It’s been 78 years since FDR’s New Deal and 45 years since LBJ’s Great Society, the two great triumphs of liberal expansionist government. But now it’s 2010, and it’s increasingly looking like the Democrats missed the boat this time around. Health care reform is flailing. The stimulus package and the climate change bills are wildly unpopular. Not coincidentally, so is the U.S. Congress. Nancy Pelosi has become the poster child for out-of-touch liberals, a role she plays with ease. The Obama administration seems intelligent, diligent, and reasonable, but disconnected from most Americans’ concerns. Everyone is talking about the likelihood of the GOP taking the Senate in November and, thanks largely to the administration’s problematic push on health care reform, this seems like a decent bet. It would mean a fitting comeuppance for the Democrats, who deserve one. However, it would not mean that the country would be better off, because the Republicans aren’t ready to be back in power.
An opposition party—which is what the Republicans are at this point—is supposed to be an engine of ambition. If you’re in the opposition, it means you’ve lost the electorate’s trust (or at least that the other party gained it). But at some point, you have to regain that trust. This calls for taking stock, being creative, and showing thoughtfulness and passion. Conservative Benjamin Disraeli and liberal William Gladstone–-Britain’s two great prime ministers of the nineteenth century—fought constantly for electoral control and, not coincidentally, passed transformative measures in the process. For instance, to pre-empt Gladstone from garnering support for reforming Britain’s dysfunctional electoral system, Disraeli passed a reform act that extended suffrage by 88 percent. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair fused conservative economics with concern for the less fortunate to lead moderate third-way liberals into power. Each of these successes was the result of forming a comprehensive political philosophy, refining it, testing it, and then selling it to the electorate.
Perhaps these examples are a little optimistic. But even by the considerably lower standards of Jon Stewart, who once compared politics to a theater of the absurd, the current crop of Republicans is a little loony. Here are two quick examples from state races, which are traditionally the training grounds for national candidates. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who is now competing in the Republican primary for California state senator, took aim at an opponent for being (and this is, to my knowledge, a completely original acronym) a FCINO–that is, Fiscal Conservative in Name Only. Fiorina’s attack ad, which ran about three minutes long, was filled with images of sheep. Her opponent, the dreaded FCINO, was literally portrayed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing with glowing red eyes and a manic stare. I’ll stop there. More words won’t make it less bizarre.
South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer adopted a different tone in his comparison of public school children who receive free lunches to stray animals who should not be fed. “You know why?” Bauer asked rhetorically. “Because they breed … they will reproduce … and so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior.”
Both of these examples are absurd, but they’re also cause for concern: Fiorina and Bauer wouldn’t talk this way if they didn’t think it would get them elected (or re-elected, in Bauer’s case). They are appealing to a group of people to whom state spending of almost any kind is an anathema. This view of the government basically boils down to the tea partiers’ line, borrowed from an anti-British cartoon penned by Ben Franklin in the 1750s: “Don’t tread on me.”
Philosophical problems aside, this isn’t a practical view. The federal government has played an increasingly crucial role in our lives for the past century, and since creating bureaucracy is a lot easier than purging it, that’s not about to change any time soon. America is increasingly, and consciously, a national nation. We face the same issues of globalization, the rise of China, and global terror; we vote less based on region and more on ideology; we look to the White House and Capitol Hill rather than the state capitals for guidance. In this environment, casting government in the role of bogeyman is, to say the least, self-defeating.
Do Fiorina and Bauer actually believe their anti-government tirades? In Fiorina’s case, at least, probably not. She was once a Wall Street insider, and if the economic crash of 2008 did nothing else, it proved that sometimes the government is the only entity that can help. But politicians know they have to oppose those views to appeal to their base: those who vote in primaries and elections.
More importantly, Fiorina and company know that even when they are in Washington, they can’t escape the revved, angry, and purist base. Republican voters are ready to purge their party of anyone who thinks taxes might sometimes be necessary or big government can sometimes help out. John McCain has won his senatorial elections in Arizona handily for twenty years, but suddenly he’s in a fierce primary fight this year with an opponent from the right. Likewise, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a popular and effective Republican, might lose his primary election for the U.S. Senate to an underdog challenger who’s less centrist. Even Scott Brown, the newest Republican senator who won his Massachusetts seat campaigning as a moderate, is changing his tone. “The stimulus bill didn’t create one new job,” he asserted last week.
Politicians, in other words, are scared of the base. And while government accountability is normally a good thing, it’s not good when the people passing political judgment have unrealistic demands. The Congressional Democrats and their base may be unrealistic in some of their policies, but at least they are trying to accomplish laudable and reasonable goals. Here’s hoping the Democrats are still in power in 2011.