Copyright © 2008 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Ever since the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush as 43rd president in the last year of the last millenium, a host of true believers have proclaimed the Coming of the End Times. Bush the Burning would bring on the Final Battle and the Final Judgment, and the faithful were gaga with the certainty that they would experience Rapture and Christ’s return in their lifetimes. The Bush League did not discourage such speculations, and indeed Karl Rove figured the faith of the “nuts,” as he called them, into his electioneering strategies.
Well, they got their Armageddon on 4 November 2008, only the rest of us got the Rapture.
Having laid waste the land and its budget, having fucked things so badly that the Lord Himself would have to descend — deus ex machina — with a divine rape kit, the Bush League got busted. And a miracle happened . . .
But first, a personal note: Let me set aside the third person-editorial for a paragraph or two. I, a Boomer, came of age politically in 1968. Like all revolutionary eras, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Like millions of Americans, I was changed. I went on to support McGovern in 1972 and a long line of well-meaning losers ever afterward. I admit, I was often disgusted with my fellow Americans and the predators they were fond of electing to national office, and it seemed as though we would never overcome our nation’s original sin: the racism that had justified the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of the Natives, and a hundred years of Jim Crow.
Suddenly this month, the decisive election of Barack Hussein Obama as 44th president changed me again. Our next leader will be one half African, one half white descendent of the American Heartland. I celebrate with the rest of the world. Granted, his success won’t alter everything: we still live with the consequences of our original sin. I am guessing that even under an Obama administration, minority Americans will on the whole be poorer, die younger, and find themselves more likely to spend time in prison than white Americans. But we have just made one giant step. No one can ever say again that a person of color can’t make it in America. Since my political coming of age, I have never been prouder of the U.S. of A. Take that, America-hater haters.
. . . Meanwhile, in the bad old days of 2002, as W. was basking in his party’s congressional victories of that November, I produced an editorial that argued that the rigid Rightness of the Bush regime would eventually lead to self-immolation. I based my conclusions on precedent. Even as he and his laid the groundwork for the Thousand Year Republican Reich, I made the case, they could not so insistently diss the reality-based world and succeed. Reality always bites back.
Doing my editorial homework, I solicited opinion on this thesis from the political science departments of two local state universities. Of the few replies, one stuck: from a professor who thought mine the kind of silly idea that could only come out of a literature department, and who referred me to the article of his departmate, Gary C. Jacobson, which proved why the Republicans would continue winning for the foreseeable future.
In the happily alliterative “Terror, Terrain, and Turnout: Explaining the 2002 Midtern Elections,” Professor Jacobson does provide a factually grounded explanation for the Republican successes of the early decade. His overall thesis is stated in his introduction: “The Republican victory was . . . much more a consequnce of redistricting (in the House) and of the higher turnout among Republican loyalists than of any national shift in public sentiment toward the party.” Although no president had seen his party gain congressional seats at midterm since FDR in 1934, and no Republican president had had two Republican-dominated houses of Congress since Eisenhower in 1953, at the peak of the McCarthy madness, Bush ruled with very narrow majorities indeed. For all purposes, the country was almost evenly divided along political lines.
What gave Republicans their electoral advantage, as Jacobson argues with bar graphs, charts, and tables, is congressional districts that favors the foolish. Rural regions, as we all should know by know, get disproportional representation in Congress, and rural regions are increasingly Republican. Just as bin Laden breathed death into the national scene and life into the Bush presidency, the Democrats would need some extraordinary external force to alter their fortunes; as the professor concludes, it “is difficult to imagine them succeeding without the help of a sizable national tide in their favor.”
Who would have guessed that this extraordinary force would be the Bush presidency itself, with all its faith-based, anti-reality, ideologically straitjacketed policies? Oh yeah, I did.
Thus, while political science can offer some quantitive explanations, it shares the predictive capabilities of economics. Nonetheless, it will prove genuinely interesting to troll the academic databases for parsing of the 2008 election. Insights can come from anywhere (even the loony bins of literature).
