The future of the Republican Party-12: Puppet or puppeteer?

The key issue that will determine the future of the Republican Party leadership is whether it will revert to the control of the old-style conservatives that can reclaim the support of numerically large social values base, or whether leadership of the party will remain with the new alliance of Christianists and neoconservatives, united under the banner of Sarah Palin.

At present, it seems like the latter are firmly in control. These people don’t worry too much about whether Sarah Palin is competent, since they feel they can ‘manage’ and ‘control’ her. Randy Scheunemann is a neoconservative and PNAC project director who is a strong supporter of Palin and was the person assigned to brief her on foreign policy (which did not turn out too well, to put it mildly). He is also strongly anti-Russia, a paid lobbyist for Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, and someone who pushed for a strong US reaction against Russia over the conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia even though it has become clear that Georgia provoked it.

Under his tutelage, Palin’s first important meeting that took place just before her convention speech was with the board of directors of AIPAC, a leading member of the Israel lobby. So clearly, the neoconservatives seem to think that in Palin they have someone they can influence.

Republicans who think Palin is the future also planned a secret meeting to be held two days after the election to plot long-term strategy. It is clear that they are going to use support for Palin as a litmus test to determine who, in their Manichaean worldview, is with them and who is against them.

Jim Nuzzo, a White House aide to the first President Bush, dismissed Mrs Palin’s critics as “cocktail party conservatives” who “give aid and comfort to the enemy”.

He told The Sunday Telegraph: “There’s going to be a bloodbath. A lot of people are going to be excommunicated. David Brooks and David Frum and Peggy Noonan are dead people in the Republican Party. The litmus test will be: where did you stand on Palin?”

Mr Frum thinks that Mrs Palin’s brand of cultural conservatism appeals only to a dwindling number of voters.

He said: “She emerges from this election as the probable frontrunner for the 2012 nomination. Her supporters vastly outnumber her critics. But it will be extremely difficult for her to win the presidency.”

Mr Nuzzo, who believes this election is not a re-run of the 1980 Reagan revolution but of 1976, when an ageing Gerald Ford lost a close contest and then ceded the leadership of the Republican Party to Mr Reagan.

He said: “Win or lose, there is a ready made conservative candidate waiting in the wings. Sarah Palin is not the new Iain Duncan Smith, she is the new Ronald Reagan.” On the accuracy of that judgment, perhaps, rests the future of the Republican Party.

Those of us who think Palin is utterly inept and incompetent based on her performance are aghast that anyone would seriously consider her to be their candidate for president. These backroom power brokers who support her are not stupid and cannot be blind to her obvious deficiencies as a national leader, even though she does have some crowd appeal. So what can they be thinking?

The fact is that politics has a long history of people who think they are so clever that they can control a useful, popular, but politically ignorant puppet leader, usually a woman. Such attempts almost always have a bad end. We have seen this played out in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, a charismatic Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959. His party’s leaders responded by appointing his widow as his replacement although she had no background whatsoever in politics. Their thinking was that she would be a figurehead who would reap the sympathy of voters and keep their party in power while they could control her from behind the scenes. While serious political analysts ridiculed the idea of a total novice being thrust into national leadership, what happened was that Sirimavo Bandaranaike turned out to be a shrewd manipulator of power who outmaneuvered and outlasted all her would-be puppeteers, and retained leadership of the party for over three decades, serving three terms as Prime Minister.

But while she proved to be a tough and wily politician, her previous lack of any interest in politics or even a coherent political and economic philosophy resulted in an ad hoc and chaotic style of governing, driven by personal whims and vendettas and intrigues, lurching from one policy to another, based on short-term tactics and no real long-term strategy.

The Christianists and neoconservatives backing Palin risk a similar fate. She reminds me of Mrs. Bandaranaike, someone with no coherent political or economic philosophy, ignorant and uninterested in national and international issues, but who knows how to appeal to a particular segment of voters, has shrewd political skills, and a lust for the trappings of office that she will use to her advantage. Those who support her thinking that she will be malleable to their agenda may be in for a nasty surprise once (and if) she gains power. In Alaska, she already has a reputation of someone who has no qualms about using people to propel her to higher office and then turning her back on them, and treating anyone who disagrees with her as an enemy to be destroyed.

So we should not be so quick to write her off as a political force.

Next: The case against Palin

POST SCRIPT: Proposition 8 – The Musical

Despite the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar defeats for gay rights in Arizona and Florida on election day, there seems to be a surge in support for gay rights.

Watch Proposition 8 – The Musical, starring John C. Reilly and Jack Black as Jesus.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

The future of the Republican Party-11: The last straw

As this series has tried to show, there was an increasing divergence between the vision of the Republican party as seen by the old-style conservatives and that seen by the new alliance of Christianists and neoconservatives. Looking back, it seems inevitable that the tension would become too great and the party finally snap.

