A few months ago Republican pundits were gleefully predicting a resurgent GOP that would dominate the 2012 election season. While some busied themselves with measuring new drapes for the Oval Office, others brazenly discussed the possibility of regaining both houses of Congress.
And then the Republican Primary season, with its sickly frontrunner and circus show of misfits and weirdos, began to perform its act for the American people. This primary season is as shocking as anyone inside of the Republican establishment can remember. For months now, virtually everyone inside the GOP political machine has assumed that Romney will eventually seal the nomination and begin to prepare his campaign for a showdown with the president.
So why is it that one day before the Michigan and Arizona primaries, and a week before Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney is neck and neck with his [latest] challenger, Rick Santorum? More importantly, why is it that in the last two weeks the GOP’s message, which was all about reducing the federal deficit and growing the economy, has suddenly and radically shifted back to Rick Santorum’s favorite talking points, abortion and gay rights?
On the surface, the answers are obvious. Santorum believes that culture wars help secure the conservative Republican base. He feels that by making statements like “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he looks tall in front of social conservatives (and by contrast, reminds everyone that Romney isn’t really conservative).
But the pivot away from discussions of the economy reflects a reality that Republicans fear. The GOP spent Obama’s first term repudiating every proposed policy and characterizing each as a failure. Unfortunately for them, it’s beginning to seem like despite everything, Obama’s policies actually worked. The auto industry bailout worked. The economy is slowly healing. Polls show that most Americans believe that the rich don’t pay their fair share in taxes.
So on the central issues of this campaign season, Republican candidates are left without a leg to stand on. The natural tendency for social conservatives like Santorum is to return to tried and true talking points. What is most fascinating however - and most revealing - are the levels of extremism that the already extreme conversation is taking.
A decade ago social conservatives battled liberals on issues of abortion, but today that conversation has taken a bizarre turn toward debating contraception. A decade ago there were occasional debates regarding the role of religion in civic life, particularly on government property. Now Santorum openly states that he doesn’t believe in the absolute separation of church and state. Yesterday he denounced a President who wants every American to have the opportunity to attain a college education. Are these fights that Santorum thinks he can win?
The GOP has always been proud to declare itself the party of small government and fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately, that sliver has increasingly lost out to the other factions of the party, social conservatives and libertarian extremists. And while moderate Republicans do still exist, they are becoming an endangered species. Today’s GOP is extreme and getting extremer. They are no longer satisfied with debating Roe v. Wade, they wish to pass legislation defining life at contraception. Libertarians, always (and rightfully) fearful of government encroachment into the daily life of Americans, now absurdly demand the abolishment of the Federal Reserve.
Even when debating the economy, the GOP made a tactical decision to pivot toward ideological purity (i.e. extremism). There is no longer any room for compromise. It is free market principles or die! Even during the single largest recession since the Great Depression, when credit markets were frozen and unemployment rates were near 10 percent, the party position was to cut government spending and cut government jobs. It is as if John Maynard Keynes, arguably the most influential economist of the 20th century, never existed.
But just in case all that isn't caustic enough, the GOP has almost deliberately taken a dogmatic immigration position hostile to Latinos, a gay rights position hostile to homosexuals, a religious position hostile to American Muslims, welfare and tax positions hostile to the lower class, and most recently, a contraception position hostile to women. At least they're securing the reactionary evangelical white male vote.
This is how far the Republican Party has come. But we should not be surprised. Many saw this coming. Though the party establishment may not have expected this, they courted these malcontents and clowns. The election of George W. Bush, who ballooned the national debt, increased the size of government, encroached on our privacy and personal freedoms, and sloppily mired us into two wars, was a beautiful exercise in Orwellian doublespeak. Say one thing, and do another.
As the current crop of Republican candidates lean ever more heavily to the extreme, the GOP establishment move to distance themselves as quickly as possible. That may be the reason that most of the 29 governors have not yet endorsed a candidate. Hopes of some Republican white knight appearing at the last minute to challenge Obama are foolish, as most sensible people know that the atmosphere in the Republican base is too poisoned, and they have nothing to gain by fighting a strong Obama. Real candidates know that they must wait until 2016 before they can fight again.
When this election is over and the dust has settled, let us hope that the GOP figures out a solution to its extremism problem. If they wish to challenge Democrats on real issues like government regulation, Obama’s extension of Bush’s spy programs on Americans, and real compromises on deficit reduction, then we will be a better country for it. Until then, let’s wave as the circus road show travels through town.