Monday, April 12, 2010

The elephant’s nervous breakdown

It was another bright, warm day in April, the clocks were again sounding thirteen, and the workers dragged the chairs out of cubicles and grouped them in the middle of the hall in the Riverside Hilton in New Orleans, in preparation for the start of the Republican Southern Leadership Conference, the Three Days Hate.

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Like a similar event attended by Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell’s “1984” (shamelessly mangled in the previous graph), the Republicans convened a kind of Hate Week over the weekend as their kickoff to the 2012 election season. There was a refreshingly high-minded purpose to some of the proceedings.

“Over and over, Republican speakers said their party had gone astray when it held in power; it was time, they argued, to get the party back on track with a focus on fiscal restraint and a break with the party's recent past,” reported Brian Montopoli today at CBS News. But elsewhere there was evidence of the bashing and condemnation that’s been a ritual enacted by party leadership in Congress, and (with a lot less eloquence) by party partisans in the streets.

Liz Cheney, surrogate for the former vice president, set the table for the event on Thursday. “The Obama administration is putting us on the path to decline,” she said, explaining the three-pronged Obama doctrine: "apologize for America, abandon our allies and appease our enemies."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the Obama White House “a secular socialist machine” on Thursday. “This is the most radical administration in American history. … If you think about the group that meets together in the White House, their experience is the machine politics of Chicago, the corruption of Springfield and the radicalism of [Saul] Alinsky.” Gingrich then proposed that “when” the Republicans retake the Congress in January, the Obama administration should be handcuffed by a congressional refusal to fund any of its policies and agencies — a threat to shut down the United States government.

Nominal former Alaska governor and political personality Sarah Palin took aim on Friday at “the makings of the Obama doctrine, which is coddling enemies and alienating allies … Don’t retreat, reload — and that is not a call for violence. … Yes we can kowtow to enemies, criticize allies, vacillate, bow, dither ... but somebody needs to tell the president just because we can doesn’t mean that we should.”

And not to be outdone by those in New Orleans, the head of the Republican Governors Association, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, set a spell with CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday and continued the repeal of rational thinking announced (and amended) last week by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who’d previously decided that slavery in Virginia was no B.F. Deal, before he decided that it was after all.

Barbour (who’s actually been considered a possible presidential contender, bless his heart), told Crowley on “State of the Union” that McDonnell was right about slavery.
CROWLEY: The [Virginia] Governor didn’t even mention slavery in his proclamation. Was that a mistake?

BARBOUR: Well, I don’t think so ... I don’t know what you would say about slavery, but anyone who thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing — I think it goes without saying. ...

CROWLEY: You know what I’m trying to get at. There’s a sort of feeling that it’s insensitive, that you clearly don’t agree ...

BARBOUR: To me it’s a sort of feeling that it’s just a nit. That it is not significant. It’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.
All props to Barbour, staying the course of his constituents, all praise for fidelity to the past on the part of the governor of the state of Mississippi, a holdout on ratification of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution (the one prohibiting slavery) until 1995.

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The desperation with which the elements of the moderate-to-extremist right have hurled themselves against any hint of deliberative compromise with the Obama White House has been sadly astonishing — like that of a sleeper thrashing in his slumber against an unseen enemy, fighting with all his might against a phantom of the mind.

It’s a case of mental illness as political metaphor. There’s mounting evidence that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are jointly and rapidly approaching the low point of an identity crisis, that some kind of psychic snap is coming shortly. The GOP is having a nervous breakdown.

A predisposition toward instability was first suspected during the 2008 presidential campaign, in which the party standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain, displayed the ethical duality and tendency to ruthlessness common to the political diagnosis.

Some would say the condition first fully presented in the Joint Session of Congress in September 2009, when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson cemented himself in the history books for at least one memorable achievement during his time in the House (“You lie!”). In the fourteen months since then, and especially as the health-care debate wound its way torturously through Congress into law, the Republicans and their more emotional proxies in the Tea Party movement, engaged in cheap shots and a breathtaking range of character assassinations.

This disorder may be contagious. The conservative ranks might actually be spreading this condition around the country. It’s already got people confused. Americans don’t know who to vote for if they want an alternative to the Democrats. With conservatives staking out their territory separate from the Republicans staking out their territory as a thing apart from the Tea Party crew … right now the American people are faced with three flavors of conservative identity: Traditional, Deep-Fried Partisan and Extra Hysterical.

How do you choose between the three in November? Do you even bother to try? How can you be expected to make up your mind when the big-C and small-c conservatives can’t seem to make up their own minds about who and what they are?

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Last week Bob McDonnell forgot to mention slavery in a state proclamation honoring the Confederacy. Then the Republican Southern Leadership Conference convened in New Orleans and forgot to mention the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

That amnesia of convenience, the philosophical schizophrenia, the strategies of opposition ranging from Palin’s passive-aggressive snark to the Tea Party crowd’s more graphically corrosive racism … it’s all proof of the Republican Party experiencing an episode of unprecedented high anxiety.

As President Obama gets ready to nominate his second Supreme Court Justice, watch for the condition to get that much worse. Watch for Hate Week to be convened somewhere else in America.

Image credits: Palin: Gerald Herbert/AP. Wilson: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP. Republican tea: CBS.

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