The GOP's Wasted Effort

This weekend, the right had what can only be described as a big (but not nearly as big as they claim) whine-fest on the national mall. The idea was supposedly to recapture the non-partisan unity that followed 9/11. although I don't remember that unity being expressed as a belief that President Bush was an Indonesian Muslim terrorist who was instituting death panels and FEMA work camps to spread communism, like Hitler. The fact was that the 9/12 rally wasn't actually about anything in particular, other than a wish that someone else had won in November. Healthcare reform, creeping socialism, taxes, take your pick -- the protests were about everything and nothing, as focused as bare light bulb, it's light spreading out in every direction.

Writing about this new wingnut rage in general, Henrik Hertzberg writes in The New Yorker:

This sort of lunatic paranoia -- touched with populism, nativism, racism, and anti-intellectualism -- has long been a feature of the fringe, especially during times of economic bewilderment. What is different now is the evolution of a new political organism, with paranoia as its animating principle. The town-meeting shouters may be the organism’s hands and feet, but its heart—also, Heaven help us, its brain -- is a "conservative" media alliance built around talk radio and cable television, especially FOX News. The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint. Their sneers may be false and hateful -- they all routinely liken the President and the "Democrat Party" to murderous totalitarians -- but they are employed by large, nominally respectable corporations and supported by national advertisers, lending them a considerable measure of institutional prestige. The dominant wing of the Republican Party is increasingly an appendage of the organism -- the tail, you might say, though it seems to wag more often from fear than from happiness. Many Republican officeholders, even some reputed moderates like Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, have obediently echoed the foul nonsense.

Yeah, that's about it. The tail, wagging from fear, is wagging the dog. The Republican Party is leading by following and those they're following are marching in circles with signs advocating contructive ideas like making Barack Obama the president of Kenya (signs, by the way, that use skeptical quotes suggesting that they don't even believe this "Kenya" place really exists).

So how's this brilliant strategy of letting the lunatics steer the party working? About as well as you'd expect. During August, the president was largely absent, following his own foolish strategy of letting Democrats in congress take the lead on healthcare reform. This quickly devolved into namecalling and conspiracy theorizing -- none of which the White House made much of an effort to answer. President Obama's polling numbers fell, but there was no corresponding rise in Republican numbers. The GOP and the wingnuts were hurting Obama, but they weren't helping themselves. Some people decided they didn't like Obama much, but no one decided that Republicans were any better. GOP polling numbers remained flatlined.

"If they look like the only thing they want to do is oppose the president’s plan just to hurt his administration politically, there is significant political risk for Republicans," says right-leaning pollster Scott Rasmussen. "While people aren’t wildly enthusiastic about the particulars [of Democratic healthcare proposals], people do believe our system does need reform."

So, do people see Republicans as being interested solely in trying to hurt Obama's administration politically? Yeah. That's exactly what they see. Buried in a CNN story about polling showing Obama's numbers back on the rise, we find this nugget: "As for the Republicans, six in 10 say they have been obstructing Obama for political reasons. Only a third believe that the GOP has generally offered constructive criticism."

While you could argue that a big part of Obama's '08 message was "Bush sucks!" it wasn't really going out on a limb. You didn't have to look very far to find polling that showed most people believed that was true. Obama's numbers, on the other hand, fell to roughly the same breakdown as his election numbers; i.e., despite the gloom and doom headlines about the drop in approval, we were really just back to November -- when Barack Obama won easily.

I'm not really a fan of mix and match polling, but when most polls are showing the same things, there's really not much danger. A new Washington Post poll shows that Democrats are preferred over Republicans on major issues by 20 points, that 53% believe that healthcare needs reform and want government action, and that 62% don't think Republicans are serious about reform.

In other words, marching around in circles with signs that read "YOU SUCK!" isn't striking people as a very persuasive argument. In fact, it's striking most people as not very helpful. And all these polls show Obama's numbers rising again. In fact, a new Bloomberg poll shows the president at 56% and includes this bit of fun:

Respondents also say by 40 percent to 32 percent that they would vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2010. A slight plurality, 48 percent to 44 percent, has a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party. The Republican Party, by 52 percent to 38 percent, gets an unfavorable rating.

That ought to work out great for them -- the only real majority opinion in that paragraph is that Republicans suck. All the shrieking and whining and lying dinged Obama, but that's buffing out. And it didn't do anything for Republicans.

"This isn’t to minimize the political headwind Obama and Dems face right now," writes Greg Sargent. "But what if a fair amount of the opposition reflects short term anxieties and fear of the legislative unknown? What if a reform bill gets through with virtually no Republican support, and the public decides they like it? How will the GOP’s efforts to block the current proposals look to the public in retrospect?"

Sargent points to a 1993 memo from Bill Kristol about Clinton's reform efforts. In it, Kristol argued "that the realization of reform could banish the GOP to the minority for a generation, by cementing the Dems as the party that's resurrected the notion that government can improve the lives of the middle class." It doesn't seem like much has changed since then. And it's also become clear that Republicans don't believe their messaging -- fear that Democrats might get people to trust government again is an admission that government can help people. The Reaganite "government is a disaster" line turns out to be just that -- a line. It's not true, as we've seen over and over. Government is only a disaster when people who think government doesn't work try to run it. God help Republicans if people ever figure out that correlation. They don't need some Democratic showoff making it obvious.


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