Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dr. Steele's medicine show

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out and gave his party a good talking-to today, in an address from National Harbor, Md. Setting aside his erstwhile role as the GOP’s African American translator, Steele rallied the troops with an address — part Gipper speech, part Churchill in 1940 — that sought to reestablish the Republican Party as swimming in the American political mainstream. If only he could rally the American people as convincingly.

There was no “brothers” talk this time, no jabbering about “hip” and “bling.” In a speech short on specifics and long on sensibility, Steele waded into the Obama administration on several fronts. But the passion of Steele’s speech was overshadowed by those daunting things called facts — chief among them the fact that the litany of disasters Steele tried to lay at the president’s feet has its origins in the previous, Republican administration.

“It’s time for us to rise to the occasion,” Steele said. “It’s time to make our voices heard. It’s time to serve our country as the loyal opposition.”

“We’re going to show that we have the courage of our convictions,” he said. “The era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over. It is done,” he said to enthusiastic applause.

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With that, the patient called the Republican Party pronounces itself well, healed and healthy without so much as a glance at the diagnosis that put it on the critical-condition list in the first place.

That diagnosis, reflected in a plurality of polling since both the election and the inauguration, would be instructive if the GOP leadership bothered to look.

That diagnosis was available on Monday, the day before Steele’s speech, in a minty-fresh Gallup Poll:

“The decline in Republican Party affiliation among Americans in recent years is well documented, but a Gallup analysis now shows that this movement away from the GOP has occurred among nearly every major demographic subgroup. Since the first year of George W. Bush's presidency in 2001, the Republican Party has maintained its support only among frequent churchgoers, with conservatives and senior citizens showing minimal decline. …”

“The losses are substantial among college graduates, which have shown a decline in GOP support of 10 points. (The losses are even greater — 13 points — among the subset of college graduates with postgraduate educations.) This may reflect in part Barack Obama’s strong appeal to educated voters, a major component of his winning coalitions in both the Democratic primaries and the general election,” Gallup reported.

Another part of the same diagnosis came not from outsiders, but from within the GOP camp. John Weaver, an adviser to Utah Governor John Huntsman (just named Obama’s new ambassador to China), told the Washington Examiner last week:

“If it's 2012 and our party is defined by [fancy pageant walker and Alaska Gov. Sarah] Palin and [talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush] Limbaugh and [lord of the underworld and former vice president Dick] Cheney, then we're headed for a blowout. That's just the truth.”

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Weaver’s comments underscore the degree of the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth under way in the GOP tent. The idea that a manipulative apologist like Cheney, a political lightweight like Palin or an asshat like Limbaugh could be even remotely considered spokespersons for the Republicans is exactly their biggest problem. It’s these people culled from the GOP curio cabinet (don’t forget former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) that contradict Steele’s Monday message of a party looking forward.

In his broad ad hominen attack on all things Obama, Steele aped the party-line thinking today, painting Obama as someone who took the oath of office as president and then unilaterally decided to start spending money as fast as it could be printed. What Steele never mentioned were the eight years of antecedent irresponsibility — the profligate spending on the GOP’s watch — that made Obama’s corrective measures necessary in the first place.

Curiously, Steele made much today of putting a stop to “Republican navel gazing.” “The introspection is now over,” he said. But what the hell’s wrong with introspection? What’s wrong with thinking, considering and weighing your options?

Because that’s what the Republican Party did in 1976, after the drubbing at the hands of Jimmy Carter. In November 2000, Richard Goldstein of The Village Voice observed the ways in which the GOP rallied in the wake of the ’76 defeat:

“The right was reconfiguring itself along populist lines. These new conservatives weren’t led by an instinct to rebel. They weren’t drawn to revolution. They were willing to be patient, building a network of like-minded partisans, school board by town council. They spent their money wisely on think tanks and publications. And they grew these affinities into a well-disciplined force that could enlist the resentments of the moment. In 1980, they came to power with Ronald Reagan as their spokesmodel.”

With few exceptions (God knows the GOP doesn’t need another think tank), Goldstein’s prescription is a straight-up match for the challenges the Republicans face today. Ironic but probably true: the Republicans need to build a base, rather than spending time shoring up the one they’ve already got.

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Today, Michael Steele — like the wounded, damaged, willingly regionalized party he represents — talked about moving on, turning the page, making a fresh start (pick your own metaphor for rejuvenation).

But since November, many of the actions of the Republicans, and right-wing conservatives more generally, have been about doing everything possible not to make a fresh start, to preserve the status quo — of its base, its philosophy, its message, its identity.

The American people have moved on, apparently content with the choice made in November, and eager not to get fooled again.

The GOP hasn’t learned the lesson of November — for that matter, not even the lesson of Monday’s Gallup Poll: The American people identify the Republicans as yesterday’s news, and they don’t quite trust Steele’s call to turn the page.

They know it intuitively: It’s not a good idea to turn a page before you’ve read what’s on it.
Image credit: Gallup Poll snapshots: Gallup Poll.

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