The holidays are a great time in politics. Every year it's the same: the minute the last bits of wrapping paper have been cleared away, and Grandpa has passed his last puff of holiday gas, you can always retreat to the inside pages of the news section and find some embarrassing/despicable PR fiasco that some politician somewhere has just tried to sneak past vacationing America.
This year was no different. In a fitting homage to past holiday-season embarrassments like the Iran-Contra pardons or Bill Clinton's signing of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, the Republican Party last week quietly declared war on itself, in the process essentially confessing to a generation of failed governance and dumbed-down politics.
The news came in the Wall Street Journal, where the Chamber of Commerce disclosed that it will be teaming up with Republican establishment leaders to spend $50 million in an effort to stem the tide of “fools” who have overwhelmed Republican ballots in recent seasons. Check out the language Chamber strategist Scott Reed used in announcing the new campaign:
Our No. 1 focus is to make sure, when it comes to the Senate, that we have no loser candidates… That will be our mantra: No fools on our ticket.
The blunt choice of words is no accident. All year long, as they’ve crept closer and closer to having to face the reality of a Ted Cruz presidential candidacy in 2016 (with Cruz maybe picking recently-redeemed Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson as his more moderate running mate?), the Beltway’s Republican kingmakers have drifted into ever more alarmist language about the need to change course.
It’s been a transparent effort to reassure industry donors that the party's future isn't a bottomless pit of brainless Bachmanns and Cruzes and Santorums, all convinced our Harvard-educated president is a sleeper-cell Arab and that Satan is a literal being intent on conquering Nebraska with U.N. troops.
Earlier this month, for instance, former House Majority Leader and cause-betraying Tea Party progenitor Dick Armey complained that Republicans have been getting whipped at the polls because "we had a lot of candidates quite frankly that did dumb things out there." And way back in March of last year, Karl Rove himself, speaking on behalf of his Crossroads SuperPAC, told Fox News Sunday that "our goal is to avoid having stupid candidates." Rove’s group is reportedly also involved in this new $50 million effort.
The Chamber's announcement was met with howls of outrage from Tea Party-friendly voices, who naturally took immediate offense to the prospect of boycotting "fools" from the political process.
"Misguided," said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth. "Insane," sneered conservative activist Cleta Mitchell.
Tom Borelli, senior fellow for Armey’s old FreedomWorks group, quite correctly complained that the Chamber and their Republican allies were trying to defy the conservative base by hijacking the party and keeping it in the pocket of big-money interests. "The tea party is about lowering costs," Borelli explained to Newsmax. "[The Chamber will] want regulations to favor big business."
There’s almost no end to the comedy of this story. First of all, there’s the sheer size of the endowment. Fifty million dollars is enough money to fund half a dozen or more Senate campaigns. That the big-business donors who traditionally have funded the Republican Party believe they need to make that kind of monster investment just to keep “fools” from getting on the ballot of a party they basically control is an incredible reflection of the state of things on that side of the political aisle.
Then, of course, there’s the irony. Men like Karl Rove and Dick Armey practically invented the politics of stupid. In fact, they practically invented the politics of winning millions of votes every time some oversexed cosmopolitan liberal of the Matt Damon/Sean Penn genus used words like “dumb” or “stupid” to describe the preoccupations of Middle America’s God-and-guns culture.
To see these same Beltway Svengalis trapped now in this crazy role reversal, denounced by the far right for being the same kind of condescending establishment snot-bags they themselves spent decades trying to find and campaign against – well, that’s just seriously funny.
The situation with Rove is particularly delicious. This is someone who foisted upon the world the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, a man who couldn’t speak English, didn’t read books or newspapers, and won his second term via the political version of an Inspector Clouseau routine, rallying middle America behind an enraged invasion of the wrong country in retaliation for 9/11.
For a political adviser, getting a blockhead like Bush elected president not once but twice was a major accomplishment. It's the sort of thing that impresses industry insiders, the same way PR professionals genuinely admire the job Burson-Marsteller did hushing up the Bhopal disaster for Union Carbide, or whitewashing Indonesia’s image after the East Timor massacre.
As such the "Turd Blossom" was continually hailed as a kind of genius throughout the Bush presidency (even liberal pundits got in the act, although they usually called him an "evil genius"), despite the fact that nothing Karl Rove ever did was all that smart.
Rove’s sole insight as a political thinker was that if you completely dispense with the patriotic aspects of governing – you know, that whole doing-what’s-right-for-the-country thing – then winning elections is no different than selling cheeseburgers or scoring high sitcom ratings. You give people what they want, and it doesn’t matter if it’s bad for them.
So with George W. Bush, Rove basically gave us the political version of Married With Children, an ongoing self-parody routine where couch-potato America tuned in week after week to cheer on the nitwit hero as he and his brood took on a world of self-serious snobs and their silly "civilized" conventions (like, say, international law). It was political junk food and American voters ate it up, although the people on the business end of our endless bombings and waterboarding sessions and other atrocities were less stoked about the show.
