Saturday, November 17, 2012

It's Not The Messenger, It's The Message

While enjoying the circular firing squad that is being formed in the wake of the GOP’s electoral washout on election day, the full "proctology exam" (as former RNC Chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour put it) Republicans appear ready to submit to will hold some uncomfortable truths if they are interested in introspection as opposed to continued blind obstruction in Washington. Consider: 

The Death of Angry White Men:  Notwithstanding the one man "GET OFF MY LAWN" screed that John McCain is on as he attempts to maintain relevance at the expense of leveraging a national tragedy for personal political gain, the 2012 election confirmed that demographic shifts in our country have reached a critical mass that will force Republicans to reform or drift into irrelevance. Mitt Romney collected roughly the same proportion of the white vote as George H.W. Bush did in 1988. The difference? Romney lost in a minor landslide, while Bush carried 40 states. Eighty-eight percent of Romney's vote came from white folks, but the modern-day Republican stew of xenophobia, coded racism and misogynism has alienated every ethnic voting bloc in the country and women, who Romney lost by 11 points.  It's not just that Romney polled in single digits among African-Americans, it's that he lost the Hispanic and Asian-American vote by close to 50 points too. The trend lines for GOP candidates at the national level with every group but married white people (and men generally) are trending down, and fast.

This is a particularly acute problem for GOP messengers, because garnering Hispanic votes cannot be done simply by supporting immigration reform because Hispanics are no more "one issue" voters than anyone else. State level efforts to disenfranchise voters, pass bogus Voter ID laws, restrict access to abortions and other policies that cemented the view of Republicans as deeply reactionary cannot be swept away with a shake of the Etch-A-Sketch. Finally, polling shows that all of these groups have a far more progressive view of government than Republicans espouse. 

The Myth of a Center-Right Country: For the better part of three decades, the Republican bumper sticker was "low taxes, limited government and a strong national defense." This simple message seemed to serve Republicans well, but scratch a bit below the surface and you see the reality is more nuanced. Yes, it is true that Reagan won two landslides and the first President Bush pulled off one as well, but since 1988, the Republican brand of governance has been a tough sell nationally. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six Presidential elections and while George W. Bush won two elections, not only did he lose the popular vote in one and barely win in the other, but his electoral spreads were minuscule, 271-266 (+5) and 286-251 (+35). By comparison, Bill Clinton's electoral wins were +202 and +220, while President Obama defeated his two foes +192 and +132. In other words, Republicans eked out two wins (one of which will forever be contested in the minds of many), while Democrats won four landslides. Why Republicans, or, the media for that matter, continue to push the narrative that our national electorate is "center-right" is beyond me. 

The Myth of Small Government: "Small government" is a foundational concept of modern GOP orthodoxy. Ronald Reagan famously said that the nine scariest words a person could hear were "I'm from from the government and I'm here to help." Republicans internalized Reagan's message although he governed far more liberally than his latter day hagiographers would have you believe (for more on this, please see my post, "The Myth of Saint Ronald: Even as Republicans have demonized "government," two "inconvenient truths" have shown that people are not buying what the GOP is selling. First, people like government services. During Bill Clinton's term, Congressional Republicans shut down the federal government when Clinton refused to accede to their demands to make massive cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and lost that fight. When George W. Bush was President, his attempt to privatize Social Security was roundly rejected; however, Bush did create a huge new entitlement when his allies in Congress rammed through a controversial prescription drug benefit for Medicare. And of course, when massive natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have left hundreds dead and tens of billions in damage, most people in this country understand that a federal safety net is necessary to deal with these calamities. 

Second, when presented with the opportunity to put their policies into action, Republican bark is far louder than its bite. The Republican brand claims the mantle of fiscal restraint but Reagan and Bush charged more to the government's credit card between 1981 and 1992 than every President before them, combined. After Clinton righted our fiscal ship, George W. Bush promptly turned massive surpluses into the worst deficits our country has ever seen, charging two wars, the aforementioned drug benefit, and huge tax cuts to Uncle Sam, while doing little to shrink government. Indeed, W created a huge new Cabinet agency and the only net job growth during his years in Washington was in the public, not private, sector. Meanwhile, for all their claims at reducing the size of government, neither Reagan nor Bush on the one hand, nor Bush 43 on the other, did anything meaningful to rein in the pace or growth of it. Finally, both Reagan and Bush 43's terms were stained by financial implosions that required massive (GOVERNMENT!) bailouts of the savings and loan (Reagan) and banking (Bush 43) industries. 

The Military-Industrial Complex: The final leg of the GOP's stool has been a strong defense (Clinton effectively took "tough on crime" off their menu when he passed the 1994 Crime Bill, hired 100,000 new cops and saw violent crime rates plummet). But here, the legacy of Bush's wars is likely to haunt Republicans for a generation. In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney attempted to articulate a muscular vision that included new battleships and standard fare pablum about protecting our national security, but Obama's deft handling of his predecessor's mess, from extricating us from Iraq to drawing down in Afghanistan, squeezing the Iranians with sanctions and of course, killing Bin Laden, persuasively moved this conversation in his favor. 

