THAT OTHER GRASS ROOTS MOVEMENT
In the past few weeks, I’ve posted on different occasions about the Occupy movement and how my fellow liberals need to support it, in spite of its obvious and inevitable growing pains. Today, though, allow me to talk about the OTHER grass roots movement -- the one on the right. This movement is broader than the “tea party,” though the tea party did catalyze it. The movement encompasses every Republican who is nearly as sick of their Party’s establishment as of the so-called “liberal elites.” The members of this movement see the leaders of the GOP as complicit in an ever-expanding federal role over their lives. And it is because of that federal role that they are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” I suspect that even if the GOP wins back the White House, as long as our federal government stays huge, this movement will stick around. And as long as there is a Democrat in the White House, the representatives of this movement will remain the dominant group of Republican primary voters.
I am writing about this movement because, unless you understand it, it is impossible to fathom what has happened with the Republican Presidential campaign to date. I know that some of you are completely incredulous about this campaign. You’ve been wondering why the Republicans are so loathe to embrace the one and only candidate who is intellectually, experientially and temperamentally qualified to be President – not to mention electable. By contrast, the candidates they have romanced seem better suited for a David Lynch movie than for Pennsylvania Avenue. And in this latest romance – the one involving Newt “Sorry, Honey, but I’ve found a blonde I like better” Gingrich – you’ve convinced yourself that there’s a whole Party of people who are borderline certifiable. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a little. But from listening to the talking heads on MSNBC, who probably speak pretty well for Blue America, I’m probably not exaggerating by much. Democrats all over the country are truly puzzled by what the Republican voters are thinking. And the questions are always the same: Why not Mitt? And why, of all people, the Newtster? Let me explain what’s going on.
Democrats generally make the mistake of thinking that the right wing voters who now dominate the GOP are focusing primarily on which Presidential candidate they love the most. Wrong. They focus on the one Presidential candidate they hate the most. His name is Barack Obama.
In 2000, the GOP electorate wasn’t focusing on their love for George W. Bush. They were concentrating on their hatred for “Algore the robot.” Nor was the GOP electorate focusing on their affection for President W in 2004. They were consumed instead with John Kerry, a man viewed not as an innocuous professional politician and former war hero but rather as a wind-surfing, flip-flopping, hypocritical limousine-liberal. In 2008, they tried to focus on their hatred on Barack Obama, but the problem is that their distaste for the erstwhile liberal, John McCain, was pretty robust as well. Now, though, John McCain has mercilessly left the public stage, and they are left with Barack Hussein Obama. To the grass roots of the GOP, Obama is truly an enemy, and any politician who can rip him a new one is their kind of guy (or gal).
I know it might sound partisan of me to categorize the modern GOP voter as so hate-based, but keep in mind that I am not saying they are hateful of all ideas and principles. They love capitalism. They love the market. They love economic freedom. They love America. And they love a strong, American military. What they hate is big government and the politicians responsible for propping it up. This is why it is difficult for them to embrace a would-be President who hasn’t proven his mettle as someone willing to take an ax to the bureaucracy.
GOP voters have seen enough Republicans act like the Bushes, who claimed to be “small government conservatives” but are afraid to do what’s necessary to tear apart Club Fed. If you are such a voter, it is difficult to get excited when some slick guy in a business suit boasts about his conservative bona fides. GOP voters know all too well that in office, this politician will be tempted to forsake his campaign promises and concentrate instead on getting along with the Harry Reeds, the Nancy Pelosis and the K-Street lobbyists. As a result, no matter how much he may theoretically hate government, once elected, he’ll keep the tax code complex, the welfare state bloated, and the tort lawyers wealthy. That’s the only way he can assure himself that he’ll continue to be the darling of the beautiful people and the “best and the brightest” who love to suck up to Presidents.
From talking to some hard-right GOP friends, I’m convinced that there is nothing more nauseating to them than images from galas in which the Obamas are having the time of their life while being surrounded by adoring celebrities. Whether these celebrities come from the world of politics or from Hollywood hardly matters. To the rank-and-file GOP voter, they represent the cheerleaders of big government, and their adoration is seen as the reward that is offered to any politician who keeps feeding the meter. GOP voters are desperate to find someone who will take on such politicians – to speak “truth” to power, as we liberals like to say. GOP voters want to go on the attack. And they seek a pit bull of a candidate who will launch himself onto the Obamas’ legs and bite to the point where the President is forced to say uncle.
Let’s take a whirlwind tour of the Republican campaign to date. Perhaps the first figure to be embraced was Donald Trump. To the malcontents who comprise so much of the Party, it made sense to look at Trump as a political outsider who is secure enough in his millions (or is it billions?) to rip into Washington and unmask it as a silly, self-important hamlet -- which is precisely how it is viewed on the right.
It soon became clear that Trump was more of a clown than a candidate, so the GOP voters next took a long look at Michelle Bachmann. She seemed to be the closest thing available to the last candidate that the GOP truly embraced, Sarah Palin. Unfortunately, the photogenic Palin was brought down when she opened her mouth on the issues, and Bachmann was brought down when she opened her eyes on a magazine cover – and looked like she belonged in a horror movie. So it was time to search for another candidate.
