Sunday, February 20, 2011

Frank Rich sees an opportunity in the GOP's flight from reality, but wonders whether our president is of a mind to take advantage of it


"The G.O.P. has already reached its praying-for-a-miracle phase -- hoping some neo-Reagan will emerge to usurp the tired field. Trump! Thune! T-Paw! Christie! Jeb Bush! Soon it'll be time for another Fred Thompson or Rudy groundswell."
-- Frank Rich, in his NYT column today,
"The G.O.P.'s Post-Tucson Traumatic Stress Disorder"

by Ken

With cluelessness having escalated to messagelessness, the political Right is offering people of the reality-based community a giant opportunity, Frank Rich argues today. The question remains, though, whether there's any inclination on the part of what passes for the, well, Not Far Right to take advantage of it.

After citing empirical evidence -- a continuing steep decline in Glenn Beck's ratings, a "tailspin" in support for Princess Sarah Palin, glimmers of unreasonable reasonableness in the Murdoch empire -- that the hate-screeching Right has taken a serious hit in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, Frank poses the interesting question, "If the right puts its rabid Obama hatred on the down-low, what will -- or can -- conservatism stand for instead?"

Before we get to that, it turns out that Rich anticipates one of the thoughts that was gnawing at my brain: Given the immovability of the primitive-minded (using "minded" in its broadest imaginable sense) Republican base, can its voices of screech really be judged lost and gone forever?
The power of the G.O.P.'s hard-core base may also yet deliver a Palin comeback no matter what the rest of the country thinks of her. In the CNN poll nearly two weeks after Tucson, Republicans still gave her a 70 percent favorable approval rating, just behind [Minister Mike] Huckabee (72 percent) and ahead of [Willard] Romney (64 percent).
. He cites a Public Policy Polling survey showing that only 28 percent of the party's primary voters believe President Obama was born in this country, while 51 percent don't and "for another 21 percent, the jury is still out, as it presumably is on evolution as well"), and what passes for leadership in the party is scared doodyless of its doody-brained majority, pointing to House Speaker "Sunny John" Boehner's "stonewallling" of Meet the Press's David Gregory, trying to get him to take a firm stand against "birther" nonsense, saying, "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think."
Still, the signs of the at least temporarily loosened grip of raw hate, the signs of messagelessness on the Far Right are unmistakable:
The only apparent agendas are repealing "Obamacare" and slashing federal spending as long as the cuts are quarantined to the small percentage of the budget covering discretionary safety-net programs, education and Big Bird.

This shortfall of substance was showcased by last weekend's annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a premier Republican rite that doubles as a cattle call for potential presidential candidates. Palin didn't appear -- CPAC, as the event is known, doesn't pay -- and neither did her fellow Fox News personality Mike Huckabee. But all the others were there, including that great white hope of un-Palin Republicans, Mitt Romney. What they said -- and didn't say -- from the CPAC podium not only shows a political opposition running on empty but also dramatizes the remarkable leadership opportunity their fecklessness has handed to the incumbent president in post-shellacking Washington.

As it happened, CPAC overlapped with the extraordinary onrush of history in the Middle East. But the Egyptian uprising, supposedly a prime example of the freedom agenda championed by George W. Bush, was rarely, and then only minimally, mentioned by the parade of would-be presidents. Indeed, with the exception of Ron Paul -- who would let the Egyptians fend for themselves and cut off all foreign aid -- the most detailed discussions of Egypt came from Ann Coulter and Rick Santorum.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who lost his 2006 re-election bid by a landslide of 17 percentage points, believes he can be president despite being best known for having likened homosexuality to "man on dog" sex. Even less conversant in foreign affairs than canine coitus, he attacked Obama for deserting Hosni Mubarak, questioning the message it sent to America's "friends." But no one (with the odd exception of George Will) takes Santorum's presidential ambitions seriously. Romney, on the other hand, is the closest thing the G.O.P. has to a front-runner, and he is even more hollow than Santorum. Indeed, his appearance at CPAC on the morning of Friday, Feb. 11, was entirely consistent with his public image as an otherworldly visitor from an Aqua Velva commercial circa 1985.

That Friday was the day after Mubarak's bizarre speech vowing to keep his hold on power. At 9:45 a.m. that morning, as a rapt world waited for his next move, CNN reported that there would soon be a new statement from Mubarak -- whose abdication was confirmed around 11 a.m. But when Romney took the stage in Washington at 10:35, he made not a single allusion of any kind to Egypt -- even as he lambasted Obama for not having a foreign policy. His snarky, cowardly address also tiptoed around "Obamacare" lest it remind Tea Partiers of Massachusetts's "Romneycare." He was nearly as out of touch with reality as Mubarak the night before.

There was one serious speech at CPAC -- an economic colloquy delivered that night by Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor much beloved by what remains of mainstream conservative punditry. But Daniels was quickly thrashed: Limbaugh attacked him for his mild suggestion that the G.O.P. welcome voters who are not ideological purists, and CPAC attendees awarded him with only 4 percent of the vote in their straw poll. (The winners were Paul, with 30 percent, and Romney, with 23 percent.) Indeed, Daniels couldn't even compete with the surprise CPAC appearance of Donald Trump, a sometime Democrat whose own substance-free Obama-bashing oration drew an overflow crowd. Apparently few at CPAC could imagine that Trump might be using them to drum up publicity for his own ratings-challenged television show, "Celebrity Apprentice," which returns in just two weeks -- or that he had contributed $50,000 to the Chicago mayoral campaign of no less an Obama ally than Rahm Emanuel.

Frank sees an opportunity here for a potentially resurgent reality-based community. At the same time, he remembers all too well who we're dealing with here.
An opposition this adrift from reality -- whether about Obama's birth certificate, history unfolding in the Middle East or the consequences of a federal or state government shutdown -- is a paper tiger. It's a golden chance for the president to seize the moment. What we don't know is if he sees it that way. As we've learned from his track record both in the 2008 campaign and in the White House, he sometimes coasts at these junctures or lapses into a pro forma bipartisanship that amounts, for all practical purposes, to inertia.

Obama's outspokenness about the labor battle in Wisconsin offers a glimmer of hope that he might lead the fight for what many Americans, not just Democrats, care about -- from job creation to an energy plan to an attack on the deficit that brackets the high-end Bush-era tax cuts with serious Medicare/Medicaid reform and further strengthening of the health care law. Will he do so? The answer to that question is at least as mysterious as the identity of whatever candidate the desperate G.O.P. finds to run against him.

I might point out too that we have all-too-potent evidence of the president's disinclination, likely for both practical and (his own) ideological reasons, to move other than farther rightward in his squandered opportunity to try to stand for reality during the election campaign, and again I point to the way Drew Westen defined the issues last August.

One of these days we need to go back and take a more serious look at what Drew had to say. It might not have salvaged the electoral disaster, but it would at the very least have laid the groundwork for a return to sanity, as opposed to a Democratic opposition (the Dems are now official the opposition party, aren't they?) that tries to ingratiate itself with voters by squealing, "Hey, if you want stupid, crazy, and thuggish, we're just as stupid, crazy, and thuggish as they are."

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