Saturday, January 25, 2014

The State of the GOP 2014


ANYONE SEEKING a sign of the multiple personality disorder of the Republican Party will get more than they bargain for on Tuesday, after President Obama’s State of the Union address. The rebuttal to the State of the Union, by a member of the president’s opposing party, has been a tradition since the 1960’s. Not always, but often as not, it’s been a one-for-one proposition.

That all changed with the advent of the Tea Party offshoot of the Republican Party. Since their rise in 2009, Republican responses to Obama SOTUs have been of two flavors: Regular and Extra Outraged. But this Tuesday, Americans can indulge their love of rhetorical choice even more, as the GOP presents three rebuttal responses to the State of the Union address. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington state, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky will collectively offer the three opinions of the Republican Party.

That three-ring circus, following the president’s main event, will respond to the particulars of the president’s speech. But the number of responses is exactly the problem. As the conversation moves toward politics again — starting with the elections in November — the Republican Party is staring down the barrel of an embarrassingly obvious identity crisis, its presumptive shining lights and heirs apparent facing serious legal troubles, and even one of the conservatives’ most ardent water-carrying thought leaders under indictment.

The GOP’s current and new disarray calls for a reshake of the party’s Magic 8-Ball for 2016, and raises the question of who — now — is ready to be first getting behind the wheel of the clown car. Or, more to the point (and consistent with what the GOP needs), who’s got the gravitas, intelligence and gastric fire to get behind the wheel and keep it from becoming a clown car at all.

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The Chris Christie piƱata contest is well underway. The New Jersey governor just doesn’t believe it yet, and can’t grasp how high and wide the current fiasco already reaches, or the ways in which his style of command indicts him whether paper is served or not. The governor once held up as the Republican hope of the future starts his second term under a deep shitcloud of scandal and possible scandal.

The widening of an investigation about Christie administration misuse of the George Washington Bridge plus an investigation into a possible conditioning of Superstorm Sandy hazard mitigation funds on a mayor’s approval of a development project, means the prospects for Christie 2016 are suddenly a lot less favorable than three months ago — and mind you, some considered a Christie a long shot for the nomination before all this happened, Obama hurricane walk notwithstanding.

McKay Coppins’ excellent Jan. 18 piece in BuzzFeed documents how the metaphor of shoes dropping is “a favorite among political observers at the moment” on Christie matters, and with good reason.

Coppins interviewed a “Republican operative at a large super PAC”; they discussed Christie’s potential as a contender in 2016, against the backdrop of the political polar vortex facing the Christie administration:

“Everyone thinks there’s probably a 60% chance the other shoe will drop,” said the operative, who requested anonymity. “When I saw the press conference, I said, I don’t think he’s lying… But for the deputy chief of staff to do something like that requires a culture in the office that he would have set, and it probably requires other examples that would have made her feel like that was acceptable to do.

“My gut is that they’ll probably find something else.”

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WHO’S LEFT?” Cruel online wags circulated that nasty bit of morbid humor after John Entwistle, the bass player for the Who, died in Las Vegas in 2002. But Republicans are asking that same question a lot right now, in the wake of Christie’s implosion. The other former GOP high-flier, Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, has had a big-time reversal of fortunes. On Friday, the now former governor of Virginia and his wife Maureen faced a 14-count felony indictment on federal corruption charges.

“Authorities alleged that McDonnell and his wife received gifts from [dietary supplements company Star Scientific] executive Jonnie R. Williams again and again, lodging near constant requests for money, clothes, trips, golf accessories and private plane rides,” The Washington Post reported Friday.

The McDonnells face charges from wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud to making false statements to a federal credit union. Maureen McDonnell also faces a charge of obstruction. It all stems from right after McDonnell was sworn in as governor. The indictment alleges that McDonnell received more than $160,000 in gifts and funds from Williams, a galaxy of gifts and considerations including loans, trips on private jets, shopping sprees at Bergdorf Goodman, a loaner Ferrari, chicken-dinner catering for his daughter’s wedding, and an engraved silver Rolex watch.

At the same time, the McDonnells are thought to have been well underway converting the governor’s mansion into a Star Scientific sales office, buying a stake in the company (and doing it in a way that didn’t trigger disclosure requirements) and even using the public house of the governor’s mansion to do info seminars on the Star Scientific product line.

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The bloom has been off the McDonnell rose for some time now; what transpired on Friday was the culmination of a decline that’s been going on for more than a year. But the formal demise of McDonnell’s political aspirations just brings the GOP’s dismal prospects into even starker relief. The bench for 2016 isn’t that deep right now, and that’s a problem.

Coppins runs through the short list: “Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — declared “The Republican Savior” on the cover of Time magazine last January — fell from grace after his attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and his subsequent flip-flop on the bill, was met with revolt from the right, and a chorus of scorn from the left. Meanwhile, the establishment’s other favorite son, Jeb Bush, virtually vanished after half-heartedly feeding the 2016 buzz during his short-lived book tour last spring. Since then, he has shown little interest in building a presidential campaign, and on Thursday his own mother said she hopes he doesn’t run.”

The other prospects apparently aren’t much better: Coppins reports how GOP insiders are combing through “a menu of less-than-ideal options, ranging from right-wing firebrands like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, to B-team governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin or John Kasich of Ohio.”

And get your head around this: Coppins was told by one Republican party op that “some donors have started looking back fondly on the good old days of 2012: ‘You know what a lot of them say to me? I think we need Mitt back.’ ”

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EVEN THE conservative thought class is under fire. Dinesh D'Souza, a conservative commentator, best-selling author, filmmaker (his film “Obama’s America” made $33 million) and outspoken Obama critic, was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury for arranging excessive campaign contributions to a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Reuters reported that sometime around August 2012, D’Souza reimbursed people he had directed to contribute $20,000 to the candidate's campaign — an unlikely violation of campaign finance law in the more wide-open post-Citizens United era.

While D’Souza’s indictment doesn’t have an impact directly on the GOP’s drive for electability ... it’s just One More Thing to have to deal with, one more imagistic speed bump on the already potholed road to wider acceptability by the American voting public.

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Steve Schmidt, former senior McCain 2008 campaign adviser and the closest thing to a pragmatist the Republican Party has had in some time, said, on Jan. 28 last year, that political pragmatism was the only way forward for the GOP.

“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 on MSNBC.

“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.”

A year ago, Schmidt was almost certainly looking to Chris Christie to be one of those more practical, at least optically moderate politicians who could build a competitive national coalition under the Republican brand. What a difference a year, and a scandal or three, makes. In that time, the party’s bid to refashion itself for an emerging America has gone seriously sideways, its new identity reflecting something not so much unvarnished or unplugged as it is unglued.

The big question in the runup to the State of the Union is what the president will say on Tuesday. The state of the Republican Party already provokes a big question that demands an answer: Which Republican Party do you mean?

Image credits: GOP logo: Washington Post illustration. Magic 8-Ball: via abovethelaw.com. Christie: Lucas Jackson/Reuters. BuzzFeed logo: © 2014 BuzzFeed, Inc. McDonnells: Steve Helber/Associated Press. D'Souza: public domain via Wikipedia.

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