Excitement Is General

Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration, 1921 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Excitement is general as we head into the final weeks of the long campaign.  With the presidential race in a dead heat, it’s anyone’s guess who the victor will be.  The candidates receive ever closer scrutiny, waves of analysis rolling in over airwaves and Internet incessantly.  Stalwarts gear up for the final push.

The uncertainty of the race is drawing huge audiences to the presidential debates.  Last night’s debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney is estimated to have drawn some 65 million viewers.  According to Bloomberg, the viewership for the debates has been roughly double what it was for the nominating conventions this summer.

The spontaneity of the response to the debates is unprecedented, too.  Last night during the debate, Twitter recorded over 7 million new tweets, with more than 109,000 recorded during a single minute when the candidates were discussing immigration.  Romney’s peculiar remark about ‘binders full of women’ prompted an immediate outpouring and a new hashtag.  Within minutes, satirical takes on his remarks were available for view on this Tumblr page.

Every age has its own political customs.  The ones we’re using today are making history, too.

Image: Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration in 1921, from this source.
Click image to enlarge.

Moment of Truth for GOP’s Conservative Wing

‘Be careful what you wish for’ is an old saying.  For nearly a generation, social conservatives have been pushing to reorganize American life around their strict vision of the world, an effort that has received a boost in recent years when the kindred Tea Party emerged.  The two movements, which could never have achieved majority status on their own, are poised to score a significant victory in their quest by seizing control of the Republican Party.  Moderate Republicans, who have chosen a strategy of accommodation and appeasement, are facing the destruction of their party from inside.

A minority grows bold
Conservatives are betting that their views are a majority: that’s why they are uninterested in compromise.  That’s why they’ve conducted vigorous state-level efforts to dislodge moderate Republicans from Congress, a dreaded process moderates refer to as being “primaried from the right.”  Conservatives have ousted moderates because they believe they don’t need them.  Now, with the Republican convention going on, the moderates’ position is growing more embarrassing, as their status as captives of the right becomes clearer every day.

Romney’s success in the presidential primaries should have been a caution to conservatives: a reminder that moderation is still a more more marketable quality than any of the varieties of conservatism that Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum were peddling.  Despite the vast media attention these conservatives received, their pull at the polls proved paltry.  Yet the pull to the right is so inexorable that Romney, once nominated, felt compelled to choose a conservative running mate, when he might have been better served by choosing a seasoned moderate Republican who knows something about foreign policy.

Moderate Republicans lack a leader who can demonstrate control
There is no moderate Republican strong enough to restrain the conservative wing and demonstrate that moderates remain firmly in control.  Figures like House Speaker John Boehner have struggled unsuccessfully to marshal conservative forces and yoke them to an efficacious national agenda.  But conservatives, enjoying their power, won’t compromise.  The Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

The party platform is a humiliation for moderates
The Republican party platform is the new humiliation—a socially retrograde document that moderates must attempt to explain away.  Virginia governor Bob McDonnell took a stab at it last night, when he tried to convince Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour that the party’s platform represented only ‘the grassroots’ but wasn’t really a binding statement of what all Republicans believed.  Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers also appeared on the show, disavowing Todd Akin’s comments on ‘legitimate rape’ as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘wrong’ while trying to minimize the implications of such views and the fact that many in her party harbor them.  McDonnell also tried to dismiss the objectionable planks by claiming they were ‘small issues’ and just a ‘small part’ of what Republicans believe.

As moderates’ influence wanes, chances increase that the right will destroy the GOP
Yet if these opinions are not representative of the Party, why couldn’t party leaders keep them out of the platform?  Signs of ideological strain within the GOP are mounting, again raising the question, “Should leaders who can’t govern their party govern the country?”—a question I explored here several months ago.

The November election represents a moment of truth for conservatives and the GOP.  At that moment, we will discover whether conservatives’ assumptions are right: whether the backward-looking vision they espouse is one that a national majority cherishes, too.  And if they are wrong?  They will have destroyed the Grand Old Party in pursuit of their dreams.

S. Barsy, Bring Back The Platform, Our Polity.
S. Barsy, Should Leaders Who Can’t Govern Their Party Govern the Country?, Our Polity.
S. Barsy, 2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II), Our Polity.
A. Nagourney, A Party of Factions Gathers, Seeking Consensus, New York Times.

Should Leaders Who Can’t Govern Their Party Govern the Country?

This is the question that the turmoil within the Republican Party prompts these days, as the moderate wing of the party battles to maintain control over a grass-roots extremism it has legitimated.

