Thursday, May 07, 2009

A Leader Who Play(-Acts) The Part


David Brooks has some interesting thoughts about Republicans....
Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave.
Ah yes... Westerns. Like Batman, or Master and Commander. And this helps explain why Hollywood is making so many westerns - why, you can hardly go to a movie theater or turn on a television without... okay, not much there. No, wait, maybe he's talking about Brokeback Mountain?

As for Republicans liking movie heroes who are "rugged, individualistic and brave", they're different from Democrats, whose movie heroes are what? Craven "metrosexual" socialists? Really, take a look at box office returns and tell me that heroes who are 'rugged, individualistic and brave" have anything less than universal appeal.
They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage.
Let's see... Barry Goldwater, who took over management of the family store at the age of 21, straight out of college. Ronald Reagan, who left Illinois after College to start a radio career in Iowa, and a few years later was off to California under contract with Warner Brothers. Sarah Palin who... is from Alaska? George and G.W. Bush, ivy leaguers, born into extraordinary wealth and political privilege whose ties to the south revolve around oil, not culture. Looking at those prominent Republicans, I have to ask, did Brooks say "play up" or "play act"?
Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes - freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.
Because there's no difference between westerns - they all star John Wayne, present issues with absolute moral clarity, and... dare I ask, has Brooks seen The Shootist? Oh, why bother.
But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.
So, wait, Republicans like westerns because they "celebrate the rugged individual", but not " the greatest" westerns that instead celebrate civic order? Well, I'm sure they'll be grateful that Brooks has pointed that out, and will now run off to rent Brooks' number one recommendation, "My Darling Clementine".
Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.
See? The problem is that Republicans like bad westerns, and thus (like Brooks) adore play-actors like Sarah Palin, instead of liking good westerns that would cause them (like Brooks) to value civic order over rugged individualism.
They would begin every day by reminding themselves of the concrete ways people build orderly neighborhoods, and how those neighborhoods bind a nation. They would ask: What threatens Americans’ efforts to build orderly places to raise their kids?
How might I paraphrase Brooks' sentiment... Oh yes: "It takes a village". And by focusing on bringing order to the village, "Democrats have been able to establish themselves as the safe and orderly party". So Brooks' message is that the Republicans really need a leader like Hillary Clinton, and then all will be well?
President Obama has made responsibility his core theme and has emerged as a calm, reassuring presence (even as he runs up the debt and intervenes rashly in sector after sector).
"Sector after sector" - I suppose Brooks means that quite literally, the financial industry and the auto industry. Except that both of those interventions were started by G.W. Bush and handed off to Obama. And what's Bush's record on running up the debt? No, wait, Bush play-acted his western roots, and Obama acts like he's, you know, a statesmanlike lawyer from Illinois. So Bush is forgiven because he fits with the Party of Lincoln, while Obama... Yeah.
If the Republicans are going to rebound, they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of civic order. First, they will have to stylistically decontaminate their brand. That means they will have to find a leader who is calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable.
Like who? Brooks has named four Republican leaders, Goldwater (deceased), Reagan (deceased), Bush (the younger? Politically deceased, and term-limited out), and Palin. I know Brooks has something of a crush on Palin, but I don't think even he would try to depict her as "calm, prudent, reassuring and reasonable".
Then [Republicans] will have to explain that there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded.

Both of these visions are now contained within the Democratic Party
Okay, then, so if the Democrats now "do it all" why do we need Republicans? (Not that I would dream of accusing Brooks of not being able to think his way out of a paper bag thinking through an argument, but really - could he articulate the message that he believes Republicans should convey?)

Meanwhile Ross Douthat makes some fair observations about Arlen Specter,
You can’t have a successful political party without centrists. Happily for Republicans still smarting from last week’s defection, you can have a successful political party without centrists like Arlen Specter.
Defining the Rebublican Party around Arlen Specter would be a bit like defining the Democratic Party around Joe Lieberman - faithless, feckless, opportunistic, self-aggrandizing... you get the idea. Centrism is not about being different from the rest of your party, or putting a knife in your party's back when you think it will help advance your own individual goals, agenda or career. Also, talk of centrists smacks of historic talk of "bipartisanship", which in mainstream media parlance seems to translate into "caving in on key issues" rather than trying to broker an outcome that actually would have broad appeal or acceptability.

But I have only so much sympathy for Douthat's lament. Why? Because, going two for two, Douthat takes potshots but lacks the courage to state what he actually thinks the Republican party needs, or what it should actually do.
The larger species to which he belonged - Republicanus Rockefellus, the endangered Northeastern moderate - likewise has little to offer a party in distress. Indeed, if you listen carefully to high-profile Yankee moderates like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee, who fanned out across op-ed pages and TV shows last week to bemoan their marginalization, it seems as though they don’t even understand their own political situation, let alone the Republican Party’s.

The Northeastern moderates tend to style themselves as fiscal conservatives, spinning a narrative in which they’re the victims of a doctrinaire social conservatism and its litmus tests. But many of them are just instinctive liberals who happen to have ancestral ties to the Grand Old Party.
Republicanus Rockefellus? Now I'm stuck with an image in my head of Douthat giggling at Road Runner cartoons. But seriously, we go from Specter the self-serving opportunist to Specter the Rockefeller Republican, and the best explanation Douthat can give for why Rockefeller Republicans "offer little" is his speculation that "they don’t even understand their own political situation" or his suggestion that they're "instinctive liberals" (whatever that's supposed to mean). All we can do is infer from the label, "Rockefeller Republican", that Douthat opposes the type of social agenda exemplified by the Medicare prescription benefit and No Child Left Behind, or perhaps that he opposes fiscal conservatism that's premised upon setting tax rates at a sufficient level to cover expenditures... he doesn't tell us. But it's nice to see that Douthat now deplores Republicans who spend significantly in excess of tax revenues, even though given their track record over the past eight years that really means he should be deploring all of them.

Complimenting "reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton" as having had party loyalty and "definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals", Douthat concludes,
No equivalent faction - rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today. Maybe something like it can grow out of the listening tour that various Republican power players are embarking on this month. Maybe it can bubble up outside the Beltway - from swing-state governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or reformists in deep-red states, like the much-touted Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. But to succeed, such a faction will have to represent something legitimately new in right-of-center politics. It can’t sound like Rush Limbaugh - but it can’t sound like Arlen Specter either.
So, pray tell, what would you like it to sound like? What do you think it should sound like? At least David Brooks had the courtesy to tell us that it should be a promise to make America look like a John Ford western.

The thing is, I think the problem is that Douthat has no interest in centrism. I know he's often depicted as moderate and thoughtful, yet he can't identify a single Republican who he believes could be a Republican Clinton or even a Gary Hart. (Let alone a "new Reagan".) He can't or won't articulate the new message that's going to help bring centrists of an acceptable sort into the Republican party, or even tell us what that "centrism" would look like. How about Tom Ridge? A law and order, security-type Republican? Why no mention of him as a model for the type of centrism that could... Oh, he's pro-choice, you say? In that light, perhaps Douthat's reticence makes more sense, even if it isn't helpful to the debate.

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