It was Sarah Palin that was the last straw. We saw how towards the end of the campaign, many leading old-style conservative Republicans, their party’s intellectual backbone for so many years, abandon their party and support Obama, citing McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as the reason for their defection. I suspect that that was not the sole reason but that their disillusionment had been brewing for a long time and this was the defining event that pushed them over the edge.

The split over Palin resulted in bitter and public infighting within the Republican party, with many stalwarts jumping ship. The website Talking Points Memo has put together a nice graphic and quotes from the many Republican stalwarts who distanced themselves from the McCain-Palin campaign, particularly because of their reservations about Palin.

Andrew Sullivan is a good example of someone for whom the scales fell from his eyes. When reading the excerpt below written after the election, it is good to recall that he was one of the most gung-ho of conservative supporters of Bush and his policies, especially the Iraq war, who believed without any evidence that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks, and who heaped vitriolic ridicule on all those of us who expressed concerns that the Bush administration was leading the country into a ditch.

He now makes an about-face and puts the current old-style conservative view most brutally:

Let’s be real in a way the national media seems incapable of: this person should never have been placed on a national ticket in a mature democracy. She was incapable of running a town in Alaska competently. The impulsive, unvetted selection of a total unknown, with no knowledge of or interest in the wider world, as a replacement president remains one of the most disturbing events in modern American history. That the press felt required to maintain a facade of normalcy for two months – and not to declare the whole thing a farce from start to finish – is a sign of their total loss of nerve.

It happened because John McCain is an incompetent and a cynic and reckless beyond measure. To have picked someone he’d only met once before, without any serious vetting procedure, revealed McCain as an utterly unserious character, a man whose devotion to the shallowest form of political gamesmanship trumped concern for his country’s or his party’s interest. We need a full accounting of the vetting process: who was responsible for this act of political malpractice? How could a veep not be vetted in any serious way? Why was she not asked to withdraw as soon as the facts of her massive ignorance and delusional psyche were revealed?

The Palin nightmare also happened because a tiny faction of political professionals has far too much sway in the GOP and conservative circles. This was Bill Kristol’s achievement.

It was a final product of the now-exhausted strategy of fomenting fundamentalist resentment to elect politicians dedicated to the defense of Israel and the extension of American military hegemony in every corner of the globe. Palin was the reductio ad absurdum of this mindset: a mannequin candidate, easily controlled ideologically, deployed to fool and corral the resentful and the frightened, removed from serious scrutiny and sold on propaganda networks like a food product.

This deluded and delusional woman still doesn’t understand what happened to her; still has no self-awareness; and has never been forced to accept her obvious limitations. She cannot keep even the most trivial story straight; she repeats untruths with a ferocity and calm that is reserved only to the clinically unhinged; she has the educational level of a high school drop-out; and regards ignorance as some kind of achievement. It is excruciating to watch her – but more excruciating to watch those who feel obliged to defend her.

Her candidacy, in short, was indefensible. It remains indefensible. Until the mainstream media, the GOP establishment, and the conservative intelligentsia acknowledge the depth of their error, this blog will keep demanding basic accountability.

Even I have not have been so harsh in my critique of Palin but this just shows how resentful the old-style conservative Republicans feel about being squeezed out of the leadership. What the Palin selection did was to confirm in their mind that the party had passed the point of no return, that their worst fears were confirmed. Robert Draper of GQ magazine gave one of the many insider views at how the Palin choice was made and the disaster it had become.

Such reports must have persuaded the old-style conservatives that their party had completely abandoned any commitment to basic competence or traditional conservative philosophy in favor of short-term expediency and neoconservative ideology. They could no longer shut their eyes to the plain fact that Republican party had been taken over by deeply unserious people with a wrong vision for the future.

POST SCRIPT: The failure of the credit ratings agencies

Some time ago I wrote about the role of the credit rating agencies in creating the subprime mortgage mess.

Last week, PBS’s NOW had a good 25-minute program on this topic.

The future of the Republican Party-10: The rise of neoconservative influence

The neoconservatives reached their pinnacle of influence with the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

The neoconservatives succeeded in planting key people in important positions. To the extent that we can discern any coherent political philosophy, Bush seems to be not a neoconservative himself, but through Dick Cheney and other key people in the Department of Defense, State, and NSA (such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, David Addington, Elliot Abrams), the neoconservatives have been able to achieve many of their goals.

Aided by the events of 9/11, they used and accentuated the fear and paranoia generated by that attack to create a mindset within the administration and the country that the US was at war with pretty much the entire Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, that this war must be won by any means necessary, and that the way to do that was to project American power, to show the world that America cannot be trifled with.

Looking back, it is amazing how so many people within government, the Congress, and the media, people who should have known better and in fact did know better, allowed this revved-up national sense of bloodlust to misdirect attention from al Qaeda, the organization behind the actual 9/11 attacks, to an attack on Iraq which had nothing to do with it and in fact was at odds with al Qaeda.

As a prime example, here is what so-called ‘moderate’ New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was saying in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq:

We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? . . . .

Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.

And guess what? People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, “You will now be held accountable.”