Is this what a dying political party looks like?  This is what flashes through my mind when I read or hear about the Republican Party.  The party isn’t dying, at least not yet: but the very forces of intolerance and intransigence it encouraged are assailing it from within.  Unless the moderate wing of the GOP can reassert itself and prevail, the party will continue its disastrous turn to the right.  Not only will its prospects for power dim, but the entire country will suffer, too.

Extreme conservatism is a minority view
Despite the media hype—fanned by talk radio and cable TV—extreme conservatism is not the dominant American viewpoint.  We are not a nation of extremists.  The desire of the country’s majority for sophisticated, moderate leadership was expressed in its 2008 rejection of Sarah Palin and, more recently, in Republican voters’ resounding rejection of conservative presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry.  Each of these candidates received lavish publicity, arousing fears that they represented the new face of America; in each case, support for these candidates proved meager indeed.

Weakening the fiber of nation and party
Yet the fate of the Republican Party is being directed by this assertive minority.  It’s the faction that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich chose to pander to.  It’s the faction that hates the separation of church and state, that would attack the independence of our judiciary.  It’s the faction that’s against modern medicine.  That’s against female contraception.  That’s uncomfortable with racial equality.  In their quest for power, these conservatives have begun chipping away at principles and institutions that formerly sacred to all Americans and protective of us all.

Moderate Republicans are captive
In the face of this, the only Republicans to speak out against extremism have been members of the Bush family.  During the primary season, Jeb Bush distanced himself from the new conservatism while signalling disappointment at the Party’s loss of vision.  Barbara Bush has repeatedly expressed dismay at Republicans’ uncivil conduct and their disavowal of compromise.

These, though, are just two voices in a party that, by and large, has chosen to amplify and accommodate spurious right-wing demands.  Prior to 2010, there were reasons to hope that the social conservative wing of the party, for want of a victory, was moving into a more quiescent, marginal phase.  Unfortunately, the emergence of the Tea Party, with its new crop of faces, its fiscal focus, and its idealistic hatred of our federal tradition, has given new energy to the disparate elements that make up social conservatism.

Citizens United has further exaggerated the significance of rabble-rousing candidates like Newt Gingrich, whose funding was all out of proportion to the support he enjoyed. 

A terrible tactical decision
All along, moderate Republicans could have tamped down and disavowed right-wing extremism as it began taking hold, like crabgrass, on their impeccably manicured property.  Republicans could have chosen not to assimilate the Tea Party.  They could have refused funding to candidates whose intolerance is extreme enough to qualify as unpatriotic. They could have silenced the racist “dog whistle” that goes by the name of the birther movement.  Instead, moderates have chosen to go along and get along with a dangerous minority.  Why?  Because they need the support and approval of these voters too badly.  Without this virulent sub-population, moderate Republicans cannot hope to attain the majority needed to elect a president or control Congress.

Consumed by a wasting disease from inside
Now this emboldened faction is paralyzing and destroying moderate Republican leaders.  In recent primaries, Tea Partiers have targeted old-line Republicans like Richard Lugar for defeat.  They have reduced House Speaker John Boehner to impotence by stalemating last year’s negotiations over the debt ceiling by refusing to compromise.  Boehner bristled at David Axelrod’s recent allusion to a “Republican reign of terror” but, in truth, moderate Republicans are beginning to bear the brunt of  a “reign of terror” that their conservative wing is waging from inside.

Is Mitt Romney the man to speak truth to power?
It’s hard to imagine Mitt Romney, who wants so badly to be liked, disciplining and harmonizing the unwieldy elements that now constitute “the Grand Old Party.”  In his eagerness to gain office, Romney has promised to be the conservatives’ standard-bearer, while hoping the rest of us won’t consider what that means.  Unlike Jeb and Barbara Bush, Romney lacks the gumption to speak out against a strain of political intolerance that could spell the ruin of Republicanism—and that’s begun to harm the republic, too.

Is the Republican Party Dying?

The Closed-Door Campaign

Photograph of an invitation to a Romney fund-raising event (Credit: Susan Barsy)

A piece of high-end junk mail appeared in my P.O. box the other day.  An invitation to an upcoming Romney fundraiser, it is a perfect souvenir of this campaign season.  For just $75,800, I can become a “Romney Victory Max Out Contributor,” and perhaps sit next to someone powerful in the old Pump Room.

Now that the suspense has gone out of the primaries, a superficial calm has fallen over the presidential campaign.  Tune out the perfunctory stump speeches and ramped-up media campaigns, and you will hear the ching-ching! of aggressive fund-raising, as both Romney and the president crisscross the country desperately scrounging up cash, now taken as a proxy for popular support.

