The Republican Party has been using a grab-bag of strategies to counter Obama's policies over the past month. They rail against the stimulus package for its (supposed) pork. They hammer home their points with gimmicky videos and props. They speak in warrior rhetoric and revel in heroic, fighting-man stunts. But if there is one strand running through all these strategies, it is that they evoke a discomfiting feeling of deja vu. We’ve seen this stuff before: The GOP is currently reliving John McCain’s presidential campaign. The return to the strategies of their fallen candidate may be the saddest illustration of the current state of the party.
Earmarks were a single-minded crusade for McCain, touted at every rally and debate--particularly his line about a $3-million piece of pork to study Montana bear DNA. (“I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money!”) The Republican Party has similarly fixed upon the salt marsh harvest mouse, an endangered rodent potentially benefited by wetlands funding in the stimulus bill, with the same giddy tenacity McCain exhibited towards the Montana bear. House Minority Leader John Boehner circulated a memo bemoaning the mouse, while Georgia’s Paul Broun, another rising party star, lamented “this porkulous bill” filled with “rancid meat [like] millions for mouse restoration that will ruin the entire meal.” California’s Dan Lungren similarly wailed, “When I look at this stimulus package and learn it has $30 million to protect the San Francisco marsh mice, I have to ask, is that becoming more French or is that just becoming more absurd?” (More ... French? Memo to Lungren: They’re called frog-eaters.) And like McCain’s money-wasted-on-bears claim--which FactCheck.org called an “outrageous exaggeration,” not that that stopped him from harping on it--the GOP’s mouse complaint has turned out to be hyperbolic at best.
The gimmicky nature of the GOP’s contemporary p.r. strategy is distinctly McCain-esque, too. The McCain campaign cutely handed out tire gauges to supporters and the press in early August to ridicule Obama, who’d told voters that properly inflating their tires might help them save on gas. When Obama's Europe trip was receiving more press coverage than McCain's campaign stops, his aides distributed luggage tags to the traveling press that said "McCain Press Corps: JV Squad, 'Left Behind to Report in America."' Taking a page from McCain's playbook, the Republicans have set photos of the mouse to display on the House floor.
In a move reminiscent of McCain's last-stand-heroism stunt of suspending his campaign, the Republicans mounted a last-stand-heroism stunt this month by posting zero votes on the stimulus (and memorializing the triumph in film). “Your House GOP Took a Stand and Fought for You,” proclaimed one of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s recent videos. Building on McCain's obsessive use of war imagery, January’s House Republican retreat closed with a viewing of a clip from Patton, in which the general commands his men, "We're going to kick the hell out of [the enemy] all the time, and we're going to go through him like crap through a goose!"
Republicans are also imitating McCain’s dogged attempts to cultivate a kind of breezy, off-the-cuff hipness--Eric Cantor’s Aerosmith mash-up recalls buzzy McCain YouTubes like “Celeb.” But in the process, they’re aping his incompetence at the task, too. Aerosmith demanded Cantor pull his video (which celebrated Republicans’ rejection of the stimulus with giant zeroes flying across a black screen set to the call girl ode “Back in the Saddle”). McCain, for his part, got cease-and-desist requests from the Foo Fighters, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Heart, and even Paris Hilton (well, kind of).
It’s a surprise, to say the least, that the Republicans are hewing so closely to McCain's strategy since McCain lost--and the belligerent, gimmicky, and earmark-obsessed aspects of his campaign were specific culprits in his defeat. McCain’s war-hero image and bellicose demeanor seemed anachronistic and even alarming next to Obama’s pacifist, pragmatic cool. Gimmicks like his suspend-the-campaign-to-save-the-economy stunt were instantly panned. People noticed the awkward difficulty he had talking about anything economic without reverting to earmarks--especially considering that there never was much evidence that the public cared about it in the first place. “The American people see earmarks as the gateway to spending,” I remember Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, a rising House GOP star who stumped tirelessly for McCain, telling me back in December. Asked to recount one time a voter asked her about earmarks on the trail, she fell silent. “Oh, yes, we’ve, um, let’s see ... I’m trying to think ...”
So why is the GOP retracing its fallen leader’s steps? Given the contempt many Republicans felt towards McCain even before he whiffed on the election, it is even more surprising that his most distinctive ideological hobby-horse and his stylistic tics have become ragingly fashionable. Perhaps, since the GOP is so demoralized, those party figures who had the energy for stunts during the campaign season--the people who really thrilled to the tire-gauge stunt--still have the energy now, and still like the same showmanship.
The GOP has also yet to shed the McCain campaign's delusion about the media's instant effect on the public, made worse by the fact that they're dealing with a long-gamer in Obama: They believe that politicians win the spin war when, as David Weigel wisely put it, "their arguments are leading newspaper articles, columns and TV broadcasts. ... So what? If a tree falls down during MSNBC’s 'Morning Joe,' does it make a sound?"
But, in the end, the most likely reason the GOP's strategy feels like McCain 2.0 might be the simplest, and the saddest: With the party so badly on the mat and nobody boldly new stepping into the ring, there's no other template beyond their last presidential candidate's--even though he lost.
Eve Fairbanks is associate editor of The New Republic.