For a time, Rick Perry fit the bill quite nicely. And why not? If Bachmann looked like a Stepford wife, Perry looked like a star of Westerns. Nice hair, nice pecs … what’s not to like, right? The problem is that he turned out to be a barrel-chested version of the Scarecrow. And sadly for Perry, the Republican debates weren’t musicals. (He could dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry, if he only had a brain. Sigh.)
Do I have to remind everyone who came next? The Herminator. That was the comedic apex of this campaign. The GOP loved him because he had the private-sector experience they seem to respect so much and because he inoculated them to charges of racial bigotry. Yet gradually he started losing his luster. First, it became clear that when it comes to foreign affairs knowledge, he made Sarah Palin look like Averell Harriman by comparison. Then, he felt compelled to answer every domestic affairs question in the same manner: first by saying “9-9-9” and then by saying “I didn’t proposition her, honest I didn’t.” It became an embarrassment.
So then there were four: (1)Ron Paul – who wants the government to be so small that even the GOP voters thinks he’s nuts. (2) Rick Santorum – whose name, if you google it, is defined as “a frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” (That was the result of an orchestrated, and apparently effective, campaign to destroy him after he bashed gay people one time too many.) (3) Mitt Romney. And (4) Newt Gingrich. The pundits are going CRAZY that the GOP voters are starting to turn to Newt instead of Mitt.
But I ask you, folks: if you really, really hated Obama and thought he was a narcissistic phony more motivated by adulation than principle … if you resented him for being viewed as brilliant simply because he is glib and went to some fancy schools … if you longed for the day when we had a leader who actually showed a little gumption and passion instead of pretending that he was too cool for school … then why in God’s name would you fight for Mitt Romney? Isn’t Mitt Romney just Obama-lite?
Just consider Romney’s two most hyped ads so far in this campaign. In his first, he mocks Obama by quoting him as saying “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In fact, though, what Obama really said was “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Is this Romney’s best shot? Really?
Now, Romney is taking out an ad talking about how he has been with the same wife for 42 years. Yet to the Republican voter, I can just imagine the reaction: “Obama’s been with the same wife all his adult life too. So what? We care less about flip-flopping on wives than we care about flip-flopping on the issues.”
Barack Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Mitt Romney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Barack Obama smiles a lot and rarely raises his voice and Mitt Romney smiles a lot and rarely raises his voice. Also, according to conventional GOP wisdom, Barack Obama is unwilling to stand and fight for any particular principle and Mitt Romney is unwilling to stand and fight for any particular principle; both are candidates who choose their views opportunistically. But even the GOP electorate would have to recognize that unlike Mitt Romney, Barack Obama at least has a winning personality. So if the two went head to head, wouldn’t it be a sleep fest in which Obama would have the advantage? That logic sure makes sense to me.
And then there was one.
Conventional wisdom says that Newt can’t win. Indeed, conventional wisdom says that Newt doesn’t have much of a chance at the nomination, let alone the Presidency. We keep hearing from the men who served with him in the Congress about what a pompous, out-of-control ass he has been. Plus, we keep hearing about what a colossal hypocrite he is for criticizing Clinton as a philanderer and for criticizing the power of K Street. If that’s not enough, we also hear about how he has no campaign infrastructure to speak of, reflecting the fact that he didn’t join this campaign to win so much as to sell books. And for every talking head who points out that he is soaring in the polls, there are five more who are willing to snicker about how that lead will last about as long as one of Newt’s marriages.
Well, folks, don’t look now but Newt’s marriages tend to last more than a year, and that’s about as long as his lead would have to last for him to win the next election. Am I predicting that? No. His “negatives” really do go through the roof, and yes, he is capable of crashing and burning at any minute. But can you truly blame the GOP voters for seeing him as the best of a woeful lot? I personally predicted his ascendency several weeks ago when I heard him suggest that he wants to engage in a series of Lincoln/Douglas-style debates with Obama. At that point, he was nowhere in the polls. And yet his idea didn’t seem like an absurd one, for Gingrich has always been the one person in this field who would seem truly to delight in going toe-to-toe with Obama on wonkish policy ideas. The GOP rank-and-file would desperately like to see someone argue with Obama about the issues and reveal the intellectual bankruptcy of Obama’s thoughts. That would be so much more satisfying than seeing Mitt Romney fight Obama by blatantly and shamelessly taking his words out of context in staged advertisements.
It is chic in Blue America to condescend to the Republican rank-and-file these days. Democrats might as well call them “retards,” because that’s about how much respect the Republican voters are being shown. But I ask you: isn’t Gingrich’s recent surge a sign that the Republicans want to engage Obama in the realm of ideas? Isn’t Gingrich’s appeal that he, unlike Romney (or Obama), is a gutsy man who doesn’t mind a good fight? Can we in the Blue States not appreciate why voters would be sick and tired of business as usual, and isn’t Romney the epitome of business as usual – a slick politician who nobody trusts to say what he really means? Can the Republicans really be looked at as crazy in not embracing such a standard holder?
Maybe Gingrich is morally reprehensible. And maybe he does make more than his share of irresponsible and even offensive statements about public policy. But when you truly are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more,” maybe you just don’t care about all that. Remember: the Republican voter is not focused on the Newtster, they are focused on Obama. And anyone who reminds them of Obama – whether he is black, Mormon, or Southern Baptist – is going to have one hell of a time winning the nomination.
Say what you want about Newt, but he at least has spine. In this year’s Republican race, that goes a long, long way.