medicare when he became president, when everyone was fine with it, and when everyone was just as free as before. He was still all for small government, but only in the abstract. He was, generally, a practical man. He even raised taxes, when he had to. He wasn’t going to oversee the dismantling of most of the government and act as caretaker for the few remaining parts, like the military. He wasn’t a purest. He wasn’t Barry Goldwater. He wasn’t going to unleash the raw id of the party. He’d just take it out for a walk now and then, on a leash. There’s no point in scaring people. It’s bad politics too.

In short, Reagan decided to be an echo, even if Barry Goldwater had said there’s no virtue in that. Actually Goldwater said there’s no virtue in moderation, which amounts to the same thing – but Goldwater went down in flames. That political experiment failed, spectacularly. The lesson was clear. Don’t do THAT again!

Echo the times. That’s the ticket. Work around the edges, slyly. Keep what you really think masked. Don’t scare people, and don’t belittle and insult everyone in sight. Extremism in the defense of liberty may be no vice, but it is political suicide. Be the affable and sunny Ronald Reagan, not the severe prophet of doom, Barry Goldwater. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and politics is pretty much a matter of catching mindless flies, the tediously uninformed voters.

All that is fairly obvious, but political egos being what they are, Goldwater’s dictum – offer a choice, not an echo – was too seductive. So was Goldwater’s scorn for those who didn’t see things his way, and his impatience with anyone who got in the way of things as they really should be, ideally. To some Republicans that seems heroic, even now. That may explain why the Republicans had a bad week. They let it all hang out.

First, the Supreme Court declared the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional – and then, almost immediately, every Southern state that had had to get clearance for changes to their election laws gleefully went for voter-ID laws, calling for expensive photo-identification cards that would be hard to get, and restrictive voting hours, and moving polling places to where no one could reach them in time to vote. This was their chance to make sure the black and Latino vote was as thin as possible, and they didn’t even try to hide that. This was an in-your-face insult to those groups, taunting them, because they’ll not be able to do a damned thing about it now. They seemed to take pride in rubbing it in. It was a bit frightening.

The next day they lost big when the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and let the ruling that California’s Prop 8 was unconstitutional stand – the federal government will now consider gay marriage legal if a state does, and not argue the matter at all, and adjust federal benefits and the tax code appropriately. Antonin Scalia and everyone on the right raised holy hell, insulting the gay community and everyone who thinks gay marriage is no big deal, which is about eighty percent of everyone under thirty, Republican and Democrat. Fine, insult the gay folks and just about everyone under thirty, and anyone else who’s with them. You’ve spent two years insulting women. Why not go all the way? This was also a bit frightening.

The day after that the Senate overwhelming passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill and sent it to house – where it will die. House Speaker John Boehner says he won’t let it come to the House floor for a vote. What the Senate did is meaningless. They’ll write their own bill, or maybe they won’t. Their choice is to kill immigration reform and insult the fast-growing Hispanic vote, and the business community, and Karl Rove and even Bill O’Reilly, which pleases the base but causes no end of trouble, for decades, or pass the Senate bill, or their own, and insult the base, and be better positioned for future elections in their own districts. It looks like they’ll offer a choice, not an echo – no path to citizenship, no amnesty – no nothing. There will be no reward for lawbreakers, and America is for Americans, damn it. They’re not going to echo the Senate, or popular opinion, or the business community. Barry Goldwater lives!

No, he doesn’t, and on the matter of gay marriage, Tim Noah points out here that “one of the ironies of the marriage equality movement is the conservative movement’s stubborn refusal to recognize its fundamentally conservative nature.”

No, really, Noah argues that conservatives should be fine with gay marriage:

John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner [of Lawrence v. Texas] were not conservatives’ type of people. One was demonstrably irresponsible, the other was a rootless drifter, and their case was about a sexual act (albeit one never actually committed) that most conservatives really don’t like to think about. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer [of U.S. v. Windsor], on the other hand, are precisely conservatives’ type of people (except for their sexual orientation and maybe their politics). They are (in Spyer’s case, were) affluent and mutually committed and responsible members of society. Their case is about not being bullied by the IRS into paying too much in taxes, which is something conservatives fret about all the time.

