Sunday, January 27, 2013

The GOP’s winter meetings of discontent

IN HIS 1988 biography “Freud: A Life for Our Time,” author and National Book Award winner Peter Gay describes the phenomenon on psychological projection as “the operation of expelling feelings or wishes the individual finds wholly unacceptable—too shameful, too obscene, too dangerous—by attributing them to another.”

This defense mechanism, apparently pioneered by Sigmund Freud, is an everyday thing, encountered everywhere in modern life from the workplace to the marriage. Lately, the leadership of the House of Representatives has it bad.

The Republican Party in general, and the House in particular, has lately been wandering in a napalmed wilderness. Bushes are burning around them (along with everything else) but the only voices they’re hearing are the ones in their heads. Nearly three months after the election, the front office of Republican identity is in utter chaos, its general tableau of spite, snarkiness, mixed messages and philosophical disarray offering a vision of some mad hair-on-fire amalgam of Hieronymus Bosch and the Keystone Kops.

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The head of the GOP fire drill, House Speaker John Boehner, perfectly distilled the confusion within the party and the willingness to project its actions elsewhere, in a luncheon speech on Tuesday in Washington.

Reacting to President Obama’s inaugural address on Monday, Boehner said the address was proof that Obama blamed the House for inaction of his initiatives.

“Given what we heard yesterday about the president's vision for his second term, it's pretty clear to me, and should be clear to all of you, that he knows he can't do any of that as long as the House is controlled by Republicans. And so we're expecting here over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party,” Boehner told members of the conservative Ripon Society.

“And let me just tell you, I do believe that is their goal – to just shove us into the dustbin of history.”

Freud woulda had a field day with that one. Boehner’s statement was a textbook example of the political variation of projection. The actions and policy proposals of the Republican Party over the last three years are proof of nothing more than the party’s ability to self-immolate. The Obama administration can’t annihilate the Republican Party. Only the Republican Party can do that.

There’s evidence that this self-destruction is still going on. Since the Nov. 6 election, there’ve been a number of insider attempts to give the party a good talking to — about what can be done to increase outreach to those outside the party.

It happened on Jan. 19, when GOP leaders held a retreat at the 425-room Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. Part of the retreat schedule included a panel discussion on “Coalitions — Discussion on Successful Communications with Minorities and Women.”

The discussion was held in the Burwell Plantation Room, named for an 18th century businessman who was an active trader in the, uh, chained commodities common to the era.

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TYING UP with the nation’s slaveholder past is obviously bad optics in this day and age. But it’s to be expected when the resort itself is the site of a former working plantation ... in Virginia ... more than a century before the Civil War.

The Republican remake machine reconvened again on Thursday and Friday, at the Republican National Committee Winter Meeting in Charlotte, N.C. Various movers & shakers in waiting took the stage, said their piece and dropped the mike, making willfully apostate comments that call the party’s established pieties into question.

“We recognize Republicans have good answers,” said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chair of the Republican National Congressional Committee. “We just have had bad communications in many cases.”

Others said much the same thing: speculating on how to rephrase their talking points for minority voters, how to couch conservative arguments in language and tones that voters outside the party would find acceptable. And they missed the point. They were all about the presentation; the real problem is the product itself.

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Case in point: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, everybody’s shortlist darling for the GOP nomination in 2016. Jindal, the convention keynote; let fly on Thursday with “seven things” he said were necessary to rescue the GOP from electoral irrelevance.

“I made this observation at a [Republican Governors Association] conference. The first step in getting the voters to like us is to demonstrate that we like them.”

“We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” he said. “I’m serious. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults. It’s time for us to articulate our plans and our vision for America in real terms. ...

“We’ve got to stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people.”

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It’s Jindal’s peculiar rhetorical genius, as demonstrated on Thursday, that makes him both the catalyst for change within the GOP and the poster boy for its most intractable aspects. You have to weigh change agent Jindal’s Martin Luther act — nailing his seven things to the door of the church of Republican tradition — against the other Bobby Jindal, the Ivy League-schooled champion of creationism.

YOU HAVE to weigh the Bobby Jindal who calls on the GOP to “stop being the stupid party” and to “stop insulting the intelligence of voters” with the Bobby Jindal who opposes gun-law reform, marriage equality and a woman’s right to abortion — matters that the American people have shown not just tolerance of, but acceptance of, as recently as the November election, and even after that.

