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On Toxic Republican Rhetoric and Leadership

The summer of 2009 has been a bruising one for President Barack Obama, his administration, and his agenda. His poll numbers have fallen to more earthly levels, support for his health care proposals is eroding, liberal Democrats are feuding with conservative Democrats, and his Republican opponents have succeeded in muddying the debate enough to scare a lot of voters into not wanting the president's health care proposals enacted. Republicans clearly smell blood in the water, and they are now considerably more optimistic about their chances in the 2010 midterm elections.

There are certainly many arguments available to Republicans who wish to criticize President Obama. Regardless of Obama's motives or how necessary it was for him to take these measures, Republicans could attack him for the amount of money he has spent, the additional debt he has created, the government's intervention in the private economic sector, an unemployment rate of almost 10%, and his inability to make good on his rhetoric of "bringing the nation together."

Pursuing these arguments should seem like a natural fit for Republicans because the ideas of reducing spending and less government are two of the main prongs of the GOP platform.

However, these debates over political ideology have become muted over the course of the health care debate this summer. Republicans are increasingly espousing explosive rhetoric that comes from the fringes of their party. These arguments may play well with the Republican base, but they do nothing to grow the party or increase its appeal among moderates and independents who may respond more favorably to a genuine ideological message.

Comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, demanding to see his original birth certificate, bringing loaded weapons to presidential events, warning that Obama will create "death panels," advocating secession, and claiming that Obama wants to turn the United States into a socialist state are absurd charges that no serious public servant should give voice to.

It is easy to understand why Republicans are not only not repudiating this rhetoric, but also engaging in it themselves. For example, polling reveals that Republicans are actually closing the gap with Democrats when it comes to party affiliation. Some prominent political analysts are also increasingly bullish on the GOP's 2010 prospects. In other words, Republicans aren't necessarily being penalized for their conduct. So even if it is unhealthy in terms of civics, it may make political sense, at least in the short term, for Republicans to continue to actively promote or passively embrace this destructive and absurd rhetoric.

The problem for Republicans, aside from potentially making a mockery of their party and turning off moderates and independents, is that it poses a trap for those with presidential aspirations. Mitt Romney, Charlie Crist, Bobby Jindal, and Tim Pawlenty, for example, have been conspicuously silent regarding these verbal jabs. Of course, they may not want to inject themselves into this debate because Obama and the Democrats are being wounded just fine. After all, when your opponent is digging himself a hole, don't take away his shovel. They also might not want to draw the ire of their base for "going soft."

However, their silence could also be interpreted as a tacit approval of this sophomoric rhetoric. Could a Mitt Romney, for example, claim to be a "strong leader" who wants to "shake things up" when he chose not to stand up to his own party when it called Obama a Nazi? For all of Obama's foibles and shortcomings, at the very least, he looks like the grownup in the room as far as current political rhetoric is concerned. Republicans dreaming of taking over Obama's job in 2012 would be wise not to cede this issue completely to Obama for the sake of not drawing the ire of their base. The toxicity of this rhetoric must be confronted at some point, and mature and pragmatic Republicans are throwing away a golden opportunity to do so.

3 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

The GOP is a creature of the entrenched radical-right fund-raising, rabble-rousing and propaganda infrastructure.

No street-level wiseguy is going to confront the Mafia's leadership and turn it into an Elk's Club-type organization. And no Republican is going to confront the radical-right establishment and turn the GOP into a reasonable big-tent party that values fair play and civic responsibility.

There's a reason Paul O'Neil and Colin Powell just bowed out, after being treated so shabbily, making mostly muted criticisms but not taking on the right-wing establishment. An insurgency would have to have something to work with. But the radicals have long since run all but an impotent few out of the party. There is nothing to work with.

I'm reading Thomas Franks' The Wrecking Crew. I highly recommend it, when you have the time. Franks gives a good account of how far back the radicals' takeover goes, how broadly and deeply entrenched they are, and how they've turned movemnent conservatism into a growth industry — the kind that has made Richard Viguerie, Ralph Reed, Howard Phillips and Jack Abramoff rich and infamous.

The radical right has to try to destroy public trust and confidence in Obama and congressional Democrats, and they know it. They have nothing but whack-job jeers and smears, dirty tricks and the same old discredited laissez-faire, trickle-down policies and wedge issues to offer. Their only hope is to be seen as the lesser of evils, or the other guys to vote for, should public disgust with Democrats' feckless inability to get their act together and deliver meaningful change result in the kind of backlash that occurred in 1994.

Anthony Palmer said...


The really interesting thing from a mass communication research standpoint is how so many people in the electorate seem to buy into this absurdity. A cursory check of most message boards and comments sections of popular online newspapers and blogs reveals how far we've gone off the rails.

Do you have any idea why such lies, rumors, and overheated rhetoric have been deemed credible?

Ronald Brownstein also recently wrote a book that may be worth checking out. It's called "The Second Civil War" and is about how partisanship today is undermining governance.

Thanks for dropping by.

S.W. Anderson said...

"Do you have any idea why such lies, rumors, and overheated rhetoric have been deemed credible?"

There's always a strong contingent of somewhat ignorant, resentful, frustrated people in American society. It doesn't do them any good to vent their anger and many resentments on the person who "stole" their high school sweetheart; the boss at work; the neighbor they despise (and/or envy); the cop who pulled them over for blowing through a red light; the co-worker who got the promotion; the driver who cut in front of them; or the dim wit in the checkout line who took 10 minutes writing a check.

What these resentful people can do is vent their wrath on government — especially the big, bad federal government. And, rather than be written off as malcontents, they'll probably draw cheers and attaboys from others who use government as their all-purpose whipping boy who can't hit back.

These are people who hang on the every word of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, O'Reilly, Savage and their ilk. These are people who see no inconsistency in hating their government and everything it does while presenting themselves as the only true patriots in America.

Beyond this hard core you have a whole lot of know-nothings. Reading up on health care reform is too complicated, gives them a headache. Or, they would try to follow it all, but they've got a job to do, a business to run, etc. Besides, they don't know if the newspapers and magazines can be trusted to provide true facts about it. They're not as round the bend as the resenters, but are skeptical of politicians and the press. For some reason, though, know-nothings are usually very receptive to resenters' rants.

The media, for their part, put great emphasis on balance — too often slavishly and stupidly. So, you get a news report or interview where a learned, award-winning scientist describes the latest carefully documented evidence global warming is here and causing problems, followed by a graduate of the Diplomas R Us Theological Seminary declaring global warming is normal, natural, and besides, it's God's will, the better to prepare us for The End Times. Ah, balance. What's a know-nothing to think, or know?

Worse than nothing, that's what.

Mind you, all of the above is exploited and amplified by the right-wing noise machine, corporate interests, lobbyists, GOP "operatives" like Roger Stone and Roger Ailes/Fox News, and of course, Republican politicians.

The resernters, hell raisers, know-nothings and balance-crazy journalists together are a small minority in America. But they're a very vocal, highly visible minority. They generate controversy. They turn out for tea-bag rallies and town halls, where they dominate the proceedings and get their nonsense onto the evening news and talk shows.

Think of all the above serving as force multipliers, as leveragers of misinformation and disinformation, benefiting Republican officeholders.

They're in high gear right now, trying to destroy not just health care reform, but as I said, public confidence and trust in President Obama.

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