Comic relief: Frank Rich analyzes constitutionalist conservatism; hilarity ensues
Frank Rich on the tea party. I know: it’s kind of like reading Michelle Obama on the subject of the founding fathers, but go with it. For the laughs. Because — and here’s the irony, as RI Red noted when he sent along the link — Rich is essentially correct in his conclusions, though he gets to them in the ways of self-delusion so crucial to any leftwing ideologue’s ability to maintain the fiction that he is actually adding substance to a debate, or even engaging in the same one everyone else is.
As a side note, let me just say that when I got to the point where Rich describes Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway as a “conservative commentator,” I literally snorted. And that simply never happens to me. Because I pride myself on my steely stoicism.
Anyway, just to whet your whistle, here’s a bit. The whole piece is predictably long and ponderous and agonizingly recursive:
[...] isn’t the tea party yesterday’s news, receding into the mists of history along with its left-wing doppelgänger, Occupy Wall Street? So it might seem. It draws consistently low poll numbers, earning just a 25 percent approval rating in a Wall Street Journal–NBC News survey in September. The tea-party harbinger from 2008, Sarah Palin, and the bomb throwers who dominated the primary process of 2012, led by the congressional tea-party caucus leader Michele Bachmann, were vanquished and lost whatever national political clout they had, along with much of their visibility (even on Fox News). So toxic is the brand that not one of the 51 prime-time speakers at the GOP convention in Tampa dared speak its name, including such tea-party heartthrobs as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Scott Brown, who became an early tea-party hero for unexpectedly taking Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 2010, has barely alluded to the affiliation since.
Though the label itself had to be scrapped—it has been permanently soiled by images of mad-dog protesters waving don’t tread on me flags—its ideology is the ideology of the right in 2012. Its adherents will not back down or fade away, even if Obama regroups and wins the lopsided Electoral College victory that seemed in his grasp before the first debate. If anything, the right will be emboldened to purge the GOP of the small and ideologically deviant Romney claque that blew what it saw as a “historic” opportunity to deny a “socialist” president a second term.
Such is the power of denial that we simply refuse to concede that, by the metric of intractability, at least, conservatives are the cockroaches of the American body politic, poised to outlast us all. And so, after Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg spoke for sentimental liberal triumphalists everywhere when he concluded that America is now “in a progressive period” and that “the conservative movement brought about by the Gingrich revolution has been crushed.” That progressive period lasted all of a year, giving way to the 2009 gubernatorial victories of the conservatives Bob McDonnell (in the purple state of Virginia) and Chris Christie (in blue New Jersey), as well as that summer’s raucous Obamacare protests. Few Democrats had imagined that the new African-American president would be besieged so quickly by a conservative populist movement whose adherents dressed in 1776 drag and worshipped the frothing-at-the-blackboard Glenn Beck. Or that such a movement would administer a “shellacking” in the midterms.
Should Romney lead another shellacking of the Democrats this year, some liberals may squeeze out a modicum of solace by viewing it as the lesser of two evils: The man from Bain is no radical but a product of the traditional Republican conservative Establishment bankrolled by Wall Street. We are already being sold that story line by “centrist” GOP grandees on the Sunday talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages who repeatedly tell us that Romney is only pretending to be a hard-line ideologue to temporarily placate his party’s unruly base and that the “real” Romney is the center-right pragmatist who suddenly materialized out of nowhere at the first debate.
Should Romney lose in November, a far happier liberal scenario can be entertained: For all their qualms about stimulus spending and Obamacare, perhaps voters still prefer the party of modest government activism to the party of no government. Polls provide support for this view. In the latest Pew survey, the GOP as a whole is almost as unpopular as the tea party: Only 27 percent of Americans describe themselves as Republican (as opposed to 31 percent Democratic and 36 percent Independent).
One can almost write the obituaries for the right that would appear after a Romney defeat right now. Even the millions spent by Karl Rove’s sugar daddies in the post–Citizens United era had failed to sell a far-right GOP to American voters. Once again the republic has been saved from the crazies by good old bipartisan centrist common sense.
Where did these people come from?” asked a liberal friend of mine in Los Angeles this summer as we reminisced about the freak-show characters, from Bachmann to Mr. “9-9-9,” who cycled through the Republican-primary season, sequentially drawing unimaginable throngs of supporters. As Brinkley wrote in 1994, it’s a default liberal assumption that the right’s frontline troops are invariably “poor, provincial folk” or an “isolated, rural fringe” or “rootless, anomic people searching for personal stability,” rather than the perfectly conventional middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites they often are. We don’t want to believe they’re hiding in plain sight in our own neighborhoods and offices.
– Excuse the interruption here, but BOO!
Okay. Now back to the sneering, condescending, pseudo-sophisticate misreading of the political climate by one of its perennial champion misreaders. For giggles!
he right has never stopped believing that its vindication will arrive if voters are given that clear-cut choice. In the early primary season of 2012, nearly 75 percent of the Republican electoratejudged Romney too ideologically squishy to offer it. Thanks to the remarkable flameouts of his competitors, Romney won the nomination anyway, but, following Bob Dole and John McCain, he is the end of the line for the desiccated remnants of his father’s more moderate party. The financial base of the GOP, like its voting base, has also completed its shift to the right; David and Charles Koch, after all, are the sons of Fred Koch, who served on Robert Welch’s original Birch Society council. If Mitt goes down, the billionaires will mourn his defeat for all of 24 hours before rallying around pure “constitutional conservatives” of a new generation like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan.