This puerile macho posturing was what passed for serious analysis in the mainstream media. But it fit in perfectly with the neoconservative mindset because in their grand plan, Iraq was the first on the list of Middle Eastern countries that they wanted to dominate, followed by Iran and Syria, with the idea that Saudi Arabia would then naturally fall into the US orbit. So the fact that Iraq was innocent of the 9/11 attacks was deliberately obscured.

Getting the Bush administration to start the unprovoked, illegal, and immoral war with Iraq was the major ‘success’ of the neoconservatives and as a result of it, the Republican party has received strong support from them, that group seeing it as the best vehicle for advancing their agenda. In order to solidify their influence, they have provided the intellectual cover for this administration’s deliberate expansion of presidential power and authority, seeking to remove all judicial and congressional oversight.

It is this increased role and influence of the neoconservatives within the Republicans that poses a significant problem for the party.

Any political party needs a political philosophy, an ideological and intellectual base around which it can define its political and economic strategy. While the religious social values base provide the raw voting numbers for the Republican party, religious views by themselves are not sufficient on which to base a governing philosophy.

For a long while, the political philosophy of the Republican party was provided by the old-style conservatives. Things began to change with the rise of Christianist leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and the like who veered away from traditional religious concerns and added on three new features: a determined commitment to low tax policies, a total aversion to any government aid to the poor, and a belief in an ‘end times’ theology which sees the world as ending soon with Armageddon and Jesus’s second coming.

It was this last crazy belief that played a significant role in shifting the ideological base within the Republican party. The old-style conservatives are not particularly religious (and definitely not end-timers) and are uneasy with the many excesses of the Bush administration and its naked power grab. As a result, the crazies of the religious right now found themselves moving closer to the crazies of the neoconservatives because in both visions, the dominance of Israel in the Middle East and the subjugation of its Muslim neighbors play important roles in their eschatology. The neoconservative crazies saw Israel’s supremacy as a desirable foreign policy end in itself, while the religious crazies saw it as a signal, the immediate precursor to the really desirable end they fervently wished for, the end of the world.

As a result of this shift, what we have seen within the last decade or two has been the rapid decline in influence of the old-style conservative group within the intellectual and political leadership of the Republican party and its replacement by the neoconservative group, the key factor being the shift of allegiance of the Christianist leadership from the former to the latter. As a result, we saw the abandonment of a non-interventionist foreign policy with one that seemed to actually seek out confrontation with other countries to be used as vehicles for the projection of raw military power. The sophistication and education of the neoconservative crazies gave intellectual cover to the most outrageous policies, even to the extent of having ‘serious’ discussions of what kinds of torture was allowable and what was not.

In the last eight years, the old-style conservatives have seen almost everything they value being overturned by their party: A huge rise in government spending leading to record deficits, reckless and illegal wars started, the alienation of traditional allies, government breakdown as ideology replaced competence as criteria for job selection, violations of the constitution and rule of law justified by the most extreme arguments, people’s individual liberties trampled upon cavalierly, and finally the collapse of the economy due to reckless deregulation and a cavalier attitude towards the public trust.

While these changes may have been distasteful to them, for a long time the old-style conservatives seemed to be willing to go along with it as a winning electoral tactic, and they could delude themselves that they still had some influence within the party leadership. They were willing to remain silent and to even provide cover for some of the changes. Thus one found traditional old-style conservative Republicans bending logic into pretzel shapes trying to explain how the Bush policies could be consistent with what their party had always stood for, even though this was manifestly false.

But there had to come a breaking point and the last election provided it.

Next: The last straw.

POST SCRIPT: Finding the right Christmas gift

It helps when everyone knows what you really want.

The future of the Republican Party-9: The neoconservative problem

The struggle for the future of the Republican party has four groups vying for dominance.

One group consists of the old-style conservatives, people who want smaller government and fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, rule of law, respect for personal liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

The second group is the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, the Bible, and immigration are the main concerns. Many of these people belong to the lower and middle economic classes.

The third group is the Christianist leadership, people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and John Hagee, who claim to speak for the social values base but, as I argued in the previous post in this series, whose overriding allegiance is to a low-tax ideology (especially for the rich) and who vehemently oppose any government programs that provide assistance to the poor.

The fourth group is the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives are the wild card in American politics, wreaking havoc wherever they go. Their interests lie less in domestic policies and more in creating a muscular foreign policy. They dream of America exercising hegemony over the world, using its might to destroy its enemies. They are firmly convinced that America is a force for good in the world and should not be shy about using its military, political, and economic muscle to dominate it.

In particular they want to remake the Middle East, to secure its oil supplies and change the governments of those countries that they perceive as threats to Israel, since they view the interests of America as identical with those of Israel (especially the hard-right spectrum of Israeli politics), and that what is good for one country is good for the other.

Neoconservatives seem to think the end justifies the means and if they need to, they will support the shredding of constitutional protections, committing torture, starting illegal wars, abusing the powers of government, and the administration accumulating almost dictatorial powers in pursuit of their objectives. A world dominated by sheer America power is their dream.

