Pity the poor Republican Party. Their political strength has long been about being a disciplined, tightly organized party – one of the “benefits” that often comes with being in the minority. Despite illusions to the contrary, the reigning “party establishment” and elders have pretty much ruled the decision-making. Issues are reduced to quick slogans that are easy to sell to the public without concern for nuance (or often the facts). Offense is the prevailing strategy against the typically inept defense of Democratic Party politicians. Everyone stays on message.
At least that is how it has been. But not so much in 2012. Instead, the GOP is looking remarkably similar to the political chaos normally associated with the Democratic Party. Their tight cohesion instituted after their 2008 devastation collapsed with the 2010 Tea Party movement that energized the Republican base away from its party elders. The Tea Party’ers had a mixed bag of victories and losses, surrounded and enabled by the general pendulum swing to Republican victories as the public rejected the Democrats of 2008. From that taste of political victory in 2010, Republican Party unity has broken apart.
For the 2012 elections, for some reason the Party decided to emulate the 2008 Democratic primary. A similar protracted primary season seemed a good way to engage and energize their base. So calendar changes were made, and more importantly, most state results were moved from a winner-take-all to a proportional allocation of delegates. It all looked very exciting and very democracy-based. Until the reality set in.
The Republican primary effectively started in summer 2011 – six months before the first primary voting and 1½ years before the November election. It started off with almost two dozen mind-numbing “debates,” but they quickly showed up the stark weaknesses of most candidates. The primary collected one of the weakest, if not most bizarre, field of candidates imaginable. It was almost more interesting to watch who decided not to run than the actual field itself.
There was Mitt Romney, the candidate that Republican voters could not bring themselves to love, trying to convince people he is a “true conservative” even though he has endorsed almost every political position imaginable in order to get elected. He rarely got above 30% of the votes. Then there was “[almost] everyone else,” a string of pretender – and ultimately embarrassing – candidates one after another each claiming to be the true conservative candidate ready to knock off the presumed Romney victory. And, of course, there was Ron Paul, the quixotic candidate disgracefully ignored by the news media, fighting a lonely battle for a Libertarian Party agenda while disguised as a Republican.
To Romney’s dismay, Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum made the primary a fight about the social values so dear to the conservative right instead of just bashing Obama on the economy. And so we amazingly descended into a surreal regression in time back to the 1960s. 50 years of social progress was thrown out the window as we refought about a woman’s right to conception (illegal then); marriage entitlement (inter-racial marriage was illegal, now we fight about making homosexual marriage illegal); a mother’s right to abortion (already decided by the Supreme Court 40 years ago); a supposed anti-God “attack on religion” (claimed by the very ones who are doing the actual attacking against other people’s religions); voter registration and access (old poll tax meets new voter ID laws); women’s liberation versus the relative value of homemaker moms versus working moms; the right of every American to receive basic healthcare (Medicare in the 1960s, Romney/Obamacare in 2012). Just when you start to have hope that we are making civilized progress as an American society, it seems we have to continually go back to the starting point and re-debate old issues over and over again.
There is virtually nothing that I can agree with in the Bachman/Santorum agenda, given its ill-thought emotional appeal to our lesser selves. But I am indebted to them for opening up the Republican Party and exposing the cracks in their supposed unity, for giving voice to views I may find abhorrent but which many Party members wanted expressed. And for forcing the bland Romney – trying as hard as possible to avoid making any statement of substance at all – to reveal how willing he is to say anything to anybody just to win an election. (I have no doubt his short-thinking comments will resurface again come this fall.) What I am still scratching my head about is – where is the Tea Party? The dominating political force in 2010 seems to have dried up and disappeared in 2012. Yes, they influenced the political platforms of all of the candidates who came to curry their favor (except Paul, the one candidate who speaks what he truly believes). But for whatever reason, their passion and their power appear dissipated.
After months of this social debate, horrified political elders started calling for an end to the primaries, a termination of the “rhetorical dissention,” and a “rallying around of our candidate” (i.e. Romney). And so it has now effectively been ended. The candidate who never received a majority of the total votes cast, nor most individual state votes, is anointed the winner by elders and media. Anointed before about half of the states have yet to vote. The big states of New York, Texas and California have not even been to the voting booth, and the election is declared all over. The last time California Republicans had anything to say about their nominee was in 1976 when Ronald Reagan almost beat Gerald Ford for the nomination on the convention floor. This was supposed to be the year Republicans demonstrated democracy in action. But the party establishment determined that was not to be. Some social-right conservatives will sit out the election given no political place to call home; others will vote for Romney in November, but mainly out of their larger “anyone but Obama” mindset.
By definition, democracy is messy. Meaning it inherently cannot be controlled by “leaders.” Though Republicans may often talk a good game about democracy, patriotism and the Constitution, once again it has been shown to be hollow talk. We may still (inexplicably) have the specter of Newt available to amuse ourselves for awhile longer. And Ron Paul will continue to quietly do whatever it is he is doing in background. But we now have seven months of Democrat versus Republican campaigning to sit through. Based upon what we have seen thus far, it is going to be a pretty painful and ugly seven months. The intelligent national dialog we so desperately need is unlikely to be heard.