Although history never exactly repeats itself — and even those who know the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them — we can learn from the past. In 2002, as again in 2004, Karl “Turdblossom” Rove was praised across political journalism as a genius. Of course, American culture has always admired success, no matter how achieved, which is why the con man is a classic American archetype. An unusually nuanced analysis of Rove’s much vaunted skills appeared in the Atlantic Monthly of November 2004. In “Karl Rove in a Corner,” Joshua Green spells out Rove’s intricate organization of electioneering down to the details of precinct walking and fundraising. A paragon of central planning, Rove would “plot out elaborate strategies well in advance of the campaign, and stick to them vigilantly.”
Having devised his MO in the South, predominantly through state and local elections in Texas and Alabama, Rove honed his edge: no-holds-barred negative campaigns that “appeal to the worst elements of human nature.” According to Green’s southern sources, the South has a long tradition, probably pre-Civil War, of being motivated most by “anger and fear.” And once on this course, Rove would never look back. As a former campaign aide, John Deardourff, says, “This rap Bush has of never changing his mind and never admitting a mistake — that’s Karl!”
Although Rove had moved to Faux News by election night — where he could be seen demonstrating how Obama would lose if he didn’t win Ohio just as the news came in that Obama had won Ohio — the Rove method could be seen all over the Republican campaign. Indeed, many observed how pathetic it was that John McCain allowed the same nasty techniques that had ruined his chances in 2000 being trotted out against Obama in 2008 — and still ruining McCain’s chances. But once on this course á la Rove, his campaign stayed it, even when it was clear it wasn’t working except with the lynch mobs at Palin rallies.
Visibly crippled by the Vietnam War, McCain was a perfect symbol for the Vietnam syndrome that has nearly paralyzed our politics for the last forty years. Though part of me hates to say it, it is time for the Sixties to totter off the national stage in favor of a 21st century agenda. It was somewhat sad to see the old poster boy of Republican moderation presiding over the Bill Ayres attacks and the Jeremiah Wright attacks and the red-baiting. A tax cut for the middle class is communism? Equating Democrats with communists goes back at least sixty years to the campaign of 1948. Obviously the GOP needs some new ideas.
Some Republican pundits agree and, although just as many still want to stay the course, are not yet discouraged when reality refuses to heel. For the likes of Grover Norquist, for example, and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the lesson of 2008 is that the Republican Party was not conservative enough. By electing Obama, they reason, the American electorate was calling for smaller government and a bigger role for religion in public life. Of course, Obama will not deliver, meaning a resurgence of the Right in 2010 and 2012!
For these guys, the good news this November is that Republican moderates from the top of the ticket down went out in flames, leaving the party purified: John McCain represents the party’s past, Sarah Palin the party’s future.
These are the voices David Brooks refers to as the Traditionalists. Writing in the New York Times, he includes himself, along with others like former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and former George W. speechwriter David Frum, among the Reformers, who believe Republicans “cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West coasts” and survive as a national party. In fact Frum, appearing shortly before the election on The Colbert Report, where he desperately tried to have a serious conversation, expressed his concern that if it sticks to its current anti-urban, anti-intellectual, anti-internationalist philosophy, the GOP could become a rural white rump party, pretty much relegated to the Bible Belt.
Brooks laments that at the moment the Traditionalists have all the power — the state and national organizations, the fundraisers, the so-called think tanks. Speaking last week on NPR’s All Things Considered, Brooks stated his belief that the Republicans would go the way of the Tories after Margaret Thatcher, roughly fifteen years of wandering in the wilderness.
That Alaskan Sarah Palin should be the party’s next standard bearer is thus appropriate. Everyone here seen Into the Wild?
Let us hope that Brooks, at least, has the mojo on him. A decade and a half will be the minimum needed to fix the damage done by the last eight years.