The neoconservatives have been around for a long time and eventually in 1997 created an organization headed by William Kristol and somewhat grandiosely titled The Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Their mission statement can be found on its website.

The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.

The PNAC intends, through issue briefs, research papers, advocacy journalism, conferences, and seminars, to explain what American world leadership entails. It will also strive to rally support for a vigorous and principled policy of American international involvement and to stimulate useful public debate on foreign and defense policy and America’s role in the world.

For a while the neoconservatives wandered in the political wilderness, searching for a home. They are not particularly politically partisan, except for tactical reasons for the purposes of executing their long-term political strategy. Many of them are socially liberal and have been Democrats in the past, belonging to the strongly anti-Soviet/anti-Russian wing of that party that used to be headed by Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson. (Leading neoconservative Richard Perle was a staffer for Jackson for over a decade.) Many are not religious at all but believe in the utility of religion as a powerful means for influencing people to adopt particular political positions and keeping them in line.

They neoconservatives tried to influence the administration of George H. W. Bush (1988-1992) but did not have much success. That administration was dominated by so-called ‘realists’, people who dealt with the world as it was and not as they wished it to be, and who pursued a multilateral foreign policy based on alliances rather than on unilateral projections of American power. Ray McGovern, a long-time CIA analyst who worked in that administration and gave George H. W. Bush his daily intelligence briefing, says that the neoconservatives were then called “the crazies” and kept at arm’s length.

The neoconservatives may be crazy but they not stupid. They don’t care too much about who actually is the titular leader of the country or what party is in power. While they seek actual political power, they also believe that they can influence policies through occupying senior policy-making positions in government and dominating the discussions in the opinion-making media. They did the latter by building up their so-called think tanks and using them to gain prominence as media analysts. (For more analysis on how this works, see my series on the propaganda machine.)

After their failure to significantly infiltrate the administration of Bush Sr., the neoconservatives tried to move in with Democrats and influence the Clinton administration (1992-2000) to adopt their hard-line military interventionist policies, but again met with only limited success.

But then they hit the jackpot following George W. Bush’s victory in 2000.

Next: The rise of neoconservative influence.

POST SCRIPT: On being #1

Lewis Black comments on some American preoccupations. (Strong language advisory.)

The future of the Republican Party-8: Compassionate conservatism versus brutal conservatism

(For the previous posts in this series, see here.)

If you look at his Wikipedia page, it becomes clear that Mike Huckabee is too pragmatic on economic issues for the Christianists. He is someone who as governor of Arkansas sought to find ways to solve the social problems that he faced, even to the extent of cutting deals with Democratic leaders rather that sticking rigidly to the lower-tax ideological script demanded by the Christianist leaders.

In late 1996, Huckabee campaigned for ballot Amendment 1, a plan to adjust property tax rules to make school funding more equal across the state, and Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment increasing the state sales tax 0.125 percent to improve the state’s park system and natural resources.

On April 1, 1999, Huckabee signed into law a three cent increase in tax on gasoline and a four cent increase on diesel. Attached to the bill was a bond issue to pay for highway construction.

Huckabee also seems to be genuinely progressive on race, concerned about the state of the environment, and interested in trying to improve the conditions of the poor.

Huckabee proclaimed 1997 as a year of racial reconciliation by saying “Let every one of us make it our priority to bring reconciliation, not so much that we can force it or legislate it, because we cannot, but that we begin in each of our own lives to purpose in our hearts that we will not harbor anger, hostility, prejudice, bigotry and racism toward any person.”

Huckabee signed legislation to create a health insurance program which extended coverage to children of lower-income families, to be funded in part by Medicaid, SCHIP, and a tobacco industry lawsuit settlement. The program, ARKids First, reduced the number of uninsured children to nine percent (compared with 12 percent for the nation) in 2003. Also in his first year as governor Huckabee signed a partial birth abortion ban and a $7.6 Million Smart Start program for primary school students to learn “the basic skills of reading, math, and character.”

He was also not too hard-line on immigration issues.

Huckabee supported a 2005 bill by Arkansas State Representative Joyce Elliott to make some illegal immigrants eligible for scholarships and in-state college tuition, while vehemently opposing a bill sponsored by Arkansas State Senator Jim Holt which would deny state benefits to illegal immigrants, calling it “un-Christian.”

All these actions were taken as signs of his lack of ideological purity and earned him the deep ire of the low-tax ideologues.

[T]he Club for Growth argues Huckabee increased state spending 65.3 percent (1996–2004) and supported five tax increases. . . Ernest Dumas of the Arkansas Times, a consistent Huckabee critic, responded . . . [that] Huckabee was “the biggest taxer and spender in Arkansas history.” Former Arkansas State Representative Randy Minton (R) has said; “[Huckabee's] support for taxes split the Republican Party, and damaged our name brand.” The group has pointed out that Huckabee publicly opposed the repeal of a sales tax on groceries and medicine in 2002, signed a bill raising taxes on gasoline in 1999, and signed a $5.25 bed-tax on private nursing home patients in 2001.
. . .
The Club for Growth accuses Huckabee of being a liberal in disguise, saying Huckabee increased state spending 65.3 percent (1996–2004) and supported five tax increases.
. . .
The Cato Institute, a libertarian non-profit public policy research foundation, gave Huckabee an “F” for spending and tax policy in 2006.

