In Case You Think The Crazee Is Over…
The D.C. pundit class, in the wake of Democrats’ sweeping victories this month, is awash in speculation that the leadership of the Republican Party will see the error of its ways, wash its hands of the unfortunate Tea Party experiment, and scramble forthwith to rejoin Planet Earth and its reality-based residents.
Beltway punditry, almost by definition, sees our two-party system as inherently legitimate, comprised of Very Serious People who are Leaders and Guardians of the Free World ™. When confronted with indisputable evidence that not just a handful of yahoos but an entire party has gone off the deep end, their instinctive reactions have been denial (that they’re really that crazee); protection (we can’t tell the public they said that, it’s just too fucking crazee, plus, they probably didn’t mean it, they just said it to appease their base); and legitimacy (sure, what they’re saying is crazee, but they’re one of America’s two major parties, and so what they say is important and who are we to challenge its relationship to reality?). Even during the Mitt Romney presidential campaign – an unprecedented 18-month orgy of bald-faced serial lying – a handful of media outlets occasionally plucked a few of the lies out of the blizzard to debunk them, but most did not.
None came right out and said that just about everything Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and an entire national party’s work of lesser candidates and apparatchniks was bloviating this past year was pulled straight out of Rush Limbaugh’s copious and fanciful ass.
A few widely publicized “gaffes” (defined as when a candidate actually says what they mean) cost the Republicans sure Senate seats in Indiana and Missouri and cut into their national vote totals. But the full scope of the GOP’s clinical detachment from reality still remains a forbidden topic in the news outlets (TV, cable TV, major newspapers, talk radio, and associated web sites) most Americans use. And what we’re seeing now is a media campaign to rehabilitate the Republicans – to convince people who don’t usually pay attention to politics, but who may have some residual peripheral alertness after the election and before the holidays, that by the time they vote again, the Republicans won’t really be that bad any more. They’ll recognize that the country’s demographics are getting younger and more ethnically and racially diverse, and they’ll tone down their rhetoric and actions in order to appeal to more of those voters next time. They’re really very reasonable people, you see.
Unfortunately, there’s no plausible scenario in which that will take place. And there’s an obvious case study of what the Republican Party will actually do instead. It’s called California.
Twenty years ago, the Republican Party dominated California. The same state that gave us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan passed the groundbreaking anti-tax Proposition 13 in 1978, and held the governor’s mansion for 16 uninterrupted years from 1983-1999 with George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. (Wilson was well-regarded enough that he even launched a now-forgotten campaign for president in 2000.) Finally, a corporatist Democrat, Gray Davis, succeeded Wilson – only to be ousted four years later in the bizarre recall effort that gave us eight more years of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But the California of Schwarzenegger was not the same state Deukmejian ruled – which is why Ahhhnold was something of a party renegade on issues like environmental protection and climate change. California had changed, and its demographics had started changing, especially after the passage of NAFTA in 1992 and a flood of Mexican and Central American immigrants (documented and otherwise) came to stay. By the 2010 Census, California had become only the nation’s third majority-minority state (after Hawaii and New Mexico), a state in which a majority of its US citizens identified as non-white.
In 1990, Republicans, including the notoriously reactionary party base of places like Orange County (home of John Wayne International Airport and spiritual homeland of the John Birch Society), controlled much of California’s politics. Prop. 13 pioneered the notion of a “tax revolt,” of the type that Tim Eyman (among many others) has made a handsome career perpetuating. Twenty years ago, California’s Republicans were (mostly) rational, but still very, very conservative. And they knew perfectly well – especially after the 1991-92 recession and the passage of NAFTA accelerated the trend – that their state was going to get younger and browner, quickly. Just like America overall is doing now.
What did the Republicans do in response? In 1999-2001, they allowed Enron and other private utility holding companies to extort billions out of its residents. Throughout the last decade, the state’s General Assembly (legislature) has been in perpetual gridlock due to the effects of Prop. 13, additional repeated tax cuts, and Republican refusals to consider new revenues, instead insisting on gutting state spending. California’s public education system, once the nation’s finest, is now among its worst. Same for its transportation infrastructure. The only area of state spending that has outstripped California’s population growth – by a lot – is its prison system. Rather than following Schwarzenegger’s more moderate lead, most of the rest of the state party disowned him. Faced with demographic change, just like national Republicans are now, Republicans in California doubled down on the crazee.