And if Romney wins? Like that other usefully anodyne front man John Boehner, he will more often than not do what he’s told by the radical young guns. His main task, as Grover Norquist said in February, will be “to sign the legislation that has already been prepared,” starting with Ryan’s harsh budget. At that dire point, another liberal certitude will offer some comfort to the defeated: The American public will rise up in revulsion at a draconian government downsizing of its New Deal and Great Society entitlements and will return the Democrats to power. That is entirely possible, but it’s still worth asking whether this as-yet-untested assumption might be as self-deluding as all the previous premature death knells for the American right.
For starters, take another look at recent polls, including those that augured well for Obama and the Democrats prior to the first debate. The GOP may be a small-tent party, male and mainly white, but Romney was still attracting as much as 48 percent of the vote despite being the most personally unpopular presidential nominee of either party in the history of modern polling. And while polls found Obama ahead of or even with Romney in every policy category, conservative ideology in the abstract fared far better. In the late-September Quinnipiac University–New York Times–CBS News survey of the swing states Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, for instance, the view that government is “doing too many things” easily beat the alternative that government “should do more.” The Pew American Values Survey from June is even starker in charting an intrinsic national alienation from a government that has been gridlocked since the turn of the century: By margins that approach or exceed two to one, a majority of Americans believe that government regulation of business “does more harm than good”; that the federal government should only run things “that cannot be run at the local level”; and that the “federal government controls too much of our daily lives.” Intriguingly, this animus almost uncannily matches that at the time of Goldwater’s trouncing in 1964. LBJ’s whopping 61 percent popular-vote total was matched by the 60 percent of Americans who told pollsters they were deeply concerned about the growth of bureaucratic federal government. Then as now, more voters identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, but the distrust of Washington transcends party lines and labels.
For all its adaptability, it’s highly unlikely that the GOP can recapture the African-American voters it cast aside when it went from being the Party of Lincoln to the last refuge of white-supremacist Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond in the Goldwater era. All these years after Jim Crow, the GOP is still scheming to disenfranchise black voters. But it’s entirely conceivable that a future Republican nominee, unlike the cowardly Romney, will pick a Sister Souljah fight when a lout like Rush Limbaugh maligns women as sluts. Even this year a few prominent Republicans—if only out of cynical election-year self-preservation—disowned Todd Akin and “legitimate rape” (or did so until the circus moved on and they could slither back into his fold). Eventually, the GOP might even figure out that it’s not in either its ideological or political interests to insist in perpetuity that government intrude on women’s reproductive rights and thwart equal civil rights (marital and otherwise) for gays. (Barry Goldwater, for one, knew this.) Such a shift might entice young libertarian voters, who care little about the Democrats’ entitlement trump cards of Social Security and Medicare, to give the Republicans a second look.
Latinos, America’s fastest-growing minority, are the most obvious obstacle to the right’s political future. Romney’s embrace of the most extreme immigration arsenal, from vowing to veto the Dream Act to endorsing a Mexican border fence, has assured that Obama will win the Latino vote by a landslide—and possibly the election along with it. And yet the GOP could overcome this burden over the long term. It was as recently as 2004 that George W. Bush drew nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote while trying (without success) to prod his party toward a kinder immigration policy. A new generation of Republican presidential contenders who want to win—and not just Marco Rubio—will put the highest priority on trying to save the GOP from its rapidly approaching demographic apocalypse.
Such a comeback won’t happen easily, or overnight, or without a major purge of the nativists within conservative ranks. But if history has taught us anything over the past half-century, it’s that the American right’s death wish is a figment of the liberal imagination. For Obama’s supporters, even a 2012 victory is likely to prove but a temporary high.
What I love most about this verbose bit of liberal fantasy posing as a bit of progressive realism in the face of recalcitrant dimwitted haters that just won’t learn to love the liberating freedom from freedom granted them by a leftist Utopia (which will be run by verbose liberal fantasists like Rich, naturally) is how blind Rich is to his own dismissiveness of foundational Americanism in his attempt to turn constitutionalists and true liberals — classical liberals, in the sense of the operative political ideology that influenced and was then codified in our founding and framing — into dull, robotic, and yet pluckily indestructible insects that will continue to scurry out of the shadows to sully and pick at the beautiful and engorged goodness of the progressive body politic that leftist were promised would be a product of historical inevitability.
The cockroaches just won’t go away, no matter how unpopular we work to make the labels they oftentimes provide themselves with. It’s horrifying!
A long while back I described the TEA Party as a kind of mist. It can’t be killed off and it can’t be demagogued away. Sure, the label can be made toxic — just as we’ve made toxic the label progressive in return — but the spirit behind it is a permanent part of the American landscape. And yes, it rises from the suburbs and parts of the cosmopolitan urban centers just as assuredly as it does the marshes and mud pits of the racist, xenophobic, nativist, homophobic rural regions.
What Rich fails to recognize is that his own mischaracterizations of who we are is the real reason why he and his friends — write and write and write and write about us as they do, incessantly — can never fully understand us.
They believe the fringes have sneaked into the neighborhoods of goodly liberals, scurrying away in daylight but at night huddled in the dark, compelled by a kind of insect instinct to eat away at progress. When the truth is, we have always been here.
Rich is right that we constitutionalists are here to stay. But he’s wrong about who we are, why we’re here, and what we truly want.
And my guess is, he’ll continue in his pedantic, verbose ignorance until such time as he wakes one morning to find himself a giant cockroach. At which point, well, even someone like Rich is bound to have an epiphany.