And this is the main hidden fault line that is dividing the Republican party. For all their professed concern about religion-based social issues, this group’s fundamental allegiance is to an extreme form of free-market economics that serves mainly the interests of the very rich class. Any candidate that they approve of must support lower taxes (especially for the top echelons) and oppose any and all government programs that seem to benefit the poor.

These religious leaders have striven over the years to convince Christians that wealth is a sign of virtue and poverty is a sign of god’s disapproval. Hence, by eliminating government assistance programs, poor people should be left to fend for themselves, to prove that they are worthy by raising themselves out of their situation without any assistance from the government, while the well-to-do deserve to be rewarded for their obvious good character by being given even more tax cuts and other benefits. These Christianists seem to take literally Jesus’s words, “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Matthew 25:29)

They have partially succeeded with this message but they may be pushing it too far and alienating some of their base. Many Christians are not as callous as the Christianists are. They may think that they are entitled to a good life simply by virtue of being born-again Jesus lovers but they also believe in being their neighbor’s keeper and are not comfortable turning away from people in dire need. They take Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as a prescription for action. Many are also concerned about the state of the environment and worry about the excesses of greed that have led to deep inequalities.

Huckabee’s understanding of Christianity seems to push him in the direction of being an actual ‘compassionate conservative’ even though he remains religiously extreme, and the low-tax, ideology-driven religious right leaders did not want to have anything to do with him. While Huckabee may have fit the bill as far as social issues goes, he was too pragmatic and lacked gut-based, ideological approach to decision-making and the steely-eyed determination of Bush, McCain, and Palin.

In their rejection of Huckabee, these Christianist leaders are revealing a major fault line within the Republican party and showing themselves to be out of step with the values of many of their followers. Their rejection of the Huckabee candidacy reveals clearly more than anything else that their desire to serve the very rich triumphs over their so-called religious values.

This major schism within the Republican party is compounded by the rise of neoconservative influence within it, and this is what has driven the party off the rails.

Next: The Republicans’ neoconservative problem.

POST SCRIPT: The Modern Apostle’s Creed

What liberal Christians really believe.

The future of the Republican Party-7: Why don’t the Christianists ♥ Huckabee?

Mike Huckabee, who saw himself as the real deal, is understandably peeved at the way he was treated by the very people who should have embraced his candidacy and been his most ardent supporters. A review of his just released memoir shows that he is willing to name names:

Many conservative Christian leaders — who never backed Huckabee, despite their holding similar stances on social issues — are spared neither the rod nor the lash. Huckabee writes of Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, as having an “ever-changing reason to deny me his support.” Of one private meeting with Bauer, Huckabee says, “It was like playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade — whatever issue I addressed, another one surfaced as a ‘problem’ that made my candidacy unacceptable.” He also accuses Bauer of putting national security before bedrock social issues like the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.
. . .
He calls out Pat Robertson, the Virginia-based televangelist, and Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for endorsing Rudy Giuliani and Romney, respectively. He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power. Huckabee says he spoke to Hagee by phone before the McCain endorsement while preparing for a spot on Saturday Night Live. “I asked if he had prayed about this and believed this was what the Lord wanted him to do,” Huckabee writes of the conversation. “I didn’t get a straight answer.”

I think Huckabee is justified in being angry at the way he was treated. But what was the problem? Why didn’t all these religious right heavyweights rally around Huckabee who had enthusiastically supported all the social issues of the culture wars that they have been agitating for all these years, and had proven himself in the Iowa caucuses as someone who had strong appeal with Republican voters?

In his memoir, Mike Huckabee takes a stab at trying to answer this question, and in the process reveals the real fight that is going on within the Republican party over its future. The above review of his book finds Huckabee pointing a finger at what he sees is the problem within the Republican party.

In a chapter titled “Faux-Cons: Worse than Liberalism,” Huckabee identifies what he calls the “real threat” to the Republican Party: “libertarianism masked as conservatism.” He is not so much concerned with the libertarian candidate Ron Paul’s Republican supporters as he is with a strain of mainstream fiscal-conservative thought that demands ideological purity, seeing any tax increase as apostasy and leaving little room for government-driven solutions to people’s problems. “I don’t take issue with what they believe, but the smugness with which they believe it,” writes Huckabee, who raised some taxes as governor and cut deals with his state’s Democratic legislature. “Faux-Cons aren’t interested in spirited or thoughtful debate, because such an endeavor requires accountability for the logical conclusion of their argument.” Among his targets is the Club for Growth, a group that tarred Huckabee as insufficiently conservative in the primaries and ran television ads with funding from one of Huckabee’s longtime Arkansas political foes, Jackson T. Stephens Jr.