Jindal betrayed a poker tell when he said “I’m not one of those who believe we need to abandon, moderate, equivocate or otherwise change our principles,” he said. And that’s the problem: When party “principles” fly in the face of science, fairness, personal liberty and the proven mood of the country ... there’s a disconnect somewhere. A big one.

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RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said much the same thing as Jindal on Friday. “We can stand by our timeless principles—and articulate them in ways that are modern…relevant to our time and relatable to the majority of voters. And that, I believe, is how we’ll achieve a Republican renewal. That’s how we’ll grow. That’s how we’ll win.”

These blindly anodyne statements say it plain. For Jindal and Priebus and the others, there’s nothing organic about the GOP that needs to change. Just articulate the old message in modern ways — spiff up the Web site, hire more recent graduates as interns to work the phones and the front office, tweak the talking points a little and they’re good. Home free for another election cycle, without having to actually change anything.

You know this when you look at the GOP Web site: “RNC Chairman Reince Priebus launched the Growth & Opportunity Project in December 2012 to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the 2012 election cycle efforts of the RNC — and to develop an action plan to grow the Republican Party and improve future Republican campaigns.”

It’s an admirable enough goal for a party that took a huge pasting two months ago. But you’ll notice something: Even though Priebus’ announcement points to the Growth & Opportunity Project as separate and distinct from the party itself, you’re invited (not quite subconsciously) to view the letters “GOP” and the phrase “Growth & Opportunity Project” almost interchangeably. As if the words “Grand Old Party” no longer obtain in the 21st century.

It symbolizes the rebranding effort that is fast and furiously underway in the Republican ranks. But rebranding isn’t the issue. This isn’t about the font on the label, it’s about the formula in the can.

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THERE’S a lot to suggest that, despite label-tweaking, the formula in that can is what it’s always been. At almost the same time as Jindal and Priebus called for the genesis of a New Republican Party, the GOP leadership showed how much they’re still in love with the old way of doing things.

Late last month the GOP floated the trial balloon of proposing changes in the Electoral College. The RNC and GOP lawmakers are working in five states — Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — to advance the idea of apportioning presidential electoral votes according to the number of congressional districts won, rather than to the winner of the contest overall (usually the one who prevails on the basis of popular vote).

Michael Tomasky, writing in The Daily Beast, calls it “astonishing, I mean absolutely jaw-dropping, that a major party chairman should openly endorse such an openly crooked scheme, as Reince Priebus has. It’s so Third World 1950s, like something Sukarno might have done, probably did do, in Indonesia to make sure the competing ethnic group didn’t win elections.”

The proposal’s already seen as unworkable; Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said “it’s a bad idea no matter who does it. ... the winner-take-all by state is the right way to go.”

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As the Grand Old Party/Growth & Opportunity Project girds for battle over the next two years, it does so having come to the climactic battle for its compass and its soul. The status quo is not an option. The center cannot hold when there is no center.

Facing the consequences of a conclusive national election, the Republican Party (including the remnants of the Tea Party it spawned) has finally reached the crossroads, hit the pivot point from which it must decide once and for all what it’s going to be — whether to tack to the pragmatic, populous center, or continue life and legislating from the rightmost margins of the national experience.

Steve Schmidt, former senior McCain 2008 campaign adviser and as close to a pragmatist as the Republican Party has these days, put things in perspective on Jan. 28 on MSNBC, with his frank appraisal of where it’s been and — maybe — where it’s going.

“I think that, if you’re a Republican, you look at this [past] couple of years and you just had this almost primal scream after the 2008 [election], where so much of the rhetoric and so much of the money went out and flirted on the loony fringe,” he said.

“You’re now starting to see some Republican leaders in government articulating positions opposite the conservative entertainment complex. They’re saying, ‘look, we can’t let the talk-radio guys drive us off the right ledge here and render us uncompetitive and unable to win national elections.’ I think you’ll see that play out over the next four years.”

Boehner: © 2013 The Ripon Society. Growth & Opportunity Project logo: From the GOP Web site. Jindal: tk. Priebus: CNN. 

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