Still, the reason Married With Children worked is that it was an industry in-joke, a piece of camp. It was actually kind of an inspired rip on the low entertainment standards of American TV audiences, though the humor of that mostly went over the heads of a lot of the people who actually watched the show.
From Rove’s point of view, the Bush presidency was the same kind of deal. He seemed to take it for granted that political professionals everywhere understood that all of the lying about WMDs, and the shameless witch-hunting of John Kerry’s war record, and the endless McCarthyist dabblings during campaign seasons (remember when, as an official White House adviser, Rove said that liberals wanted to "offer therapy and understanding to our attackers"?) were all just part of the game, just a way to get votes.
The whole Bush presidency, in the minds of Rove and his followers, was a goof on political advisers who were so self-serious that they actually believed themselves to be shackled to the truth, the responsibility of governing, etc. Rove and his crew openly laughed at the idea that they had to be consistent, or make sense, or do the right thing. Remember their naked mocking of the "reality-based community," and the boasting about how "we create our own reality"? Who did we think they were supposed to be, boy scouts? This was Washington! They were about winning, not governing.
What else explained an apparent atheist like Rove, who derided the evangelicals his president courted as "the nuts", being so hot to push hardcore religious policy down America’s throat? (As Rove is said to have put it, "Just get me a fucking faith-based thing!") He obviously didn’t take what he was doing seriously, and would later seem shocked that others did.
We first saw this when the Republicans came out in the summer of 2008 and picked as John McCain’s running mate an Alaskan Bible-thumper named Sarah Palin, one of the few potential candidates in the Republican Party rolls even dumber than George Bush.
Rove, by then just a media commentator, was apparently mortified that the political "reality-making" machine he’d built was pushing things too far. He immediately went on TV and blasted the choice as a "political pick" and "not a governing decision but a campaign decision."
Though no one said anything about it at the time, the damning subtext of Rove’s criticisms of Palin as a purely "political pick" and not a "governing decision" was that he, Rove, should know, because after all he’d built the entire Bush presidency using the same methodology.
The Armey story was similar. Armey was on the ground floor with FreedomWorks, one of the back-channel big-dollar funding sources for the supposedly grassroots Tea Party movement, and his group’s advocacy helped out now-reviled candidates like Ted Cruz, Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin and Richard Mourdock of Indiana (the Einstein who said that pregnancies from rape are something "God intended to happen").
FreedomWorks spent $40 million on such candidates in 2012, but as has been reported frequently since, only a quarter of them won, leaving donors and party leaders unimpressed with the movement’s future prospects.
After the public had a chance to see and reject the things these candidates stood for, however, Armey, like Rove, recoiled from his own politics, offering that line about his party’s failure being tied to "dumb things" done by certain candidates. He added that the Republican Party bore blame, too, having not "schooled" their candidates in the art of not making indefensibly stupid statements.
The thing is, the basic calculus of Rove-Armey politics has always involved capturing majorities with loud/angry media distractions (the Dixie Chicks hate America! John McCain has an illegitimate black child!) while on the policy side quietly spending great gobs of the taxpayer's money and sneaking through the meaningful objectives of rich industry donors in the fine print.
They were totally contemptuous of the typical middle-class religious conservatives in their base, never really gave them anything but lip service during campaign seasons, and in the end just used them to get what they wanted once they seized office.
For Rove, if that required handing out chestnuts like the "Faith-based thing" to the "nuts," or indulging John Ashcroft’s pathological fear of marble tits, so be it – the important thing was that in the end, Cheney’s energy buddies got their Clear Skies Act, the biotech donors got their Prescription Drug Benefit Act, the consumer credit vampires got their Bankruptcy Bill, and so on.
With Armey and the Tea Party, the "movement" was about always about rallying ordinary struggling Americans behind an idealized anti-tax/deregulatory agenda that, in an amazing coincidence, also favored the super-wealthy industrialists who happened to be backing groups like FreedomWorks.
The problem with blowing off the whole governing thing in favor of a decade-plus of cynical pandering and generally treating presidential politics like a fraternity pranking competition is that it eventually comes back to bite you.
If you spend years letting your voters think Saddam Hussein was an agent of al-Qaeda, that passing a national health care program will result in the formation of Stalinist "death panels," or that Barack Obama is secretly a foreigner, you’re going to end up with some loopy candidates prone to saying crazy things that will turn off voting majorities, which in turn will make it hard to the deliver policy objectives you actually care about for your big-money donors.
The Republican establishment is only just figuring this out. Hence this new $50 million initiative, which according to the WSJ will involve the Chamber working with party leaders in“an aggressive effort to groom and support more centrist Republican candidates.”
But this sudden decision by the party’s Washington establishment to reverse course and blame their failures on "fools" out there in the heartland is a joke. If you spend a decade treating your constituents like morons, you can’t point the finger at them when your party gets a reputation for being stupid.
You’re going to make George "Is our children learning?" Bush the face of your party for eight years and then turn around and call your voters stupid? Jesus. No wonder they decided to make the move during Christmas.