But the Christianist opposition to Huckabee is based on more than just their anti-tax purity. It is also based on their opposition to any government intervention to aid those less fortunate.

Next: Compassionate religio-conservatism versus brutal religio-conservatism

POST SCRIPT: Money as an incentive

It is an article of faith amongst low tax advocates that money is what motivates people and by taxing people more, they have less incentive to work. Thus the huge bonuses paid to some executives on Wall Street and big corporations are justified on the grounds that this makes them work harder.

MIT business professor Dan Ariely examines this myth by offering low, medium, and high bonuses to people for comparable work and found that:

The people offered medium bonuses performed no better, or worse, than those offered low bonuses. But what was most interesting was that the group offered the biggest bonus did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.

The future of the Republican Party-6: The Huckabee puzzle

The clue to the real problem facing the Republican party lies in what happened to Mike Huckabee’s candidacy when he ran for the Republican nomination in the last election. I thought that he had the perfect credentials for the party and was surprised that he did not do much better. He is a former two-term governor of Arkansas (1996-2007), showing that he has executive experience and the preferred rural Southern profile. He is an ordained Baptist pastor who worked as an actual minister from 1980 to 1992. He has been married to the same woman for 33 years and there has been no hint of personal sex scandals or even impropriety.

The scandals that he was involved in while governor tended to be the kind of fairly petty financial ones that politicians from smaller states tend to get embroiled in. In the hands of a determined prosecutor they can be blown up into a major issue (like Ken Starr did with Whitewater for Bill Clinton, Huckabee’s predecessor as Arkansas governor) but more often are treated as business as usual and blow away.

He has all the right positions on social issues to appeal to the party’s religious base, showing him to be a hard-core conservative. He believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and even favors amending the US constitution if necessary to reflect his belief that the country is founded on Christian principles. Austin Cline, creator of the excellent website About Atheism/Agnosticism, analyzes Huckabee’s views on church and state relations and claims that his views make him a theocratic fascist.

At the same time he is affable, telegenic, has a sense of humor, plays bass guitar in a rock band, has an engaging personality, and can appear on programs like The Colbert Report and win over an audience that would not be at all sympathetic to his views. Even I, who disagree strongly with him on almost every position he holds and cannot imagine myself ever voting for him, find myself liking him. He seems thoughtful and intelligent and articulate, a persuasive spokesman for his positions. He looks like someone with whom you could seek common ground by having a civil and reasoned discussion, even while the two of you hold opposing views.

He should be the dream candidate of the religious and conservative right, having qualities that could appeal to centrist voters despite his right-wing conservative views. And yet, after getting a surprisingly big win in the Iowa caucuses, he failed to get the support, especially financial, that he was entitled to expect from religious leaders of the social values base that should have propelled his candidacy.

All the Christianists like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, John Hagee, Gary Bauer, Bob Jones, etc. found excuses to not support him and instead pledged their allegiance to pretenders like McCain, who not only has been hostile to them in the past, but gave lukewarm support to their pet issues. McCain is also twice married, a self-confessed adulterer, not overtly religious, and has been tainted with serious sex and financial scandals in the past.

These Christianists were even willing to support the cross-dressing Rudy Giuliani who publicly humiliated his former wife with his open affairs, supported women’s choice on abortion, and had been the mayor of gay-friendly New York City, that den of iniquity that epitomizes the very opposite of the ‘real America’ that Christianists claim to represent.

Mitt Romney was also preferred by some of these conservative religious leaders, even though he is a Mormon and his commitment to their social issues was seen by many as a late conversion based on political expediency, and thus its genuineness was suspect.

Huckabee, who saw himself as the real deal, is understandably peeved at the way he was treated by the people who should have embraced his candidacy and been his most ardent supporters. As a review of his just released memoir reveals:

Many conservative Christian leaders — who never backed Huckabee, despite their holding similar stances on social issues — are spared neither the rod nor the lash. Huckabee writes of Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, as having an “ever-changing reason to deny me his support.” Of one private meeting with Bauer, Huckabee says, “It was like playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade — whatever issue I addressed, another one surfaced as a ‘problem’ that made my candidacy unacceptable.” He also accuses Bauer of putting national security before bedrock social issues like the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.
. . .
He calls out Pat Robertson, the Virginia-based televangelist, and Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for endorsing Rudy Giuliani and Romney, respectively. He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power. Huckabee says he spoke to Hagee by phone before the McCain endorsement while preparing for a spot on Saturday Night Live. “I asked if he had prayed about this and believed this was what the Lord wanted him to do,” Huckabee writes of the conversation. “I didn’t get a straight answer.”

I think Huckabee is justified in being angry at the way he was treated. But what was the problem? Why didn’t all these religious right heavyweights rally around Huckabee who had enthusiastically supported all the social issues of the culture wars that they have been agitating for all these years and had proven himself in the Iowa caucuses as someone who had strong appeal with Republican voters?

Next: Why don’t the Republican religious right leaders ♥ Huckabee?

POST SCRIPT: Who would you like to have been?

