Sunday, October 23, 2011

Whose Fault Is It That Republicans Have Weak Presidential Candidates

It's certainly not Ross Douthat's fault....
What’s more, Republicans have only themselves to blame for his inevitability. Romney owes his current position to two failures: the Bush era’s serial disasters, which left the Republican establishment without a strong bench of viable national politicians, and the Tea Party’s mix of zeal and naïveté, which has elevated cranks and frauds and future television personalities to the party’s presidential stage.
Douthat does not explain how "the Bush era’s serial disasters" have prevented the development of "a strong bench of viable national politicians". It would be interesting to hear the names of the people Douthat perceives as having been wrongly displaced from the 'bench' or not allowed a seat at all, and his description of how Bush's disasters brought about those outcomes, but alas.

When I look around, I see that the Republicans have a lot of Senators, many of whom were in office before Bush. They have a lot of Members of the House, with similar tenures. The also have a number of former members who left during or after the Bush years. They have a large number of sitting and former governors, who to me look pretty much the same as the Republican governors the nation enjoyed before and during the Bush years. To see the present bench as "thin" is, in my opinion, a matter of perception - it's the same as it ever was. If the problem is that the better potential candidates aren't ready to run, that's always going to be an issue - it's a bit like the Olympics, where peaking a couple of years early or late can cost you the opportunity for the gold. But to the extent that good candidates won't run, the issue isn't Bush's legacy: this is in fact an excellent time for a strong Republican candidate to run for President. The problem is that they could not get nominated in the present Republican Party. As John Huntsman can surely attest, at least if you have presidential aspirations, being reasonable, mainstream and consistent does nothing to advance you in today's Republican Party.

What about the Tea Party and its supposed "mix of zeal and naïveté" that "elevated cranks and frauds and future television personalities to the party’s presidential stage"? I would argue that Douthat is missing the forest for the trees, but I think that would be to give him too much credit. The Tea Party did not even exist when the Republican Party's presidential nominee plucked Sarah Palin out of obscurity and made her a national media figure. Palin appears to have made her first Tea Party appearance in February, 2010, at the inaugural Tea Party convention - by which time she had run for Vice President, raised seven figures for her PAC, published a biography, gone on a national bus tour, served as the first guest commentator on Glenn Beck's TV show, and had been hired by Fox News as a regular commentator. Yes, she positioned herself as a darling of the Tea Party movement. And, oops, when push came to shove she didn't even run for President.

To look at it from another perspective, Sarah Palin's popular decline did not begin with her committing some sort of sin against the Tea Party or its ideological litmus tests. It began when Roger Ailes told her that she needed to keep her mouth shut for a while in the wake of the Giffords shooting, and she decided instead to make an "I'm the real victim" video. I don't want to put too much weight on correlation, but I've been arguing all along that Sarah Palin's status as a "fifty foot eyesore" depended upon her being pushed upon the public by the media, so to me it makes sense that her decline resulted from an apparent Fox News decision to put her on the back burner.

Let's take a look at the Republican candidates, and see which (if any) fit Douthat's bill - which are there because they have been elevated by the Tea Party? Not Huntsman. Not Santorum. Not Paul. Not Gingrich, Not Perry. Not Romney. So that leaves Bachmann and possibly Cain? But Cain's story is more one of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. If a Tea Party connection can be said to be present, it seems more that some of the same highly moneyed interests that coopted and shaped the early Tea Party (e.g., Americans for Prosperity) have a long history of working with Cain, but even that creates a carts and horses issue - Cain has been pushing their agenda since 2005. Also his momentary rise in prominence seems to have a lot less to do with the Tea Party than it does with the Republican Party's dissatisfaction with Romney as the default candidate. He just happens to be the anti-Romney movement's flavor of the month.

That leaves Bachmann, who started the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, and who does owe her ascendence to the Tea Party. But, even if Douthat were to make an explicit case that she were a "crank" or a "fraud", my interpretation of her run is a bit different. It's my interpretation that the moneyed interests that have slapped corporate labels on the Tea Party movement wanted her to run in order to discourage Sarah Palin from entering the race, and that the gambit worked. I also think that to dismiss her as a "crank" or "fraud" is to misunderstand and misrepresent both her intelligence and her commitment to her beliefs. I think she's a lot smarter than those "crazy eyes" photographs might suggest.

It might be argued that there is a correlation between the anti-Romney movement and the Tea Party, and that would make sense given that as the dust has settled the Tea Party has come to largely represent "the moral majority" - a new name for a consistently Republican, religious conservative voting bloc. If you're nervous at the thought of a non-Christian becoming President (and cannot reconcile the acceptance of The Book of Mormon with what you see as Christianity) and believe that being pro-life is a crucial litmus test for any Republican candidate, despite his assurances that his religious views are safe and that he's become pro-life you're simply not going to be comfortable with Romney. These hurdles have nothing to do with the Tea Party movement - they're the exact same hurdles Romney faced four years ago.

The truth is, the Republican Party's problems are entirely self-inflicted. They have created so many litmus tests for an "acceptable" Republican nominee that the only way to pass all of the tests is to be a fraud. You must be religious and, at some level, a Christian. You can't support marriage equality for gay people. You can't be pro-choice. You have to expressly disavow a belief in science on such issues as climate change and evolution. You have to disavow support for any form of tax increase (with the possible exception of creating a "consumption tax" that shifts more of the tax burden from the rich to the middle class), including allowing temporary tax cuts to expire or even eliminating tax subsidies to business and industry. And you have to reconcile all of that with balancing the budget and avoiding cuts to Medicare and Social Security or the military. In short, if you're a rational, honest Republican and you want to propose a serious platform that addresses the nation's most pressing problems, you're doomed. And yes, that makes it pretty much inevitable that Republicans who vote will end up having to vote for a disingenuous, self-serving, opportunistic, flip-flopping gasbag.

Douthat lectures his party,
To date, neither the establishment nor the populists have come to terms with the failures of the last age of Republican dominance. And despite occasional flashes of creativity, neither has groped its way to a credible vision of what the next conservative era should look like.

What they have to offer instead is a largely opportunistic critique of a flailing liberal president.
The problem with that being, Douthat is well-positioned to take on the status quo or to demonstrate some of the "flashes of creativity" he claims his party needs, but instead lectures, "Romney's the candidate, get used to it." Whether it's laziness, indifference or apathy, he can't even explain to us why President Obama's passage of the Affordable Care Act, in essence a federal version of Romney's Massachusetts plan" makes Obama a "flailing liberal" while Romney should be viewed as the inevitable Republican nominee and choice for President. We're in specks and beams territory, folks, with the Tea Party and Bush in the roles of the speck.

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