Is the Republican Party disintegrating before our eyes? I think so, although it’s hard to make any sense of what’s currently going on in politics and no one can predict the future. But suppose it is; would that explain why we have total gridlock in Washington, a Congress with an approval rating of 9% and this series of self-inflicted financial crises over the “fiscal cliff,” the sequester and threats about not raising the debt ceiling?
Pundits don’t seem to know; after all, no one alive has seen a political party dissolve. We don’t know what the telltale signs are anymore – although parties do come and go, as the Whigs and Know-Nothings can attest.
History seems to show that a party goes belly-up when the nation rejects its policies, but its leaders aren’t capable of change. There just stops being a reason it exists anymore, so its members walk away and join other groupings. What are the signs this is happening to the GOP?
Take CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference just ended in suburban Maryland. Thousands of reporters were accredited to cover it from all over the world as if it were an important event, but it mostly turned out to be a circus. There was Mitch McConnell, who’s 71, in front of a roomful of activists who are 22, denouncing the Democrats’ frontrunners in 2016 as a rerun of the “Golden Girls” – despite those frontrunners’ being younger than he is. Hillary Clinton is 65 and Joe Biden is 69. Yuck-a-day!
It was slightly entertaining to watch McConnell deliver this line; he has no lips and apparently no teeth, but he almost broke out in a smile at his own utter hilarity.
Donald Trump gave a talk, which ranged from rambling to incoherent; his big criticism of Mitt Romney (last year’s failed Republican, in case you’ve forgotten already) was that he didn’t brag enough about how rich he is. American admire success, Trump said – which must be true because it’s the only reason anyone’s ever paid attention to him. The news was that nobody showed up to hear Trump deliver this pronouncement. I think Toupée Man has finally worn out his welcome.
A few bored reporters generated some discussion of Sen. Rob Portman’s switch in favor of Gay marriage, two years after his son told him he’s Gay, but the only people excited about that were old people, interviewed here and there by obscure bloggers with videocams; the College Republicans who dominated the event mostly said Portman was right – if you asked them, because they weren’t talking about Rob Portman.
The weekend winner was Rand Paul, a nominal Republican who’s really a Libertarian. That party is likely to scoop up some Republicans if the collapse happens. Paul won the CPAC straw poll for President in 2016. He won’t win anything else, but he did win that.
A forum on broadening the party’s demographic base devolved into a White Power diatribe, with the featured speaker, K. Carl Smith of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, having to listen to a Tea Party activist who claimed that Whites have been “systematically disenfranched” by the U.S. government and that slaves ought to have thanked their masters for giving them food and shelter.
Not a good sign when you’re trying to broaden your base. Not a good sign a-tall!
The Tea Party in some version may try to organize itself as a post-Republican party, though after the spectacle of Dick Armey showing up with armed guards to clean out his desk at FreedomWorks (and pocket an $8 million settlement), it’s hard for me to see them as serious. Mother Jones magazine reported that FW paid radio talkers Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to extol the group on the air every week, which Armey opposed as not cost-effective and insulting to activists. The main beneficiary, Armey said, was FW’s president Matt Kibbe, who used staff members to write a book he profited from.
When political hustlers are in charge of the “grass roots,” there is no there there. So what’s to become of John Boehner?
Has there ever been a Speaker of the House like this guy? He reminds me of the Wizard of Oz after Toto’s pulled back the curtain. Boehner just keeps fiddling his dials and pumping the smoke machine as if nothing has happened amiss. He announced this weekend that mere election results aren’t going to change his policies; why would losing have anything to do with it?
Someone smart pointed out recently that when the Democrats were in the doldrums back in the 1980s, losing the White House to Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, it took them three elections to right the ship – and then they turned to that “New Democrat” Bill Clinton, a Southern governor who “ended welfare as we know it.” If the party had gotten too liberal, which was the popular if mistaken diagnosis, Clinton arrived to clean things up. (And he did carry a Southern state or two.) Today, of course, the Republicans have only lost two in a row to Barack Obama (or three of the last four popular votes, if you count George W. Bush in 2000), and it may be that Republicans still have another loss to come before they change, if they do. If they make it that long. I’m not sure they will.
They have no obvious talent waiting in the on-deck circle, while it was clear back in 1988 that Bill Clinton was a comer. The few Republicans being talked about in 2016 all seem to have huge liabilities. Gov. Bobby Jindal is universally praised as intelligent, but his draconian policies in back-swamp Louisiana keep running afoul of the courts, and while he made a brief splash for telling Republicans they’ve got to stop being “the stupid party,” he didn’t propose anything smarter for national policies. He didn’t say global warming is real, let’s support marriage equality or open up a path to citizenship for immigrants, so it’s clear he either doesn’t have convictions or doesn’t have the courage of them.