One of the positive developments during the election was the low visibility of Ann Coulter. Her shtick is always the same: say something outrageous to gain attention.

But here is a clip from the past where she and Al Franken discuss the question of which character from the past they would have liked to have been, and where Franken one-ups her shtick and makes her look silly.

Ann-coulter-al-frankenClick here for the funniest movie of the week

(Thanks to Ashali.)

The future of the Republican Party-5: McCain opens the Pandora’s box

One of Al Gore’s biggest sins for which I will never forgive him is his putting into the spotlight the insufferable Joe Lieberman by selecting him as his running mate in 2000. Lieberman has milked his gift of prominence to the maximum so that it is now hard to avoid his smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous presence in the media.

John McCain is likely to suffer similar reproof among large segments of the population for his inflicting of Sarah Palin on the American public. She too has a grating personality, though in her case it is her snide and sneering tone mixed with her ignorant but pugnacious self-assurance that tends to irritate.

But in many ways, McCain’s choice of Palin will do a lot more harm to the Republicans that Lieberman did to the Democrats, even though the latter actually campaigned against the Democratic candidate and provided cover for some of the most despicable allegations made against Obama. In the end, Lieberman represents just himself, a voting bloc of one, and will eventually disappear, most likely losing his next senatorial election in 2012.

But Palin does represent a large constituency that will not go away even in the event that she does, and this group has been newly energized by the Palin selection and their claim to power is what is going to cause problems.

McCain belongs more to the old-style conservative Republican wing of the party, does not seem particularly religious or enamored of the religion-based agenda of the social values bloc, and he probably saw that bloc in the subservient role it has traditionally played, which is to mainly turn up on election day. It is very likely that when McCain selected Palin, he saw her as bringing female and outsider and youth and energy credentials to the ticket, nothing more.

I think it is now obvious that the vetting of Palin prior to her selection to be McCain’s running mate was cursory to the point of being almost non-existent. I am almost certain that he did not realize that the elevation of Palin would open a Pandora’s box of expectations of the social values bloc of his party and did not anticipate the outpouring of religious fervor that would accompany her selection. For the first time, the religious base has had one of them be part of the top leadership. Now that they have got so close to the driver’s seat, they are not going to return to the back of the bus. I think they will insist on a true believer as the next leader of the party.

This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the ‘real Republicans’ are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.

This is why the jockeying for leadership within the Republican party will be interesting to watch, as various candidates try to keep their names in the public eye while at the same time trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.

As is usually the case, the names of candidates from the previous election are being bandied about the most. Mitt Romney is the one who is most nakedly revealing his ambitions. But he is a Mormon and however much he and his church may protest that they are really just another Christian denomination, they are still seen by many Christians as not one of them, a little too out there, more like Scientologists and Wiccans. Furthermore his earlier softer stances on gay rights and a woman’s right to choose may make his true-believer credentials suspect. For these reasons, I think that he has a tough road ahead of him to gain the Republican nomination.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was short-listed as a possible vice-presidential candidate, might serve the bill. He seems to have the required positions on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, though he does not seem to flaunt his religion, perhaps because of that famous Minnesota reserve.

But earlier in his career he had softer stands on abortion and stem-cell research and supported anti-discrimination laws against gays. He is also one of the few evangelicals to support actions to combat global warming, and these will hurt him with the true believers.

While Pawlenty should be acceptable to the social values base of the party, it is not clear if he gives out that special frequency signal that only true believers can hear that enables them to identify those who are truly one of them and thus support them enthusiastically.

Another rumored vice-presidential candidate Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is also seen as a possibility for future party leadership. Does he have the required religious cred? He is the son of Indian immigrants and a Catholic convert from Hinduism and describes his conversion in a 1993 article.

He seems to hold orthodox, hard-line conservative Catholic views, which puts his in agreement with the evangelical social values voters on most of the issues dear to them. He is fervently anti-choice, anti-gay rights, and anti-embryonic stem cell research.

His youthful involvement with an exorcism might worry old-style conservative Republicans but will likely strengthen his religious credibility among the true believers, who see such nuttiness as signs of genuine faith, enough to overcome their misgivings about him being a former Hindu and the child of immigrants.

But the real clue as to the problems the Republican party faces lies in their puzzling response to the candidacy of Mike Huckabee.

Next: The Huckabee puzzle

POST SCRIPT: Hopeful signs of overcoming bigotry

Jed Lewis points out something important.

Let us remember when this election is in the history books that it wasn’t just that majorities of white voters in states like Iowa and Wisconsin and Oregon supported Barack Obama for President, but it was also black voters in Tennessee who overwhelmingly stood up for Stephen Cohen, a white Jewish congressman who was challenged by Nikki Tinker, a black woman who ran a Jew-baiting primary campaign against him.

Tinker thought that black voters wouldn’t support a white Jewish candidate, but they did. She ended up winning only 19% of the vote.

The elections of Barack Obama and Stephen Cohen (who supported each other in their primaries) may not mean that we have overcome. But they do show that we can. And eventually we will.

