Pray for Mittens
by Jack Landsman, Sat Sep 25, 2010 at 04:05:34 PM EDT
As this enormous yawn that was September draws to a close—anybody catch that God-awful season premiere of The Office?—it has become nearly impossible to deny the teabaggers are on the cusp on something big in the November elections. Despite their public protestations to the opposite effect, I am quite certain the apparatchiks in the White House (i.e. the ones that haven’t already saluted the president before pole-vaulting to freedom), the courtiers in the speaker’s office, and the logo designers at the Democratic National Committee have already procured their spirits and Bicycle playing cards for the long night that awaits them on November 2.
For those of us who inhabit the out crowd—they have so many names: we’re everything but children of God—we must continue to lead the way whether the Democratic establishment appreciates it or not. In terms of electoral politics, 2010 is a lost cause and 2012 is the most relevant consideration—specifically the two people most likely to challenge our hopefully post-Obama nominee: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
Let’s do Sarahcuda first. While I was never convinced Sarah Palin hurt John McCain’s electoral prospects in the final analysis, I do believe the erratic, poorly-considered decision spoke to McCain’s lack of judgment which is an entirely different matter. (Barack Obama was always most fortunate in the opponents he faced.) Having established that, I have always maintained that Sarah Palin is essentially Barack Obama without the benefit of an Ivy League pedigree, a reasonably high IQ, and more talented ghostwriters. They possess the same sort of charisma—markedly different from recent smooth operators like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. These were self-effacing politicians who were sharp on their feet and could genuinely make you crack up. Dick Morris says he faced a recurring challenge in that Bubba was far more impressive extemporaneously than on the script. In those tumultuous 80s, Reagan’s foremost task was to spout killer witticisms in East Room press conferences while his minions ran wild. While W. had the ridiculous bit of business on the deck of that aircraft carrier, he also had the Bullhorn Speech under his Texas belt. Whatever one’s opinion of his miserable policies, incompetence, and larger stupidity, the Bullhorn Speech was an iconic moment in presidential rhetoric.
Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are charismatic only because of the attractive exuberance they possess. Their cults of personality are products of modern identity politics. These are tabula rasas whose appeal transcend the normal workings of Politics for the cultural niches they represent. She is the hot, fecund Christian warrior woman; he the postracial black man on a fascinating journey of self-discovery.
As she stood beside colossal loser McCain and husband Todd on Election Night ’08, we had every reason to assume the Fargo Tom Eagleton would slink back into her more suitable role of ruling “twelve people and a Polar bear” (Imus). Eight months later she made the shock Fourth of July decision to hand the keys to the Governor’s Mansion to her lieutenant, Sean Parnell. Her breathless resignation “speech” was difficult for even some supporters to decipher.
Reading James Fallows’ “The Passionless Presidency,” which appeared in the May 1979 issue of The Atlantic, in December 2008 before his inauguration convinced me the hopeful president-elect was essentially the second coming of Jimmy Carter. Chocolate Carter, if you will. Americans familiar with the tale know that, absent a successful primary challenge, a Reagan must emerge. I was reminded of this after the Palin resignation. I suspected she knew what I knew which explained why she quit Alaska. The reason her speech was so terrible had nothing to do with her mental instability. It was because: a) She didn’t have the luxury of Matt Scully, who wrote her gangbusters convention address in St. Paul; and b) She couldn’t candidly admit her true motives. She stepped down because she wanted to be president of the United States in 2012. In order to accomplish this, she had earn that big-time paper so that she could afford all the Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus her Caribou Barbie heart desired without charging it to the Republican National Committee. Her pursuit of the Reagan path to the White House necessitated storming the Lower 48 and endorsing candidates for the 2010 midterms. Supervision of her campaign books required more attention than the mundane, but still demanding, duties of the governorship permitted.
Sarah is now America’s most influential Republican politician. Politically, she has proven herself. Even her fiercest critics in the Republican tent must tread lightly. (Exploiting Sarah’s stupidity will smack of elitism and will be received precisely the same way Bill Clinton’s perceived race-baiting was in the 2008 primaries.) Her next task is to persuade the broad center she possesses a base level of competence necessary to carry out the duties of the modern American president: daily speechifying from behind the Blue Goose; delegating authority; and appearing firmly in command during photographed Cabinet and Situation room meetings.
Charging political opponents with extremism is a doomed tactic when the nation is rocked with an unshakeable aura of decline. I wish it were impossible for candidates like Gov. Palin to gain high office, but it is imminently possible. As they nervously observed the 1980 Republican primary contests, the Carter White House reportedly rejoiced as Ronald Reagan inched closer and closer to the GOP nod. Miserable as his record was, Carter and Reagan ran neck-and-neck until after the debate. That’s an incredible stretch in a presidential campaign. End result: “I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear…”
I believe a successful primary challenge to President Obama is critical and possible. If we’re able to pull this off, the best possible outcome for us in the GOP primaries would be the nomination of the unprincipled, uncharismatic, patrician politician called Mitt Romney.
In one of my favorite moments on The West Wing, Jed Bartlet is confronted by the retiring Supreme Court Justice Joseph Crouch. Justice Crouch is deeply disappointed by President Bartlet’s apparent decision to nominate a moderate jurist over a Latino firebrand, Crouch’s preferred choice. Mr. Crouch cuts the president down to size with this withering admonition: “American voters like guts. And Republicans have got them. In three years, one of them is gonna beat you.” (Spoiler alert: Bartlet does the right thing.)
A Romney nomination would represent a unilateral disarmament—particularly if the Democratic nominee is someone other than the president to whom blame has been assigned. Gov. Romney would helpfully neutralize the otherwise galvanizing issue of ObamaCare in a general election contest. In times of economic uncertainty, the American people are predictably susceptible to right-wing cultural populism. To this extent Romney is a self-righteous hypocrite with an easily verifiable past as a social liberal. Unlike his bosom buddy Scott Brown—who drives a truck!—Mittens can hardly even fake his way as a bonafide cultural warrior. This is crucial. Unless the economy improves appreciably, the 2012 contest will be an epic struggle between cultural populism and economic populism. For his part Mitt Romney hasn’t a leg to stand on either way. He is the unalloyed embodiment of both a manipulative politician and a Wall Street oligarch.
Mitt Romney may be remembered as one of the most ambitious and qualified men never to be president. President Palin will simply be the latest in a long line of awful reactionaries we were certain could never—ever!—be president.