When the history books are written, one likely conclusion will be that the swift ascendancy of gay rights in the second decade of the 21st century was largely attributable to gay people’s relentless pursuit of a boring lifestyle.

Andrew Sullivan sees that, and that these folks have conservatism all wrong:

There is a conservative position against marriage equality, which is simply resistance to any drastic change in such a crucial institution. But thanks to federalism, we can now see that fears of unintended consequences have not materialized so far in any of the equality states, and that marriage as a whole is in a much worse state where heterosexuals-only marriage endures. What you would expect an actual socially conservative party to do would be to adapt to these new realities, after legitimate initial skepticism, and try to coopt an emerging social group by integrating them into society in a conservative way.

Imagine, say, a pro-marriage movement among African-Americans. Do you think the GOP would oppose it ferociously? Imagine any group’s desire to leave behind leftist balkanization and cultural revolt in order to embrace the values of family, stability and responsibility. On what grounds would the GOP oppose it? None! So why the resilient hostility to gay conservatives and their remarkable triumph in a traditionally leftist sub-population? In fact, it is precisely those gay conservatives who are barred from Fox News – or immediately hazed by homophobes like Erick Erickson.

Something else is going on here:

The only real explanation is religious fundamentalism.

The GOP, at its core, is a religious organization, not a political one. It is digging in deeper on immigration reform, and marriage equality, and abortion. It is not acting as a rational actor in political competition but as a fundamentalist movement, gerrymandering its way to total resistance to modernity’s increasing diversity of views and beliefs. It is emphatically not a socially conservative force: it is a radical, fundamentalist movement, incapable of accepting any political settlement that does not comport with unchanging, eternal dicta.

That’s harsh, but it does explain a lot:

It is the great tragedy of the era that Republicans targeted one of the few grass-roots, genuinely conservative movements as their implacable enemy in the last quarter century. They went after the one group truly trying to shore up and support marriage – and they even wanted to amend the Constitution to do so. They did so, I believe, for one reason alone: fundamentalism. And that is not conservatism. In so many ways, it is conservatism’s eternal nemesis: the refusal to adjust to the times in favor of an ideology that never changes.

It’s also useful to remember that Barry Goldwater argued passionately that gays should be fully integrated into the military – you don’t throw away talent and turn away patriots. Reagan did just that – he made the ban formal. Bill Clinton came up with Don’t-Ask Don’t-Tell. That institutionalized lying about it. Obama was the one who followed Goldwater’s advice, as John McCain and the rest of the Republicans screamed bloody murder. It’s a funny old world. Just who wants to be Barry Goldwater here?

The problem is that if you want to offer a choice, not an echo, there has to be an actual choice involved. The Republicans are the party that is against things – abortion, gay rights, healthcare reform, immigration reform, and all spending on whatever. You name it, they’re against it. No one knows what they’re for – they’re just not for what is or might be.

This leads to some odd places, like finding scandals everywhere, which puzzles Andrew Sullivan:

There was always something desperate about them: an attempt somehow, after five years of remarkably scandal-free governance, to try once again and prove Michelle Malkin’s fantasies (and Peggy Noonan’s feelings) correct. Darrell Issa was the perfect charlatan for the purpose; and Roger Ailes desperately needed a new narrative in the post-election doldrums. But there really was no there, there … and you can feel the air escaping from the hysteria balloons.

Sullivan points to Jonathan Chait, who has a lot to say on that deflation:

The IRS inspector general is defending its probe, but the IRS’s flagging of conservative groups seems, at worst, to be marginally stricter than its flagging of liberal groups, not the one-sided political witch hunt portrayed by early reports.

What about the rest of the scandals? Well, there aren’t any, and there never were. Benghazi is a case of a bunch of confused agencies caught up in a fast-moving story trying to coordinate talking points. The ever-shifting third leg of the Obama scandal trifecta – Obama’s prosecution of leaks, or use of the National Security Agency – is not a scandal at all. It’s a policy controversy. One can argue that Obama’s policy stance is wrong, or dangerous, or a threat to democracy. But when the president is carrying out duly passed laws and acting at every stage with judicial approval, then the issue is the laws themselves, not misconduct.

The whole Obama scandal episode is a classic creation of a “narrative” – the stitching together of unrelated data points into a story.

