Saturday, February 19, 2011

FRANK RICH : The G.O.P.’s Post-Tucson Traumatic Stress Disorder


SIX weeks after that horrific day in Tucson, America has half-forgotten its violent debate over the power of violent speech to incite violence. It’s Gabrielle Giffords’s own power of speech that rightly concerns us now. But all those arguments over political language did leave a discernible legacy. In the aftermath of President Obama’s Tucson sermon, civility has had a mini-restoration in Washington. And some of the most combative national figures in our politics have been losing altitude ever since, much as they did after Bill Clinton’s oratorical response to the inferno of Oklahoma City.

Glenn Beck’s ratings at Fox News continued their steady decline, falling to an all-time low last month. He has lost 39 percent of his viewers in a year and 48 percent of the prime 25-to-54 age demographic. His strenuous recent efforts to portray the Egyptian revolution as an apocalyptic leftist-jihadist conspiracy have inspired more laughs than adherents.

Sarah Palin’s tailspin is also pronounced. It can be seen in polls, certainly: the ABC News-Washington Post survey found that 30 percent of Americans approved of her response to the Tucson massacre and 46 percent did not. (Obama’s numbers in the same poll were 78 percent favorable, 12 percent negative.) But equally telling was the fate of a Palin speech scheduled for May at a so-called Patriots & Warriors Gala in Glendale, Colo.

Tickets to see Palin, announced at $185 on Jan. 16, eight days after Tucson, were slashed to half-price in early February. Then the speech was canceled altogether, with the organizers blaming “safety concerns resulting from an onslaught of negative feedback.” But when The Denver Post sought out the Glendale police chief, he reported there had been no threats or other causes for alarm. The real “negative feedback” may have been anemic ticket sales, particularly if they were to cover Palin’s standard $100,000 fee.

What may at long last be dawning on some Republican grandees is that a provocateur who puts her political adversaries in the cross hairs and then instructs her acolytes to “RELOAD” frightens most voters.

Even the Rupert Murdoch empire shows signs of opting for retreat over reload. Its newest right-wing book imprint had set its splashy debut for Jan. 18, with the rollout of a screed, “Death by Liberalism,” arguing that “more Americans have been killed by well-meaning liberal policies than by all the wars of the last century combined.” But that publication date was 10 days after Tucson, and clearly someone had second thoughts. You’ll look in vain for the usual hype, or mere mentions, of “Death by Liberalism” in other Murdoch media outlets (or anywhere else). Even more unexpectedly, Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, ran an op-ed essay last week by the reliably conservative Michael Medved trashing over-the-top Obama critiques from Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Dinesh D’Souza as “paranoid” and “destructive to the conservative cause” — the cause defined as winning national elections.

If the next step in this declension is less face time for Palin on Fox News, then we’ll have proof that pigs can fly. But a larger question remains. If the right puts its rabid Obama hatred on the down-low, what will — or can — conservatism stand for instead? The only apparent agendas are repealing “Obamacare” and slashing federal spending as long as the cuts are quarantined to the small percentage of the budget covering discretionary safety-net programs, education and Big Bird.

This shortfall of substance was showcased by last weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a premier Republican rite that doubles as a cattle call for potential presidential candidates. Palin didn’t appear — CPAC, as the event is known, doesn’t pay — and neither did her fellow Fox News personality Mike Huckabee. But all the others were there, including that great white hope of un-Palin Republicans, Mitt Romney. What they said — and didn’t say — from the CPAC podium not only shows a political opposition running on empty but also dramatizes the remarkable leadership opportunity their fecklessness has handed to the incumbent president in post-shellacking Washington.