Moreover, the American people are both exhausted from war and bankrupt (literally) from it. The two wars have already cost us more than a trillion dollars and that is without considering the out year costs in interest on the money borrowed to pay for those battles, veterans health care, retirement benefits and other assistance for an armed force that has been called upon to perform longer than it has at any time in our nation's history. The quagmire of Iraq and the ambiguous end we are sure to experience in Afghanistan will leave voters deeply skeptical of committing forces in the future. Indeed, even in small scale flare ups under Obama's watch, he has been zealous in ensuring we have no "boots on the ground" (see, e.g., Libya, Syria).
In short, the core of Republican thinking either does not work in practice as it does in theory (shrinking government) or has been usurped by the Democrats (foreign policy). Attached to this anchor is the deep unpopularity of modern day Republican social policy, which was brought into sharp relief during the 2012 campaign. Whether it was Romney floating the bogus idea of "self-deportation" or Senate candidates twisting themselves into misogynistic knots about rape, today's GOP is at a far remove from the country. Indeed, the GOP's recognition of how tarnished its brand is can be seen most clearly in the head snapping speed with which they are throwing Romney under the bus in light of post-election comments he made about various "gifts" Obama gave to voters to get re-elected. 

Coupled with the distance Republicans are putting between themselves and a man they were all campaigning for 10 days ago is a sudden softening on immigration reform. Where once, Senate Republicans were filibustering the DREAM Act and excoriating the President for implementing a form of that bill through executive action, people at the far right of the political spectrum like Sean Hannity are suddenly sounding tones of moderation about a "path" to citizenship and office holders like Governors Bobby Jindal and Susanna Martinez are raising their political profiles as voices of tolerance within the Republicans' shrinking political tent. 

But the problem with simply changing the "messenger" is that the message has not changed. While Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock both saw their campaigns sunk because of their publicly articulated views on abortion, less mentioned was the fact that the GOP's vice presidential candidate also supported (via co-sponsoring legislation) the idea that rape could be parsed as "legitimate." Just because Paul Ryan was never pinned down about that fact or caught on tape espousing this view does not mean it is not true. Bobby Jindal may have a compelling personal story, but just because he's Indian-American won't erase the fact that as Governor, he supported reforms that promote the teaching of creationism in school. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress continue to fulminate against raising taxes on the wealthy while banging the drum of fiscal prudence at the expense of the elderly, poor and infirm. 

Americans have lived under Republican rule twice in the last 32 years and the results got steadily worse. Moderate income redistribution to the wealthy under Reagan and George H.W. Bush skyrocketed under George W. Bush, while job creation, which was robust in the 1980s and tepid under George H.W. Bush, flatlined under the latter’s son. Budget deficits and the accumulation of debt grew at then-unheard of rates under Reagan, started to come down after Bush signed a tax increase in 1990, then fell under Bill Clinton, resulting in a surplus that George W. Bush quickly turned into the deepest fiscal hole we have experienced since The Great Depression. If low taxes translated into job creation, George W. Bush would have created 23 million new jobs, not Bill Clinton, who raised taxes on the wealthy. Instead, Bush bequeathed an economy in free fall and an eight year record with no net private job growth, something that had not happened since the days of Herbert Hoover.   

In other words, people have grown wise to the emptiness of the GOP’s bumper sticker. Americans like and want social services protected and they support the wealthy paying more in taxes. Moreover, they have seen what the reckless use of our military results in (a lot of dead American soldiers and a HUGE dent in our coffers, not to mention even more dead Iraqi and Afghani civilians and the enmity of allies and foes alike) while their wages have stagnated and they struggle to pay the bills. And finally, when Republicans pressed their views more publicly about "makers and takers," access to birth control and limiting abortion rights for women who are raped, they were derided and rejected. It is no coincidence that Democrats won more votes than Republicans for President, the Senate and House of Representatives this November. 

Indeed, the 2012 outcome is critical not just for its slap-in-the-face announcement that the nation's demographics have changed for a generation, but it will, in its way, frame the next Presidential election. You see, the damage wrought by George W. Bush, to our economy, our military, our long-term fiscal outlook and our nation's view of the exercise of its war power is an albatross around the Republican brand that no amount of Frank Luntz-ian wordsmithing will change. If the economy continues to improve, Obama cuts a "grand bargain" with Congress that raises taxes while also "reforming" the tax code and entitlements, passes immigration reform and continues his steady foreign policy leadership on top of the significant legislative achievements of his first term, his place in the annals of great American Presidents will not only be secure, but will provide Democrats a compelling case for another four years of their party's leadership in the White House. 


  1. Living in Alabama, it is like pulling teeth to get people to see the truth. I have no idea how they got brainwashed, but of course they think President Obama is a socialist and ruining our economy. The first thing they say about restoring tax rates is, "Have you ever gotten a job from a poor person?" "No, but where are the jobs now, genius?" 10+ years of tax breaks and still waiting on that trickle-down magic.

    Bush was perfect (they really do think Bush was a great president down here!), and Reagan was even better. You wouldn't believe the doomsday posts I have seen on facebook. I've deleted all the idiots though ;)

  2. Thanks for the most cogent, articulate post I've read in a long time.