Barack Obama surely has bad luck: a financial collapse, a recession and huge fiscal deficit bequeathed by the Bush administration, and obdurate Republicans in Congress. But, each day, he must fall briefly to his knees in the Oval Office to thank his Maker for the state of today’s Republican Party.
The New Yorker magazine cover had it right: The President is depicted ostensibly watching the Super Bowl and eating popcorn, but, instead of footballers, the helmeted players are Republican presidential hopefuls.
What a meagre group they are. Polls show Mr. Obama beating them all, despite an approval rating hovering around 50 per cent.
The distinguishing characteristic of this Republican marathon, apart from the mediocrity of the choice, is that the party’s various subgroups can’t stand one or more of the candidates.
The only moderately sensible one is Mitt Romney, but the evangelicals, Tea Partiers, anti-Federal Reservists and all other extreme conservatives don’t trust, like or support him. Despite Mr. Romney’s kowtowing to their issues, and for all his money, he just can’t win them over.
And the more Mr. Romney – who eventually will be the nominee – prostrates himself to their causes, the less electable he will be when it counts: in the November election. But the longer it takes for him to win the nomination, the more Americans will see of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, the sight of whom in an ostensibly serious political party will cause sensible voters to wonder what happened to the Grand Old Party.
What happened, as some conservative commentators are noting with despair, is that the party has been taken over by its extremes and its factions. The whole party intellectually surrendered to the false gods of supply-side economics some time ago. Despite the repeated and demonstrated failure of that theory, it remains the anchor of Republican economic thinking.
Its political appeal is obvious: that ever-lower taxes will actually increase revenues, which, in turn, will make the country’s bloated deficit disappear. And, by the way, less money for the state will eventually shrink the state, which is good news for those – à la Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas – who see the state as a threat to human liberty.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with U.S. history understands the power of the appeal that less government is the best defence of liberty. They will also know that, in such a diverse country, with so many regional, religious and ethnic cleavages, social and political movements of all sorts have always sprouted.
That evangelicals are so powerful today harkens back to the Pilgrims and the Quakers, the Great Revivals, William Jennings Bryan, spiritualists, Social Gospellers, Billy Graham, the Elmer Gantry types and all the television evangelists of past and present.
That Mr. Paul’s supporters are isolationists to the core recalls Washington’s “no foreign entanglements,” Charles Lindberg, William McCormick and the many other Midwestern isolationists of yesteryear. That rank-and-file Republicans see conspiracies against their liberties from within and without reminds us of witch hunts from Salem to Joe McCarthy.
That Fox News roasts the President echoes Father Charles Coughlin’s radio programs blasting Franklin D. Roosevelt. That the two parties are so divided on almost everything is nothing new, since, in the early decades of the new country, Federalists and Republicans fought over everything. Even such an idealized persona as Thomas Jefferson paid newspaper hacks to write scurrilous articles about his principal rival, John Adams. That race underpins voting patterns and social attitudes is nothing new at all.
At the end of political cycles, as a general rule, the broad centrist mainstream of the United States carries the day, which is as it will be when all the attack ads have ceased, the last millions of dollars have been spent and the final votes have been counted. By then, the Santorums and the Pauls and the Gingrichs will have joined Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump as figures whose marginality will have been so richly deserved.
At least, this is what America’s friends abroad have to believe these days.