As it happened, CPAC overlapped with the extraordinary onrush of history in the Middle East. But the Egyptian uprising, supposedly a prime example of the freedom agenda championed by George W. Bush, was rarely, and then only minimally, mentioned by the parade of would-be presidents. Indeed, with the exception of Ron Paul — who would let the Egyptians fend for themselves and cut off all foreign aid — the most detailed discussions of Egypt came from Ann Coulter and Rick Santorum.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who lost his 2006 re-election bid by a landslide of 17 percentage points, believes he can be president despite being best known for having likened homosexuality to “man on dog” sex. Even less conversant in foreign affairs than canine coitus, he attacked Obama for deserting Hosni Mubarak, questioning the message it sent to America’s “friends.” But no one (with the odd exception of George Will) takes Santorum’s presidential ambitions seriously. Romney, on the other hand, is the closest thing the G.O.P. has to a front-runner, and he is even more hollow than Santorum. Indeed, his appearance at CPAC on the morning of Friday, Feb. 11, was entirely consistent with his public image as an otherworldly visitor from an Aqua Velva commercial circa 1985.

That Friday was the day after Mubarak’s bizarre speech vowing to keep his hold on power. At 9:45 a.m. that morning, as a rapt world waited for his next move, CNN reported that there would soon be a new statement from Mubarak — whose abdication was confirmed around 11 a.m. But when Romney took the stage in Washington at 10:35, he made not a single allusion of any kind to Egypt — even as he lambasted Obama for not having a foreign policy. His snarky, cowardly address also tiptoed around “Obamacare” lest it remind Tea Partiers of Massachusetts’s “Romneycare.” He was nearly as out of touch with reality as Mubarak the night before.

There was one serious speech at CPAC — an economic colloquy delivered that night by Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor much beloved by what remains of mainstream conservative punditry. But Daniels was quickly thrashed: Limbaugh attacked him for his mild suggestion that the G.O.P. welcome voters who are not ideological purists, and CPAC attendees awarded him with only 4 percent of the vote in their straw poll. (The winners were Paul, with 30 percent, and Romney, with 23 percent.) Indeed, Daniels couldn’t even compete with the surprise CPAC appearance of Donald Trump, a sometime Democrat whose own substance-free Obama-bashing oration drew an overflow crowd. Apparently few at CPAC could imagine that Trump might be using them to drum up publicity for his own ratings-challenged television show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” which returns in just two weeks — or that he had contributed $50,000 to the Chicago mayoral campaign of no less an Obama ally than Rahm Emanuel.

THE G.O.P. has already reached its praying-for-a-miracle phase — hoping some neo-Reagan will emerge to usurp the tired field. Trump! Thune! T-Paw! Christie! Jeb Bush! Soon it’ll be time for another Fred Thompson or Rudy groundswell. But hardly had CPAC folded its tent than a new Public Policy Polling survey revealed where the Republican base’s heart truly remains — despite the new civility and the temporary moratorium on the term “job-killing.” The poll found that 51 percent of G.O.P. primary voters don’t believe that the president was born in America and that only 28 percent do. (For another 21 percent, the jury is still out, as it presumably is on evolution as well.)

The party leadership is no less cowed by that majority today than it was pre-Tucson. That’s why John Boehner, appearing on “Meet the Press” last weekend, stonewalled David Gregory’s repeated queries asking him to close the door on the “birther” nonsense. (“It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think,” Boehner said.) The power of the G.O.P.’s hard-core base may also yet deliver a Palin comeback no matter what the rest of the country thinks of her. In the CNN poll nearly two weeks after Tucson, Republicans still gave her a 70 percent favorable approval rating, just behind Huckabee (72 percent) and ahead of Romney (64 percent).

An opposition this adrift from reality — whether about Obama’s birth certificate, history unfolding in the Middle East or the consequences of a federal or state government shutdown — is a paper tiger. It’s a golden chance for the president to seize the moment. What we don’t know is if he sees it that way. As we’ve learned from his track record both in the 2008 campaign and in the White House, he sometimes coasts at these junctures or lapses into a pro forma bipartisanship that amounts, for all practical purposes, to inertia.

Obama’s outspokenness about the labor battle in Wisconsin offers a glimmer of hope that he might lead the fight for what many Americans, not just Democrats, care about — from job creation to an energy plan to an attack on the deficit that brackets the high-end Bush-era tax cuts with serious Medicare/Medicaid reform and further strengthening of the health care law. Will he do so? The answer to that question is at least as mysterious as the identity of whatever candidate the desperate G.O.P. finds to run against him.

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