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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

2012: Who the Hell Are We?

Via John Aravosis over at Americablog I found this press pool report from Sunday:

At his first fundraiser in San Jose, President Obama took aim at Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, without naming the Texas governor by name, and was critical of the recent GOP debates.  He said the 2012 election will be “a contest of values.”

“Some of you here may be folks who actually used to be Republicans but are puzzled by what’s happened to that party . . . .  I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately?  You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change,” he said to applause.  “It’s true.  You’ve got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because they’re gay.

“That not reflective of who we are,” Mr. Obama said.  “This is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country.  2008 was an important [elec]tion.  2012 is a more important election.”

Yes, please . . . more of this.

Twenty years ago, when he campaigned to get the White House back in Democratic hands, Bill Clinton unveiled his “third-way” of politics, famously triangulating to the center – which, to the dismay of many liberals, meant operating somewhat as the Republican-lite party.  Clinton did obtain the Oval Office, but thanks to Ross Perot’s spoiler effect he did so with less than a majority of the vote.  In light of that fairly weak win and in light of the fact Ronald Reagan’s strangely popular tenure had only ended four years before, maybe Clinton’s political strategy did make sense at the time.

But as Democrats have chased after the ever-elusive “center” – perpetually defined by the media Villagers as whatever point exists halfway between the Democrats’ current position and whatever it is the GOP demands – the Republican party has steadily moved the goalposts further and further to the right.  As many others have pointed out before, Ronald Reagan’s history of closing tax loopholes, working with the Democrats in Congress and meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss disarmament means that even St. Ronnie wouldn’t be able to win the Republican nomination were he running today.

And because the Villagers reflexively define the desirable center as simply splitting the difference between the two parties, the Republicans have suffered no political fallout for their increasing radicalism.  After all, when the optimal place on the political spectrum is and always will be the difference between the two parties’ position, then it is easy to play the “both sides do it too game” and to avow that Democrats are just as radical as the Republicans.  If they weren’t then they wouldn’t be on the left-side of ‘the center.’

But this manifestly isn’t true.  The Republican party has pushed its ideology so far to the right – and has demonstrated its complete willingness to prevent the federal government from operating if it doesn’t get its way on things – that it should more properly be thought of as an anarchist party.  One currently dominated by a screeching rabble whose only real consistency seems to be an overweening hatred – yes, hatred – for anybody who isn’t one of them already.  Executions are applauded, leaving people to die for lack of medical care is their policy preference, and booing an active duty soldier because of the sexual orientation he was born with is unremarkable.  Paul Krugman recently described the situation thusly:

[A]t this point,  American politics is fundamentally about different moral visions.


In the past, conservatives accepted the need for a government-provided safety net on humanitarian grounds.  Don’t take it from me, take it from Friedrich Hayek, the conservative intellectual hero, who specifically declared in The Road to Serfdom his support for “a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect citizens against the “common hazards of life,” and singled out health care in particular.


Now, however, compassion is out of fashion – indeed, lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the GOP’s base.

And what this means is that modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations – that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

Are voters ready to embrace such a radical rejection of the kind of America we’ve all grown up in?  I guess we’ll find out next year.

That sounds exactly right to me:  in a lot of ways, the 2012 election will be a battle for the soul of America.  Will we elect a candidate from a party that deeply and passionately believes that American society should be understood as a dog-eat-dog jungle, red in tooth and claw, where each of us competes against all the others for whatever scraps we can snag and devil take the hindmost?  Or will we re-elect a President who – whatever his failings seem to the more liberal among us – nevertheless believes that to at least a minimum extent we are still ultimately all our brothers’ keepers?

I remain in a state of constant amazement while watching the GOP frontrunners compete for their party’s nomination, and the damage control each is required to spin in order not to seem compassionate and caring.  Mitt Romney’s single notable achievement in public office was the re-writing of his state’s health care system such that Massachusetts now leads the nation in the percentage of its citizens that have health insurance – and the Republican faithful cannot bring themselves to forgive him for that.

Rick Perry, with this nicknamed cowboy boots and the laser-sighted pistol he carries with him at all times, is almost the apotheosis of the Republican id – but so far as the Republican faithful are concerned he is damaged goods because he won’t support a border fence with Mexico and because he does support allowing the children of undocumented workers to obtain an education and the potential to become productive members of our society.  He also issued an executive order mandating that little girls get vaccinated against cervical cancer.  And so he too must be made to repent for that faintest glimmer of compassion that he once exposed.

The sheer meanness that has become the dominant factor in GOP politics also reveals itself through all the hubbub about NJ Governor Chris Christie possibly getting into the race.  Now that Perry is no longer acceptable (and Romney is still a Mormon), many GOP lights are once more touting Christie as their potential savior.

But why would that be?  As Ian Milhiser puts it over at ThinkProgress, on immigration issues Christie is so far to the left of his party that he “makes Rick Perry look like Tom Tancredo.”  So what, therefore, is Christie’s putative appeal to Republicans?  Undoubtedly it is his reputation for being a bully who insists on shouting down people with whom he disagrees and disparaging those who don’t slink away from his verbal abuse.

If Christie were to jump into the race he would – like Perry – be cheered at first . . . especially if he kept up his truculent and disrespectful ways.  There isn’t a thing the modern GOP enjoys so much as a powerful man beating on the less powerful.  And, like Perry, those cheers would last right upon until the time Romney or someone else brought up Christie’s desire to “provide a way to citizenship” for undocumented workers.  And then he, too, would be abandoned by a party that cannot stand for its candidates to display the slightest bit of compassion toward others.

So I truly do hope that Obama’s remarks over the weekend are a sign of further things to come.  The hoary conventional wisdom is that elections are won by wooing the “center” and that the center is wooed by downplaying differences between the parties.  But so radicalized have become the Republicans that I don’t see that strategy as particularly effective any longer; indeed, to the extent that it will serve to mainstream the GOP’s radicalization I think it would be actively destructive for America.

I hope Obama does make this election a story about competing visions, competing moral lessons for the country – because I don’t think the Republican vision, if explained to and properly understood by the vast majority of Americans, is a winning agenda.  And even if I’m wrong about that and the Republican savagery now really is what my fellow countrymen want, I’d rather know that too. 

Despite what the egomaniacal Ralph Nader might say, there is much, much more than “a dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties.  So let’s throw the differences up to a stark light, and let’s see which one really represents American values in the 21st century.

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