I really hope that this is a sign of the beginning of the end of stupid and vicious identity politics.

The future of the Republican Party-4: Palin’s appeal

The radio show This American Life once had an amusing episode about how Americans of Canadian origin somehow immediately know if any person or thing is also Canadian, even if that fact is not at all obvious to anyone else.

David Rakoff . . . claims that there must be a chip in his head — or something like it — that automatically tells him when someone or something famous is Canadian. Lorne Greene? Canadian. The American space shuttle? It has a Canadian-built arm.

The religious right seems to have a similar sixth sense, an antenna that picks up the secret frequency sent out by those like them. While the rest of us were dumbfounded by the Palin choice for vice president and scrambled to try and figure out who she was and what she represented, they immediately sized her up as one of them and embraced her warmly. In the mere five days between her debut as the vice-presidential nominee and her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, she had become their darling on whom they pinned their hopes and dreams.

Palin is rural and attended the Pentecostal Assembly of God church in her hometown of Wasilla. Whatever one might think of their religious practices, such as getting into trances and speaking in tongues, one cannot deny that these are true believers. I know because I have relatives who are Pentecostals and they do not take their faith lightly. People who as adults belong to such churches are not your mere do-gooder Christians, those who value their church as primarily social organizations that happen to also give their lives some spiritual meaning. For these people, Jesus is real and present and speaking to them on a regular basis. The rapture and Armageddon are not some laughably goofy ideas but something they look forward to and pin their dearest hopes on.

So when during the campaign news stories and video emerged of Palin being prayed over by a witch-hunting priest who exorcised her of all demons, some of us were aghast at the idea of a political leader actively participating in such rituals, but the true believers were delighted at this evidence of genuine religion. After decades of being strung along by what they viewed as the false prophets of the Republican party, at last they had a true messiah, someone who would lead them to the promised land of a Christianity-based America. Her carrying to term of her Downs syndrome baby and even her teenage daughter’s unwed pregnancy were seen as further evidence that she was not paying mere lip-service to anti-abortion views. (There were always suspicions that the leadership of the Republican party might well allow secret abortions for their own family members while publicly opposing it.)

So Sarah Palin was seen as the real deal for the religious faithful. At last, they had someone who was truly of them. It did not hurt that she was attractive too. This is why the present battle over the direction and leadership of the Republican Party is going to be rather bitter. It is currently being fought over Sarah Palin the person but the real underlying fight is over whether the large voting bloc she represents is going to continue to be in the top leadership of the party.

Those who oppose her point out that she was significantly responsible for the party’s defeat in the last election.

There is evidence that Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket has hurt McCain with some voters. Fourteen percent of Obama’s supporters say they once supported McCain, and the top reason given for their switch was McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate.

That is a huge number of defections, probably coming from the old-style conservative wing of the Republican party. For such people, these numbers are a compelling argument that in order to build a winning coalition again, the party has to go back to embracing traditional Republican values and not those of the social values bloc. Republican Kathleen Parker who was one of those old-style conservatives who defected from the party at the last election explains the problem.

Mainstream media conservatives are amazed that Palin and her supporters do not recognize what seems to them to be obvious, that she doomed the party and needs to fade away onto obscurity. They cannot believe that she is instead going in the opposite direction, raising her profile even more, giving a hectic round of interviews with all kinds of media outlets and raising the possibility of running for the presidency in 2012. Meanwhile Joe Biden, her counterpart who actually will become the vice-president, is totally ignored.

Palin is not being delusional in her seemingly feeling that she has a real chance of being the party’s future standard bearer. It all depends on whose opinion you think should matter. A poll taken after the election found that 69% of Republican voters think Palin helped McCain, not hurt him. Furthermore,

Ninety-one percent (91%) of Republicans have a favorable view of Palin, including 65% who say their view is Very Favorable. Only eight percent (8%) have an unfavorable view of her, including three percent (3%) Very Unfavorable.

When asked to choose among some of the GOP’s top names for their choice for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, 64% say Palin. The next closest contenders are two former governors and unsuccessful challengers for the presidential nomination this year — Mike Huckabee of Arkansas with 12% support and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with 11%.

Given that Palin clearly loves living the high life (her clothes shopping spree is a good clue) and relishes being in the media spotlight, you can be sure that with poll numbers like these within the party, she is not going to disappear into the Alaskan backwoods.

Brace yourself for the new reality series (or soap opera) that is going to last for four years at least: Sarah Palin, Republican sweetheart.

POST SCRIP: Eddie Izzard on Christianity

The future of the Republican Party-3: The social values bloc gets a top spot

There may be a little truth in the belief that culture war issues are losing some of their appeal, and that is a good thing. Looking back, we can see that the Southern strategy based on those culture wars was already losing some steam before the current election. In both the 2000 and 2004 elections the Republicans followed that same path and yet barely hung on to power. The mid-term elections in 2006 saw the Republican party lose its majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1992, and the presidential election year of 2008 saw the further deterioration of their support, resulting in even larger majorities for the Democrats.
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