A Good Ole Boys’ Family Feud

As Romney sinks, Republicans turn on each other, and the ‘Southern strategy’ implodes at last.

Theo Anderson

As Romney fails to bridge respective Republican constituencies, his party is starting to turn on him. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons)

The knives are coming out and conservatives are turning on each another as President Obama establishes a lead of several points in the polls.

The notion that the GOP’s problems can blamed on bad consultants is a bit of whistling past the graveyard. The problem is not just consultants, nor even an awful candidate. The deeper issue is that Romney’s flaws mirror those of a party on the brink of coming apart.

In Politico this week, the television host Joe Scarborough warned fellow conservatives that we should be willing to face the fact that Mitt Romney is likely to lose — and should, given that he’s neither a true conservative nor a courageous moderate. He’s just an ambitious man.”

At National Review, Andy McCarthy wrote recently that there is a big conservative base out there — bigger than the third of the country we’ve lost. But they’re left to scratch their heads and say, I’m supporting this guy [Romney] … why?’”

On her radio show, Laura Ingraham said that if the Romney campaign can’t beat Obama in this gimme election,” the GOP should shut itself down. Start new, with new people,” she said. Election after election, we hire people who have lost previous campaigns … and they keep getting re-hired.”

Ingraham has a good point. Political consultants have an inexplicable talent for failing upward, and that’s true of Democrats as well as Republicans. Bob Shrum’s career chugs right along regardless of how many failed bids for the presidency he masterminds. (Recall what an inspired work of genius the John Kerry campaign was.)

But the notion that the GOP’s problems can blamed on bad consultants is a bit of whistling past the graveyard. The problem is not just consultants, nor even an awful candidate. The deeper issue is that Romney’s flaws mirror those of a party on the brink of coming apart. If Obama wins,” as even Rush Limbaugh predicted this week, it’s the end of the Republican Party.” He went on to say that a third party would emerge from the rubble.

Romney simply can’t bridge the ever-widening constitutencies of the Republican party. Successful politicians must always do some amount of bridgework, and the best are like the elephant in the parable of the blind men: different things to different people. (In the parable, several blind men touch the elephant in order to learn about it. Since each one feels a different part of the animal, each one comes away with a different truth.)

George W. Bush was a master at this aspect of politics. To the neo-cons, he was a foreign-policy hawk. To the religious right, he was a born-again believer with the rough edges sanded off a little. To the working class, he was a plainspoken man of the people — the guy you’d like to have a beer with. To business interests and the wealthy, he was a kindred spirit disguised as a cowboy — and a man who would slash their taxes. To political moderates and minorities, he was a man who wanted to put the compassion back in conservatism. To Southerners, he was an adopted son.

Every Bush voter had her own truth about the man, but there was no real Bush and no single truth about him — just as there is no single truth about Barack Obama, who, depending on the perspective of the viewer, is a leftist radical, a pragmatic centrist, a moderate Republican, a former community organizer whose heart is with the poor and disadvantaged, a constitutional scholar and intellectual, an emblem of our post-racial future, a healer and much more. Voters see what they want to see, and pick and choose among the plausible options.

The stereotype of Romney as not being real — as being all things to all people — is a testament to his failure at this game. His attempts to be a chameleon are flimsy. His great liability is that he’s really only one thing. From almost any angle, Romney looks like what he is: a rich white guy whose ideas always line up with the interests of wealth, privilege and whiteness.

So he has the vote of the 1%-ers locked up, and also the vote of the one-third or so of the electorate who will never vote for a Democrat. But he has little to offer anyone else.

He does sometimes try to broaden his appeal, of course, and that’s when he runs into trouble — by going aggressively hawkish on foreign policy this week, for example. Romney called a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, condemning the efforts of misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,” a disgraceful” indication of Obama’s misplaced priorities. Romney made it seem as if the statement had been released in response to the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya. In fact, the statement was released before they were killed. 

Even Republicans were a little stunned by the candidate’s bumbling attempt to paint Obama as the apologizer-in-chief. As the former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd memorably put it: It almost feels like Sarah Palin is his foreign policy adviser.”

But Romney may be doing as well as any candidate could do in a party that’s so ideologically adrift as the GOP. Does it stand for anything, really, aside from cutting taxes, breaking unions and repealing Obamacare? What motivates its base aside from rage at Obama, who is the object of anger more for what he represents — the emergence of a majority-minority America — than for his actual policies?

Republicans do make a lot of noise about the looming catastrophe the national debt will bring and about the dire threats posed by Islamic states, especially Iran. But that’s just rhetoric. The GOP’s actual record on the debt — Bush’s unpaid-for wars and budget-busting tax cuts — and the disaster in Iraq are too recent for Republicans to be credible on those issues. And, anyway, Romney isn’t offering plausible policies that would address them.

As Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, recently said of his party’s dilemma, We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” That’s a problem indeed, because Democrats — shockingly — have taken the upper hand on issues that the GOP used to own, particularly family values” and foreign policy.

What we’re witnessing, as Louis Nayman writes in the latest issue of In These Times, are the last, bitter stages of the GOP’s Southern strategy”: appealing to the anger that white voters feel toward America’s growing religious and racial diversity. That strategy has created a solid South for the Republicans — and turned out the base in big numbers — since Richard Nixon. It will continue to do so for another decade or two. But that won’t be enough to win national elections. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

So Laura Ingraham is right: the GOP should start over. But it will take more than new consultants for the party to become viable again. It will take ideas and policies that offer plausible answers to our problems, and candidates who have more to recommend them than the fact that they’re white, wealthy and really angry at the ways the country is changing.

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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