Translate

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Reason Pawlenty Can (And Should) Win






I always remind people of the first axiom of American politics: "Politics is an art, not a science." The Republican Party played right into the hands of Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008; they weren't too "conservative" or "dogmatic" or even the opposites of those things. But they did 3 fundamental things wrong: 1) They alienated committed Republicans with McCain's nomination, they 2) failed to take account of the electoral map as it stood, and 3) they completely ignored the special challenge of Obama's ethnicity, rather than use it.



In the first case, the 9/11 terror consensus that kept a lid on domestic policy had run its course; the economic "era of good feelings" was over. On the other hand, the GOP's hands weren't clean enough on spending or any other fiscal issue to raise the alarm as to what Democrats would do when in power. The GOP Congress had been profligate by its own standards, and President Bush (nor his father) was and is not a Goldwater/Reagan Republican. Moreover, the Iraq War lingered past the point of patriotic forbearance, and as it happened, was launched under questionable pretenses. The public was ready and willing to forget the hawkish, pro-war stance favored by the Democratic leadership, provided the Democrats carefully frame their opposition in palatable terms. The Democrats, aware that 'doves' would not go to the Republicans and that some segment of 'hawks' felt that Bush's moderation was prolonging the war, crafted 'A New Direction for Iraq' for the mid-term elections, the perfect modulation for an anti-war Left, and a war-weary Right & center tired of the status quo. The very wartime consensus that virtually guaranteed that Bush could not lose in 2004 wore thin by 2006, and was utterly moot by 2008. They needed a candidate who would bring Iraq to a swift end without undermining the patriotism which drove it, and a credible alternative to a Democratic Party with a grudge. A grudge and a social democratic vision undimmed by 8 years of the most fiscally agreeable Republican ever to hold the office. Instead, they nominated a candidate in John McCain a man entirely convinced of American exceptionalism, and willing to expand it by force. In short, the opposite from winning. Fiscally, McCain's conservatism is eclipsed by his love for our national greatness. Never a religious man, he was already under suspicion as one on the wrong side of the culture war, never mind battling the liberalizing elements.



The electoral map had held almost unchanged for two presidential elections. At the end of roughly 40 years of Republican ascension, it was risky to rely on the South (and its cultural conservatism) another time. A razor-thin win in 2000, and a win in 2004 sealed by a win in Ohio against an incompetent opponent (that it was competitive at all should have been alarming) meant that the built-in GOP advantage was eroding. Perhaps the plateau of white evangelicalism around this time means something also for political realignment. That is to say, the GOP candidate in 2008 needed to be: 1) Midwestern, and 2) a political outsider ideologue who could have rebuked Republican governance without assisting the Democrats. Best fit for the profile at the time: Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana. Potential problem: name recognition, nearly cancelled out by what should have been a modified incumbency advantage. The GOP hoped it could stay competitive in the Midwest without effort; they ended up demonstrating how much their presidential victories in the last 30 years had relied on the unlikability of their opponents.



Finally, Barack Obama had the special advantage of being black in what we could call "The Cosby Generation." Though Bill Cosby has been around for ages, his groundbreaking family sitcom ran from 1984-92, and has run in syndication ever since. This TV show is actually the symbol of American white acceptance of civil rights, and some limited notion of black ascendancy and equality. Young whites, raised to profess racial equality and feel guilt for racial injustice, are eager to prove themselves superior than their parents and grandparents. They are eager to believe 'The Cosby Myth': that black Americans are willing to absolve them of past racial crimes, and that if one black family can be held out as an exemplar, the cold reality that most black people are still on the fringes of society in both equality and opportunity can be safely ignored. The nomination and victory of Barack Obama was the ultimate expression of 'The Cosby Myth'; it allowed whites to feel that they and the country had accomplished something, and it allowed Democrats and other liberals to benefit politically from their paternalistic, racialist policies and revisionist history while seeming "progressive." Obama, for his part, certainly isn't going to give back a major electoral advantage, even if his failure may inhibit the growth of major black influence in political life. The GOP needed to either nominate a black candidate, or to neutralize it with another "first." The female angle via Palin was stolen by Mrs. Clinton, and the most prominent black Republican (Gen. Colin Powell) supported Mr. Obama.



The other aspect of the racial advantage was the tone of the campaign. Because equality for black Americans is new and still elusive, noone wanted to be seen as "yelling at the black guy." Obama benefitted from an alarming lack of scrutiny partially because America had so much invested in his success. Not him personally, but the myth. These rules are still in force, and will be for next time. Shelby Steele is absolutely correct on this. You need a candidate who cannot be goaded into anger, whose candidacy does not depend on hostility to Obama the myth. You need to surround him with as many non-whites in high places as you can. If Herman Cain does not win but stays influential well into the season, it may behoove the GOP to make him the Vice-Presidential nominee. This seems very cynical, but this is about winning. Our sitting president had some useless activism, a law degree, and a grand total of 4 years in politics before assuming the office. He took the outsider theme and the special advantage of being black all the way to 1600 Pennslyvania Avenue.



Who fits everything we've said? Tactically, the best fit is still Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota. There is some chatter that he is too "nice," but this is moronic. You need a nice, cool head if you're going to out-professor the professor. On geography alone, he has a chance to put the Midwest back in play. He doesn't annoy the base, and he's likable enough to win over moderates. Those who want to "fight" Obama don't understand the rules. You have to suck up to Obama; we know the media won't help the GOP attack him. Quite the opposite. Acknowledge the power and reality of the myth; use candidate Obama's own inspirational words against the policies and processes of the last 3 years. The best speech that McCain gave as the GOP nominee was the first one, in Kenner, LA. He pointed out that Democratic ideas on offer were the same thing that's been on offer for 60 years. Why, if he's so new and inspirational, is he offering the policy equivalent of Walter Mondale? Same stuff, different day. I would have said, "Strip away all the smiles and sunshine, and this guy sounds like Adlai Stevenson. As in, their nominee from 1952. And I'm supposed to be the old one." McCain didn't do this consistently, because he doesn't truly believe the Democratic ideas are flawed, and his advisors thought he could out-liberal the liberal to take the center. But the center was Obama, due to the special advantage and McCain's flaws. A campaign is theater; you win when you write the script. Pawlenty can do that. I have more to say, but that's enough for now.

No comments: