The elections of 2010 were an unqualified success for conservative candidates and the conservative brand. One year hence, and the mid-term euphoria has turned into plodding, pre-presidential election doldrums. Almost literally without doing anything different, President Obama has seen his approval rating climb into the light, and his chances against all Republican comers turn in his favor. This isn’t a prognostication, I’ll not go that far onto the political limb. The game however, as Sherlock might say, is afoot. But how?
The reason for the steady turning, and the reason I feel some empathy towards cherished conservative friends and family, can be found in the first sentence of this column. The elections of 2010 were an unqualified success for the conservative brand. Conservatives have of course long held a convincing advantage over liberals in the brand war (I am sure you know more “progressives” than “liberals”, because conservatives have convinced Americans that “liberal” is a bad word). Branding is a potent tool, and it explains why so many Americans have cast so many votes against their best interests over the last three decades. Here, however, at the beginning of the 21st Century’s second decade, the tool has turned on its master. Republicans, at least those in office or who hold court on our airwaves, have become slaves to the brand.
Conservative and liberal are words that are supposed to describe two different ways of solving economic and social problems in our democracy. Without commenting on individual merits, it is safe to say that Americans have stumbled through both outlooks on problem-solving, mostly to good result. The United States dominated the 20th Century, and is still the most influential and powerful nation, in economic, military, and commercial terms, in the 21st Century.
The old notions of politics have changed however, and not for the better. Conservatives in office and on the air have, since the tumult of the Clinton years, been dedicated to taking policy positions based solely on their place opposite the prevailing Democratic position. The notion has become reflexive in the Obama Administration. Without regard to the merits of the policy or action in question, Republicans in office and on the airwaves have turned themselves inside out, not to solve problems but to be different from Obama.
At a time when conservatives have redefined “bipartisanship” to mean Democrats adopting the Republican position, conservatives have taken to criticizing Democrats when they adopt those Republican positions. The trick, and the concept causing conservatives so much angst this cycle, is that Republican office-holders and pundits have felt compelled to move away from positions that were once theirs after Democrats (to include the President) adopted them. The Republican presidential field is the perfect working case study; they have spent this entire cycle doing the political equivalent of pissing into the wind.
Mitt Romney, as the front-runner, is the all-time champion of turning himself inside out to be anything but like the President. By now, everyone knows that Romney passed health care reform in Massachusetts that is a virtual twin of the federal law enacted in 2010. That he passed that law, and that that law has had real and measurable success in Massachusetts, is probably the reason that Mr. Romney has not already locked the nomination down. But if you are looking for real political gymnastics, you have to look at foreign policy; for Romney, that means Libya.
Republicans are going to have a tough road to travel with President Obama and foreign policy; let’s face it, conservatives can play talking points, this President can play trump cards. Mitt Romney leads the circus however in trying to walk around Obama’s successes, and the result has been what his spokespeople have become good at calling Romney’s “evolving” position. First, Obama wasn’t decisive, then he was too decisive without Congressional approval, then everything was nice but led by the wrong people (we can’t have the French or British taking the lead on things in their back yard now can we?). Apparently, a brutal dictator’s removal from power without loss of American life and costing less than $1 billion is the same as abject failure.
Candidate Romney made himself into an even greater clown when he stated that the President should have done something sooner in order to get American justice for the Lockerbie Bombing; the shoot-down of Pan-Am 103 in 1988. The shoot-down Libya admitted culpability for in 2003. 2003, by the way, is three years before President Bush removed Libya from its terrorist list and normalized relations with the Gadhafi Government. It isn’t immediately obvious why President Obama is responsible for President Bush’s problems, but the notion has become status quo for conservative talkers and candidates.
Mitt Romney is only distinguished from his colleagues by virtue of his funding advantage, experience as a professional presidential candidate, and ability to speak even when his contradictions should be giving him Slurpee-face. All of his colleagues share his obsessive and damaging need to be everything Obama isn’t, even when Obama is being conservative. The resulting damage to the conservative message is turning the President back into a front-runner, and turning off folks who entered conservative circles as Reagan Democrats. Americans recognize that being the party of no is no help to them.
Republican candidates and talkers, by virtue of spending so much time being against any word that issues from a vaguely liberal mouth, have lost the ability to articulate their own vision of our democracy. We the people know that the Founding Fathers enshrined in the Constitution the power for later Americans to adapt and grow in the modern world. By being against everything; by being unable to articulate any vision of democratic power that isn’t either controlled by a Forbes 500 company, or articulated as a conservative talking point, this sorry collection of candidates has lost the confidence of America. Led by an ineffectual child of wealth named Romney, the GOP presidential field is the weakest in political history. Surely this sorry lot is not the best you conservatives can do.
The Rational Middle is listening (and eating turkey; Happy Thanksgiving friends!)…