Jeb Bush, the “smart one” of Barbara’s boys, is running around hemming and hawing about immigration – he’s for the pathway, he’s not for the pathway, “you have to understand we wrote that book (that just came out) last year” when we thought Romney would win – and saying he loves his brother W., he didn’t do anything wrong and Jeb is proud of him. Try selling that to voters!
It’s true that Jeb can hardly say, “That son of a bitch, he screwed me for life,” but if he doesn’t say it, he’s screwed anyway. Bye, Jebber, you should never have let W. outrun you in 2000.
Marco Rubio, Jeb’s protegé, doesn’t know how to be the Republicans’ Great Hispanic Hope. If he endorses the pathway, he loses the nomination; if he doesn’t endorse it, he loses the election. (Besides, he ain’t that goodlooking.) And did you see him the other day at CPAC? No, he said, we don’t need new ideas, we still have a great idea – “It’s called America.”
That and eight bits might get you coffee. Or not.
As for Chris Christie, the only Republican popular with Democrats (and that won’t last), he wasn’t invited to CPAC. He hugged President Obama after Hurricane Sandy and that supposedly cost the Mittster the election.
So they invited the Mittster instead. No one knows why; CPAC was one collection of losers after another.
The moral of the story: when journalists outnumber activists, CPAC has peaked. (Most of the college kids were really just looking to get laid anyway.)
Maybe there will be a Republican who surprises us, a backbencher in Congress most likely; someone who finally gives up on Boehner, McConnell, sequesters and cliffs and government shutdowns, and strikes out on his or her own course. But if that were going to happen, I would think the gun safety debate would be the place for it to start. Polls show 91% of Americans favor universal background checks on gun purchases, but the only Republican senator who favors running all names through the computer is Mark Kirk of Illinois, who’s recovering from a major stroke. (He had to learn to walk again, and has made a good recovery.)
Every other Republican in Congress is plowing ahead as if nothing has changed. They’ll continue to obstruct, won’t pass any legislation and their big worry is that they’ll get “primaried” by a more conservative candidate – which led Lindsey Graham, better known as Senator Huckleberry, to announce he’s the proud owner of his very own assault weapon.
The jokes just write themselves.
As I said, I don’t own a crystal ball. They don’t work even if you own one. But we do know what causes a political party to crash. They insist on policies that are unpopular. They lack a strong leader. (Reince Priebus, anyone?) They prove incapable of altering their strategy, tactics or campaign techniques. They lose favor with young voters and are opponents of change, which happens whether they like it or not; see Gay marriage. They end up fighting among themselves while their platform loses all coherence.
Maybe Chris Christie can clean up this mess; but his temperament is volatile and his policies are immoderate – destroy the unions, snuggle up to Wall Street; New Jersey has a lot of financiers in those New York suburbs. He should coast to re-election this year but I’m not convinced he has national staying power. If he’s the nominee, which would take major hocus-pocus, and Hillary Clinton runs in ’16, I think Dems would keep the White House. Maybe even Biden could keep it, if he takes off his shirt and washes his Firebird in the front yard.
That would be three straight losses for the Republicans. Then we’ll see if some young, attractive, pro-Gay moderate can inject new life in the party, or it just burns out like the Know-Nothings.
President Obama has often compared himself to Ronald Reagan, odious as that is to me. Reagan was so successful he changed the trajectory of politics for a generation, and succeeded in seeing his vice-president replace him. (That hasn’t happened since.) The problem for Republicans is that Reagan was such a transformative figure who made conservatism acceptable, that his party today doesn’t know how to extend and broaden what he began. They’re reduced simply to invoking him, paying homage to the great man, claiming him for what they’re doing 30 years later. But he’s been dead quite some time now, and a huge chunk of voters doesn’t remember him. His trickle-down economics didn’t work, even his budget director admits cutting taxes doesn’t raise revenue or grow the economy, and these sad sacks, who lack his charisma and polished charm, are stuck doing wash/rinse/repeat. He went right, so they go further right, all the way to Crazyland, but Americans don’t want that; we like Social Security, we like Medicare and Medicaid, we don’t want people starving in the streets.
Libertarianism is a dead end; a modern society requires a modern government, with food inspectors and air traffic controllers, scientific research and development; you can’t turn back the clock. We’re here, we’re queer – they’re used to it!
The Tea Party may gasp on, but ask Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) how they like being in the Senate. As for the gun freaks after Sandy Hook, it’s plain we don’t want to live that way; it doesn’t make us safer. Obama may or may not succeed in cutting the budget when we ought to be raising it – who would he negotiate with for this “grand bargain”? – but his best bet is just putting Air Force One on auto-pilot until 2014. If Ashley Judd knocks off Mitch McConnell, the Party of No will be nowhere.++