In the Arena

The Republican Crackup

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Ezra Klein–this is boring, but it’s almost always the case–has yet another smart piece today in which he posits Barack Obama as a moderate Republican from the early 1990s. I don’t know about the label, but the substance is right on target: Obama favored an individual mandate universal health care plan, which–as I’ve insisted here before–was originally a Republican idea (the first version I saw in the early 1990s was Stuart Butler’s Heritage Foundation plan, if you can believe it). Obama favored a cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions; the first Bush Administration passed a (very successful) cap-and-trade plan for acid rain emissions. Obama favors a mix of tax increases and program cuts to melt the deficit, so did George H.W. Bush. (And that worked, too, in large part because Bill Clinton kept Bush’s discretionary spending freeze and added higher rates for the wealthy.) I could also add in Bush the Elder’s successful non-crusading foreign policy, which has been emulated by Obama (with a few exceptions, like Libya, but then Bush had his exceptions, too: Panama).

Given the success of all these programs, my thoughts turn not to Obama–but to the Republicans. Why aren’t they moderate Republicans anymore?

Seriously, the early 1990s were a fecund time for policy thinking–especially for programs, like those above, that seemed to combine liberal ends with conservative means. There were severe blind spots, to be sure: both Bush the Elder and Clinton were in the thrall of Wall Street greedsters; Clinton, especially, worked overtime to prove his bona fides and eligibility for campaign contributions by joining in the parade of financial deregulation. But there did seem to be a mainstream consensus–or, at least, negotiable differences–on many, if not most, important issues.

Now we have this craziness. The Republican party has rejected all of the polices mentioned above, except for financial deregulation. It has gone off the deep end on taxes. It has denied the long-term economic and societal benefits of universal health insurance. It has gone into climate change denial…it is hard for any card-carrying Republican to say: I believe that Darwinian evolution is God’s plan. These sad realities probably led to Haley Barbour’s decision not to run for President and may well lead to the same decision for Indiana’s Mitch Daniels. They have led Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty to make mortal fools of themselves.

A hundred years from now, historians will be having a field day: How did the Republicans go so far astray? Why did it work, from time to time, electorally? Why weren’t the Democrats more effective in stopping them? Why didn’t the society’s major conservative economic stakeholders (outside the uber-reactionary Oil Patch) renounce the sideshow and demand a more reasonable brand of conservatism?

Two words immediately come to mind: Fox News. And two more words: Rush Limbaugh. And two more words: Newt Gingrich. And two more: Frank Luntz. But it seems clear that all eight of these words are part of the same, superficial, demagogic media phenomenon. And it also seems clear to me that there is a lot more to the profound political swing to the right that we’ve witnessed than telecharlatanism. The fear that has accompanied our economic slump has made the fear that right-wing demagogues sell a more attractive product. There is also the accumulating decades of educational incompetence, since–let’s face it–a whole lot of smart female teachers were liberated to pursue their dreams and we were left, as Albert Shanker used to say, with the bottom 20% of college graduates to preside in our classrooms. And another thing: Perhaps this is just rear-view, rose-colored glasses, but after Bill Clinton took his lumps in 1994, he learned how to out-argue and out-think the extremists. His message was complicated, but his persona was clear–he was the McDonald’s-eating, lounge-singer-screwing, good ol’ boy with the 800 SATs, who really did understand how Americans (especially blue-collar American males) think, and really cared about their welfare. It was just flat embedded in his DNA after a childhood of having the cool athlete guys laugh at his sax-playing obese butt.

These are still early days for this President, a cooler cat than Clinton. His policies track with the Bush-Clinton sanity of the 1990s. He has arrested some truly dreadful trends that Bush the Younger launched us upon overseas and at home. He would have to be considered a favorite to be reelected in 2012, especially given the loony-bin nature of the current Republican party. But I do wonder why Obama isn’t more forceful, at times, in defense of sanity. And even more than that, I wonder about my media colleagues: Why are we so often chasing the palpable nonsense that Fox News peddles? Why aren’t we continually pointing out that there was a time–as Ezra implies today–when we had something resembling a consensus on some of the most important issues facing us? Why aren’t we going back to basics–I’m looking at you, CNN–on some fundamental things like evolution and the science behind climate change? (On the other hand, CNN has done a sensational job explaining what is actually in the federal budget.)

Last night, I watched two examples of the media at our best: Lawrence O’Donnell quietly filleting Rush Limbaugh on the subject of Jesus of Nazareth’s economic policies and Anderson Cooper proving the utter non-existent nonsense of Donald Trump’s “investigative” efforts to discover the “truth” about Barack Obama’s birth certificate in Hawaii. Regular readers here know that I’ve avoided all mention of Trumpet from my posts on the grounds of life being too short for me to be played a sucker by that lame fool, but Anderson’s work is probably a necessity for a mainstream outlet.

For most of the 40 years that I’ve been a working reporter, the country chugged along pretty damned well. There were plenty of important issues, but none that threatened the essence of our American miracle. That’s no longer true. We face a future dominated by the celebration of ignorance and sloppy short-term thinking. I think those of us who are trying to actually report the world as it is–flawed and mistaken as we sometimes are–are facing a great challenge right now. We really owe the public a good, smart, rigorous couple of years between now and election day, 2012.

More:

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