In 2012 – 20 years after the passage of NAFTA, a time when Republicans had a headlock on state government – less than 0 percent of registered voters in California are now registered as Republicans. That’s barely more relevant than Republicans were in the pre-civil rights, Jim Crow South. When January’s new Congress is seated, California will have 55 seats. Of them, fully 40 will be held by Democrats, including 18 non-white members and 19 women. Only 15 California congresspeople will be Republicans – all in the US House of Representatives, all of them white men, all from the handful of conservative enclaves (Orange County, Riverside County, the San Joaquin Valley) remaining in the state. California Republicans are an endangered species; they knew 20 years ago that if they did not reform themselves they would become an endangered species; and their response was to double down on the crazee and accelerate their rate of extinction.
(Insert comparison to Republicans’ legislative responses to climate change here.)
The national Republican Party, of course, is not the same as California’s state party. It’s worse, and far less likely to reform itself. The national party has a strong regional base in the South and parts of the Great Plains and Mormon West, strong enough that its elected officials are in no danger of losing their offices; it’s the rest of the country where the party’s hemorrhaging of votes is going to cost remaining Republican elected officials their jobs. In many of these deep red areas, right wing media such as Fox, Limbaugh, and reactionary local newspapers have a virtual monopoly on media consumption, erecting a hermetically sealed alternate universe: angry, paranoid, and no longer even loosely tethered to reality. That media shapes the worldview of such states’ voters and elected officials alike.
Even if national party leaders want to reform the party, there’s not much evidence that they can. Richard “Rape is God’s Plan” Mourdock was the Republican Party’s candidate for US Senator this year in Indiana not because state or national party leaders backed him, but because he ran a primary challenge against long-time, well-respected moderate Republican senator Dick Lugar (“moderate” because his extreme conservatism of 1980 was, unchanged, now one of the most reality-based Republican voices in D.C.) Mourdock won that primary, against an established, well-moneyed incumbent, with over 60 percent of the vote. Lugar’s fate has befallen dozens of other established Republican politicians in D.C. who didn’t fully get with the crazee. Those that remain have remade themselves (like Mitt Romney) to be just as crazee as their rivals. Party leaders can and probably will put all the money they want into oligarchal favored sons, but Republican voters no longer want them. That, not the priorities of the party leaders that D.C. pundits hang out with at cocktail parties and golf courses, is what must change.
The other problem with the national media’s obsession of a self-
deporting reforming Republican Party is, quite simply: Where are these reformers? They’re not the people lining up to run in 2014 and 2016. The next wave of state level, up-and-coming Republican politicians eying Congress and governors’ mansions are all Tea Partiers. All that blather about Republicans needing to present a younger, more ethnically diverse face ignores the fact that almost all of the party’s obvious future candidates who are younger are also very, very white. And very, very fanatical.
The power driving today’s Republican Party isn’t its establishment leadership; it’s its base. And while the news is full of big name GOPers stroking their chins and declaring the need for a mellower, more inclusive party, the base – still rattling through their hermetically sealed alternate media universe – is primarily blaming Romney’s defeat on his not being conservative enough. They’re not getting the memo. If they did get the memo, they’re not reading it. A lot of evidence suggests they can’t read it, but that’s a different issue.)
Being a pundit in America means never having to admit you were wrong, so all of these confident November 2012 pronouncements will be lost down the memory hole soon enough. As soon, perhaps, as the end of next month, when House Republicans (led by John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and your friend and mine, budget whiz Paul “Lyin’” Ryan) will have to cooperate to avoid sending the US budget, and the US and world economy, over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
At question is whether the Bush tax cuts, scheduled to sunset at year’s end, will be extended for everyone (including the very wealthy), for the middle and working classes, or for nobody. A surprisingly firm and newly mandated President Obama has already said he will sign no bill that fully extends cuts for the wealthy, that they must start paying something closer to their fair share. However, not to extend those cuts for the wealthy, in full, violates the sacred Republican Crazee principle of no additional revenue for government, by any means, ever. If Republicans don’t cooperate, no legislation gets passed, the existing sunset clause takes effect, taxes go up on everyone, and that likely sends a still-fragile economy into a tailspin.
True to 2008-12 forms, Obama has offered to compromise, and Republicans have not. Pundits are confident the Republicans will come to their senses – in other words, that their party, for no compelling reason other than common sense (which left the premises long, long ago), will turn on a dime. Of course, compromising on such an extreme position, when the consequences are so dire, is no guarantee that Republicans will be more rational on any consistent basis going forward. But even in this stark and rapidly approaching crisis, history – specifically, the Republican experience in California – says that the party will do no such thing, and that it will prefer ideological purity and economic collapse instead. We’ll see who’s right.