The Hopeless Opposition

As Obama falters, Republicans dither


Here is Nate Silver, Democratic polling whiz and notoriously clever political prognosticator, issuing a blunt warning to the citizens of Netroots Nation, a yearly gathering of left-wing bloggers, activists, and Howard Zinn-loving killjoys: "I don't think you should feel at all comforted by 2010." Silver, known for his prescience on such matters, suggests that Democrats will hemorrhage support in the next midterm elections, losing anywhere from 20 to 50 seats. According to recent polling data, about 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. 

Indeed, Americans loathe Congress with surprising consistency. But make no mistake, this is an Obama issue too. Arriving at the White House with an impressive 70 percent approval rating, barely nine months later the president is struggling to retain the loyalty of half of his constituents. A creature of Chicago, he is well aware that politics ain't beanbag, but the finger-biting, town hall mau-mauing, death panel mania doubtless blindsided the administration. Perhaps it was the media's requited love affair with the "Hope" campaign, or all those young, fresh-faced automatons in blue t-shirts offering platitudes about "change." Something provided Emanuel and Axelrod with a misshapen view of just how much "remaking" of the economy Americans were prepared to allow.

And the mistakes are piling up. Previously the target of fringy websites and the increasingly bizarre Glenn Beck, Obama's "green jobs czar," a crackpot "community activist" called Van Jones, was recently revealed to be a 9/11 truther. A few minutes with Google and one discovers a Jones exegesis on America's love affair with "grey, dirty, suicidal capitalism," and his visit to the World Economic Forum (which he naturally calls the "world exploiters forum"), the "ruling elite's biggest schmoozefest." The hyperventilating over Jones—a loathsome character who should be given a bus ticket back to his hometown of Oakland—is entirely justified, but conservatives would do best not to decide that his presence in the White House speaks to a larger narrative. Sorry guys, but there isn't a communist cabal at the heart of government, a modern Victor Perlo group twisting mustaches and plotting a Maurice Bishop-inspired coup.

The economic policies of this administration, both proposed and implemented, are daft; the expansion of government already undertaken deeply worrying; and all of the health care suggestions tabled by the Democrats will not only balloon budget deficits, but enrage voters both left and right. If the Republican Party hopes to capitalize on this discontent, it risks burying its message in debates over "death panels" and slightly lunatic calls to "slit our wrists [and] be blood brothers" in opposition to government-run health care. 

Another recent example of how not to respond to a controversial issue: Next week, President Obama will address American students in a speech which, according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, will "tell kids in school to study hard and stay in school." Included in the suggested assignments for teachers was a call to read "books about presidents and Barack Obama" and a call to reflect on "What specific job is [the president] asking me to do?" After a volley of criticism from bloggers and pundits, the language was pulled from the Department of Education website.

The most charitable reading would be that this was a boneheaded mistake from a department bureaucrat, not an early experiment in the pedagogy of Baldur von Schirach. But Republicans were in no mood for charity. Chairman of the Florida Republican Party Jim Greer accused Obama of attempting to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda." Oklahoma state senator Steve Russell was equally nuanced: "As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education—it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality. This is something you'd expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein's Iraq."  
There is a whiff of condescension about all of this; that mouth-foaming stridency is required to convince Americans that the president is unfit to be commander in chief. Unemployment ticks up, Obama's numbers tick down. The administration makes a hash of health care, Obama's numbers tick down. More soldiers die in Afghanistan, where the administration is doubling down, and Obama's numbers tick down. For the opposition party, there is plenty of political opportunity in all of this, but why engage in serious political debate when denunciations of our Baathist-Juche-Stalinoid president will suffice? This might be temporarily effective, it might drive a single news cycle, but at what cost? 
If moderates, independents, Reagan Democrats, and libertarians are vital to future Republican electoral successes, party leaders might want to try to control the tone of the debate. The Clinton years are instructive. Despite the Lewinsky affair, the shady dealings of Whitewater, sundry "bimbo eruptions," and countless micro-scandals, Bill Clinton left office with a bafflingly high approval rating. University of Washington professor David Domke investigated the cause of Clinton's resilience and found that "conservative attacks on Clinton and the liberal response, which questioned the motives of Republicans, worked together to intensify public support for the president."  After two years of muckraking anti-Clinton journalism, The American Spectator went from 30,000 subscribers to 300,000. As Clinton proved to be a Teflon president, the mania deepened and the magazine accused Clinton of murder, drug smuggling, and cheating at golf. In the end, its star investigative journalist converted to liberalism, those remaining defected to other conservative publications, the magazine collapsed and was relaunched as a technology publication, and the Clinton administration barreled forward. Glenn Beck might pull 2.5 million viewers a day, WorldNetDaily might be clocking 2 million unique visitors a month—impressive, if slightly frightening, numbers—but they would be advised to remember the Spectator

Thankfully, some Republicans are cottoning on. In a post on Twitter, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough urged his fellow Republicans to "argue the issues," "avoid the insults," and stop "with the conspiracy theories." Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini asked politely if his party could "have [William F.] Buckley back." Writing at TheNextRight.com, blogger Jon Henke complained recently that "Goldwater and a few Republicans had the integrity and guts to denounce the irresponsible fringe in the fevered swamps of the Right. Today, as far as I can tell, the Republican National Committee works with them."   Extremism in the defense of liberty might not be a vice, but Goldwater's famous comment was not a dog whistle for those who believed fluoridated water was at the heart of a Red Chinese conspiracy (opposing "Soviet imperialism," as he was suggesting, hardly qualified as extremist). As The Washington Post pointed out in 1994, in his later years the former Republican presidential candidate engaged in "frequent denunciations of the religious right and occasional defenses of Bill Clinton," and agitated to allow gays to serve openly in the military.

Ruffini is right that the Republican Party would benefit from another Buckley. But it could also use a leader. How about another Goldwater?

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of