There was no reality, just a narrative:

What actually happened is this: House Republicans passed a twisted account of a hearing to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who misleadingly claimed to have seen it, creating the impression that the administration was caught in a major lie. Then the IRS story broke, which we now see was Republicans demanding a one-sided audit and thus producing the impression of one-sided treatment. In that context, legitimate controversies over Obama’s civil-rights policies became the “three Obama scandals,” exposing a government panopticon, if not a Nixonian administration bent on revenge.

The collapse of the Benghazi story happened very quickly, when Jake Tapper’s reporting found that Karl had peddled a bogus story. (It’s notable that the only misconduct in both the Benghazi and the IRS stories was committed by House Republicans.) But the scandal cloud lingered through the still-extant IRS scandal, which in turn lent the scandal odor to the civil-liberties dispute. Now that the IRS scandal has turned into a Darrell Issa scandal, we’re left with … an important dispute over domestic surveillance, which has nothing to do with scandal at all. The entire scandal narrative was an illusion.

Now they’re stuck:

Sifting through the Republican responses to President Obama’s climate speech Tuesday, an odd omission could be found – or, at least, it would have seemed odd as recently as a week or two ago. The various Republican statements churned out for the media dutifully denounced the president as a job-killing, coal-hating, stealth-taxing liberal. See Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Rand Paul, Orrin Hatch, the National Republican Senatorial Committee via Jennifer Rubin, and any others you care to Google on your own. The word that never appears in any of them is scandal. Not a one of them claimed Obama was attempting to distract America from his scandals.

It is not that Republicans have previously shied away from bringing “scandal” in to putatively unrelated Obama doings. The existence of a presidential “scandal” can be inferred when the opposition party – and both parties do this – attempts to tie the scandal to anything the president does or does not do. Republicans have previously defined as attempts to distract from the scandal such disparate Obama actions as nominating judges, proposing to reduce student loans, visiting the Jersey Shore, and defending the use of drones. That is to say, basically everything Obama has done since the dawn of the Obama scandal era about seven weeks ago. If the president can give a major speech without either the opposition or the new media accusing him of attempting to distract from the scandal, then the scandal is over.

All of them are over now, although Ed Kilgore suggests that they served their purpose:

The rescission of the 2013 “scandals” (which in the case of Benghazi! was just the continuation of a 2012 “scandal”) into supportive talking points for an overall “vetting” and “indictment” of Obama, has been the reigning idea on the Right all along. Perhaps mainstream media types got interested when multiple “stories” developed that all threatened the president’s job approval rating and created investigative journalism opportunities to look for real dirt. But all along, conservatives were determined to push public interest away from the details of this or that “scandal” and promote the broader “narrative” of an arrogant socialist political leader overstepping his boundaries. …

Think about it. When conservatives from Erick Erickson to Karl Rove began promoting the Henry II Theory of Presidential Responsibility [“Will someone rid me of the meddlesome priest” and all that] in trying to tie Obama to the IRS “scandal,” a lot of us figured they were cutting their losses and implementing a Plan B in the absence of any evidence directly linking the White House to alleged IRS targeting of conservative tax exemption applicants. An alternative interpretation is that conservatives actually prefer the scenario of a lordly Dictator rhetorically creating a climate of persecution against Tea Party activists, the Kochs, fossil-fuel companies, Christian evangelicals, and maybe even white people tout court, to any specific pattern of misbehavior on a limited front.

It’s all echo:

Keep in mind that many conservative gabbers treat the Affordable Care Act and a host of other Obama policies as parts of that same ongoing scandal – which reaches back to the days when young Barack sat around with Bill Ayers in Chicago plotting the destruction of Western Civilization.

These conservative gabbers are not the heirs of Goldwater, bravely offering a startlingly new choice for America, even if that choice appalls America. They’re just small men smugly talking to each other in an echo chamber. They can’t even scare people, and as for the actual politicians, boldly saying no to everything but offended if you ask them what the alternative might be, they’re not the heirs of Goldwater either. At least his cold brutality was focused on an equally cold and brutal vision. All we get here is petulance and nastiness, the Republican id at play, but to no purpose. It kind of makes you miss Barry Goldwater.

No, that can’t be.

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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