Have you been reading about the changing style of presidential fundraising?  Whereas in 2008 Obama made securing small contributions a priority, his style of fund-raising is now virtually indistinguishable from that of Mitt Romney.  Both rely mainly on high-end fundraisers, hosted by celebrities or other ultra-wealthy Americans and typically kept at a distance from the public eye.  “Few Witnesses to Obama, Romney, As They Raise $1.5 Billion,” read a recent Bloomberg headline.

In many ways, this cozy relationship between leading politicians and the wealthy merely mirrors the relationship the two groups have enjoyed historically.  Go back to the Revolutionary Era or the early republic, and you will find that wealthy Americans led the colonies and states, wrote the Constitution, and dominated high office.  All throughout the nineteenth century, the line between public interest and private remained  suspiciously murky.  In fact, that a politician represented his own financial interest and that of his friends was taken more or less for granted; it was rarely viewed as criminal, certainly.

At present, however, the candidates’ attentiveness to wealth smacks of a politics of avoidance that is gripping the country.  For the people, indeed.  The candidates offer platitudes to a populace who are suffering, disillusioned, and angry, but it’s probably more fun to dine with the wealthy and promise to supply the things that they need.  Yet as long as the nation’s leading classes remain locked in this romantic tango, behind closed doors, a true economic recovery is unlikely to occur.

Susan Barsy, Mitt Romney as Exhibit A, Our Polity.
Julie Pace, What $40,000 Gets You in Presidential Fundraising, Yahoo/AP.

Mitt Romney as Exhibit A

Last week exposed some of the fault lines in Republican party ideology, as Mitt Romney’s characteristics as an economic actor received closer scrutiny, paradoxically threatening the integrity of the rhetoric on which Republicanism relies.

In itself, Mr Romney’s wealth need not be embarrassing.  Americans have always had a soft spot for wealthy presidents (think of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys), and many wealthy Americans have made fine public servants (think John Kerry, Nelson Rockefeller, George Bush senior, or Michael Bloomberg).  No, the embarrassment springs from the contrast between Mr Romney’s profile and the way, in Republican discourse, rich people are typically styled.

All last year, many of us watched in wonder as the party’s congressional leadership repeatedly balked at the idea of increasing the tax obligations of the wealthiest Americans, specifically those earning $1 million a year or more.  In a year dominated by the debt-ceiling controversy, quarrels over the Bush tax cuts, and abortive attempts to arrive at a balanced-budget plan, leading Republicans stalwartly defended the interests of the super-rich, even at the expense of significant political gains.

Republicans justify their resistance to increasing taxes on the nation’s top earners by consistently portraying them as struggling small-business owners and entrepreneurs, whose uppermost thought is how to use their every spare dollar to employ more Americans and create jobs.

Republicans persist in this despite the fact that, as others have pointed out, the description is misleading.  The characteristics of the nation’s top earners are far more varied.  Many are principals in businesses that are incorporated, their compensation a disembodied gift that they and their families are free to use as they please.  Others derive the bulk of their income from masses of investments or speculation, i.e., from unearned income like capital gains.

Each time I heard the Republican leadership describing this class of people as struggling job-creators, I wondered, “Do voters buy this?  And how many ordinary people actually want to give a break to people so much more wealthier than they?”  Since polls have repeatedly shown that most Americans favor taxing the wealthiest more heavily, the Republicans seemed to be playing a dangerous game.  Yet all through 2011, they stayed on message, and they got their way, beating back every measure to tax high-earning individuals more fairly.

Now, as if on cue, enter Mitt Romney, a living exemplar of the class the Republicans have been defending.  Mr Romney has suddenly brought certain issues into focus in a way that even the Republicans’ fiercest opponents could not have managed.  For Mr. Romney’s exceptional wealth and privilege, along with the nature of Bain Capital‘s activities, bring into question the entire Republican worldview, even as Romney entreats rank-and-file Republicans to support his candidacy and make him the standard-bearer in their common cause.

It’s not just that Mr Romney’s fortune, pegged conservatively at some $190 million, derives from hereditary wealth, opportunistic investment, and some sweet latter-day deals that ensure him a great stream of income without working.  The issue isn’t just taxation, or whether private equity is good or bad.  The larger issue is that Romney’s life story belies the identity of interest between high and low that Republicans posits.  If the Romneys of the world are doing so well, why aren’t we?

Republicans argue that we should not restrain the wealthy or require them to give more to their country, because, through their activities as capitalists, they help us enough already.  If only we would let “free enterprise” alone, it would benefit us all in the natural course of things.  Yet Romney’s business career, the breadth of his opportunities, and his far-flung financial arrangements all exemplify the great divide between those enjoying the sweetest fruits of global capitalism and the masses of Americans contemplating the lowly uncertainties of the everyday.

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