POLITICS FEBRUARY 27, 2013
Whoever could have imagined that Republicans could be such wussies? After all, the GOP is the Party of Testosterone. Democrats are the ones who are supposed to be wimpy and weepy. But lately the Republicans have been a bunch of crybabies: Hey mama, President Obama is picking on us. He’s so strong, so ruthless. Some of the biggest bullies in the schoolyard, it seems, can dish it out, but they can’t take it.
The Republican reaction to losing last November’s presidential election has included many familiar themes (especially familiar to Democrats: We’ve been there). There’s the traditional recrimination and finger-pointing, of course. There’s the search for the next messiah. There’s the call for “new ideas.” But one theme is novel: self-pity.
Indulging the self-pity of the voters has been a worsening ailment of American politics for years. The essential difference between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—founders of their respective parties in their current forms—is that he did it and she did not. She told voters to “pull up your socks,” or ”get in your car,” or “polish your boots,” or “eat your vegetables.” Over at Reagan’s, you could have pancakes for breakfast every day, because you’ve suffered enough. Self-pity is a powerful force. It’s usually bad policy but good politics.
But what’s going on now is different. Now it is the politicians themselves, and their affiliated media, which complain loudly about feeling bullied by their opponents. So far, the disease has only spread among Republicans. Big, bad President Obama, creepy Harry Reid, that B-word Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the gang of toughs called the Democratic Party are picking on the poor defenseless GOP. As a campaigning theme, it seems insane. The GOP has long prospered by portraying Democrats as the wimps, dangerously weak and unfit for command. Does the name Michael Dukakis ring a bell? And in really heady moments, like 1984, when Reagan earned his second term, or 1994 and 2010, when sweeping victories in off-year elections seemed to foretell an imminent landslide, Republican fantasies of one-party rule involved the triumph of their party, not humiliation by the other side.
In fact, moaning about how weak you are compared with the opposition seems so obviously a political mistake that we can only reach one conclusion: This must be sincere.
Rush Limbaugh recently spent two days of his radio show wallowing in political self-pity. “I have alerted you and anybody who will listen that what the objective is at the White House is the annihilation of the Republican Party, the elimination of all viable opposition—and on a personal level. You know, not just to annihilate Republican Party/conservative ideas, but also people, the people who carry them, the people who believe in them.”
What on Earth does he mean by “annihilation”? And not just of ideas, but of people? Should we expect pogroms against Republicans in Obama’s second term? Even Rush can’t mean that. So does “annihilation” mean anything more than just trying to defeat the other party’s candidate on Election Day, a tradition that Republicans ordinarily acquiesce to and often thrive at? If neither of these, “annihilation” must mean that Obama and the Democrats are cheating in some way. In what way is not clear. It sometimes seems as if Republicans think that their ideas are so superior that any Democratic victory is cheating by definition.
The text for Limbaugh’s sermon on February 11 was the transcript of a panel that David Ignatius of The Washington Post joined on “The Chris Matthews Show.” The Web version of Limbaugh’s rant carries the headline, “Ignatius Begs Obama: Spare Rubio.” Rush interpreted Ignatius’s comments as a plea to Obama, by his supporters in the liberal establishment and for the sake of democracy, not to destroy the Republican flavor-of-the-month, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. The implication is that Obama could crush Rubio under the heel of his shoe if he wanted to, but he should show restraint and only use his superpowers for good.
The next day, Limbaugh brandished a New York Times article about how Obama might have changed after being safely reelected. Lots of anonymous quotes about how he feels more relaxed and self-assured, and so on, which Limbaugh interprets as meaning that we may be heading toward (“they don’t use the word; I will”—and it’s worth the wait): “dictatorship.” Yes, Obama is turning America into a dictatorship. Even the liberal establishment can see it. Take the children and run for your lives, before it’s too late.
But it’s not just Limbaugh. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, reacting to the State of the Union address, said ominously that Obama might “steamroll his opposition in Congress, or in the 2014 midterms” to get his dangerous left-wing agenda enacted. My impression always had been that to get elected or pass legislation, you generally need a majority vote. What is this process called “steamrolling” that apparently will enable Obama to skip all that stuff?
Then there is John Dickerson’s scandalous article in Slate, urging Obama to “destroy” the Republican Party if he wants his place in history. This is what Dickerson believes, as a political analyst. Why should he not say so? There is nothing illegitimate about wanting to “destroy” the opposition, since the only way to do that in politics is through politics. He does not mean murdering people. Anyway, Dickerson does not speak for the Democratic Party.
According to some Republicans, Obama is even responsible for the war of recriminations now going on inside the Republican Party. And not just because he beat them. Because he (in the words of columnist Charles Krauthammer) used “ruthless skill . . . to create an internal civil war” among Republicans. What a magician! What a masterful, powerful, brilliant performance. A man like that ought to be president!
Look. President Obama has no superpowers. He is a skilled politician who plays the game well. He was reelected by a majority of the voters. Hubris is always a danger among politicians, but I think we can allow him a victory lap or two before worrying that he is creating a dictatorship. The notion that he should—what?—go easy on poor Marco Rubio in order to preserve—what?—the two-party system, I suppose, is ridiculous.
If you asked Newt Gingrich, for example, or any of the other House Republican leaders of recent vintage, whether he would like to “destroy” the Democratic Party, he probably would say, “Heck yes.” And President Obama might well dream of killing off the Republican Party. So what? He’s not going to do it. If we’re going to start being held responsible for our fantasies—even just our political fantasies—as if they were real, we’re all in trouble.