The GOP Stares Into The Abyss


At some point, if an actual party keeps supporting ever-more-extreme policies and ever-more-harsh rhetoric, it will pay a price in popularity and elections. It’s the kind of price that is not paid in one news cycle – in fact, the news cycle mentality can even keep the show on the road for a while. Every juicy shock-horror Newsmax-style scandal, every breathless call to repeal Obamacare for the umpteenth time, every Obama’s-Worse-Than-Nixon column can gin up page-views and ratings and provide fanatics with a short-term high. But as these incidents accumulate and feed off each other, general impressions are formed by the intermittently interested general public. And they are not good. This is what happens:

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The approval rating is now lower than in 1994 before the Gingrich revolution threw all the bums out. Gerrymandering and demographics may make the current 14 percent less vulnerable a rating in terms of the next mid-terms. But the decline from its peak accelerated as the GOP wrestled a super-majority from the Democrats in 2010 and turned national politics into permanent gridlock.

And since the last election, I think there are two dominant public impressions of the GOP and neither of them is good. The first is that the party is not shifting to the center after a historic drubbing in the popular vote for the presidency, House and Senate last fall. In many ways, the GOP seems even less willing to compromise with Obama or the Democrats after the election than before it. A GOP-precipitated debt-ceiling crisis like 2011’s – with devastating consequences for the economy – would cement this narrative in ways that would be hard to overcome for a long time. At some point, the public will want the Congress to be able to legislate something as simple as sustaining the country’s credit rating – and if it doesn’t happen, the blame will almost certainly fall on those whose loudest voices are crying for conflict. So-called “establishment Republicans” know this. But the energy and power in the party belongs to the radicals – especially reliable primary voters – and they want, and have been encouraged to expect, a massive showdown to bring the federal government back to its pre-FDR size.

Those radicals are busy alienating, as this Politico piece highlights, critical Hispanic voters by threatening to kill comprehensive immigration reform in its Senate crib, many moderate women by their amped-up obsession with anti-abortion measures in the states, African-Americans by bald-faced and tone-deaf voter suppression efforts, and gays and their families by opposing every single civil right we seek – from marriage equality to protection from workplace discrimination.

The second impression is related to this. It is that the GOP is hopelessly fractured and divided and rudderless – as well as extremist.

Listening to the tone of Chris Christie’s recent remarks – and his dismissive contempt for everyone in the GOP but him – shows how far the Republicans have strayed from the 11th Commandment of the Gipper. They hear Christie insisting that he “will do anything I can to win”. Then they hear one of the most influential of the new crazies, Mark Levin, say: “I will do everything I can to make sure Christie is not the nominee”, and the impression they get is of a party in open conflict with itself.

In just the last week, we have heard Newt Gingrich say that the Republican healthcare alternatives to Obamacare are non-existent Reince Priebus offer this new beaut about Mitt Romney – only last year predicted as the future president:

Using the word ‘self-deportation’ — it’s a horrific comment to make. I don’t think it has anything to do with our party. When someone makes those comments, obviously, it’s racist it hurts us. [major correction from Business Insider here]

The differences between Rand Paul and Chris Christie on foreign policy are as deep as have ever existed in a single national party, as resurgent libertarianism meets a neocon establishment that hasn’t even begun to rethink its own worldview after the catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan and torture. And there is no unifying figure or viable establishment honcho to guide the party through these very choppy waters. The last president or vice-president would usually exert that kind of influence, but George W. Bush is a name that cannot be uttered (for good reasons) and Dick Cheney, far from being a calming figure, has become even more unhinged and unreconstructed in his extremism. And so Boehner sums up this bewildered moment on the right: a leader who cannot even control his own Congressional party – cannot even pass its own budget! – and appears as an entirely passive observer of spiraling narratives which he cannot control.

The right will keep telling itself that it can win power by going even further to the right and that a majority of Americans would prefer them in power to Obama, if push came to shove. They have shown that they can talk themselves into anything – even an imminent Romney landslide as late as election night! But that is part of the problem too. They have a media-industrial complex that has a vested interest in pandering to conservative paranoia and extremism, rather than moderating it. Putting Limbaugh and Hannity on the primary debates panel would simply increase the epistemic closure.

Something will have to give this fall. My money is on Obama losing less badly than the GOP. Which could make politics next year entirely different from today.

(Image of Alexis Diaz‘s work via Colossal)