One is Barack Obama, probably the most skilled and era-appropriate politician in a generation or more. And that, after he’s already through all of one whole month in office.
It’s been some time since America had much of a real two-party system. Ralph Nader was right about that in 2000. By 2001, he was beginning to be wrong. Today, it may be the case that he is growing wronger all the time.
It’s a little hard to say, because the two great, tectonic, political questions of the moment remain unanswered, only slowly coming into focus, perhaps in part because they are moving targets, actually evolving over time toward some new equilibrium. Those questions are, Who will the Democrats (and especially Obama) be?; and, Who will the Republicans be?
My sense is that Obama is fundamentally every bit the centrist he apparently whispered that he was as a sweet nothing into Benjamin Netanyahu’s ear, on his visit to Israel last year, but that events may pull him to the left. My sense is that the Republican Party has been wholly and completely captured by the lunatic fringe, but that events are jerking its sleeve toward the center.
I think Democrats can reasonably comfortably become either the party of the center or the center-left, and can, looking ahead, forge a popular consensus-based governing regime that lasts at least a generation, and more likely two.
I doubt Republicans can survive what is happening to their party as anything other than some sort of rump, stump, latter-day Whig Party, with a solid electoral grip on the whole of the Old Confederacy, as they continue to insist on maintaining in the twenty-first century every ounce of the poverty, ignorance, prejudice and class apartheid that marked the eighteenth. The only change that would represent from the last several decades is that such sick regressiveness will no longer be quite so nationalized, courtesy of the likes of Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Trent Lott or Mitch McConnell, but rather will remain confined to their Bible Belt, just as Jesus intended.
Key ideological mysteries remain, but what is starkly clear, and all the more so after Tuesday night, is the stature gap between these two parties. It’s not that the Democrats stand tall. They don’t – though Obama sometimes does, so far – and the likes of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi seem at least astute enough to get out of the way of their party’s champion as he rises precipitously in public esteem. No, it’s not that Democrats stand tall, but that, more than anything, how pathetically small now stands – or crawls – the Republican Party, the same one Karl Rove promised just a few years ago to turn into a permanent majority in America.
You could see this in the jaw-dropping sight of the Republican members of Congress stuck in their seats as the rest of the room cheered for the concept of guaranteed healthcare for children. What a notion, eh? “Hey”, you could just hear them thinking, “how can we use tax giveaways to turn mere multi-millionaires into full-on billionaires if we’re spending that money instead on keeping a nation’s youth healthy? Screw that!”
You could see it, during the same speech, as they sheepishly looked around the room, trying to decide whether to rise in applause or not, as the rest of the room cheered the concept of limiting pay to utterly failed CEOs now being rescued by taxpayers whose government they’ve spent a lifetime deriding. “Hey”, you could hear them thinking, “those are our homies you’re talking about!”
But where you could really see it is in the side-by-side comparison of Barack Obama and the champion of the opposition party, Bobby Jindal, who gave the Republican response afterwards. For every bit that Obama soared in his speech – and he did, rhetorically and even, sometimes, substantively for progressives – Jindal was a moral, philosophical and political homunculus of microscopic proportions. His speech of only a few short minutes managed to pack more unctuousness, more faux bonhomie, more “be sure to do a half-chuckle here” inauthenticity, more rank and bogus populism, and more policy solutions that were last fresh in the paleolithic era, than perhaps any single thing I’ve have seen in the entirety of my lifetime. Even David Brooks – or should I say, especially David Brooks, who sees the remaining shards of his credibility swirling down the toilet as the party to which this one-time socialist hitched his wagon these last decades – even he was apoplectic at the sight of the Jindal self-immolation. When David Brooks is describing the Republican response speech and literally using words like “insane” and “nihilistic”, you know how horrid an affair it really was.
Imagine a political party in 2009 staking its claim to popularity with the voters on a demand to return to the gold standard, re-instituting Prohibition, or rejecting the Jay Treaty, and you’d be just about as up-to-date and relevant as the Republicans. Jindal sounded like little more than a sickening GOP jukebox trotting out old Reagan chestnuts that were already horrid forty years ago when they were first uttered by the B-movie actor himself, repeatedly referring, for instance, to the looming danger of government “bureaucrats” running our lives.
You could also see the difference between the parties in the very facts of Obama and Jindal. For all its faults of cowardice in the last decades and out-group Balkanization in the time before that, the Democratic Party has still done some of the hard work of inclusiveness-building in America. And, what is more, they did so at a massive cost to their popularity, as the Republican vultures swept in to pick up the racist vote, after Lyndon Johnson had shown the moral courage to do the right thing. Then they watched as the GOP grabbed the sexist vote, while Democrats tried to enact the Equal Rights Amendment. They were scorned for coddling communists and criminals, while the Kaiser’s Party won votes by opportunistically trashing the ACLU. Most recently, the Democrats have lost the homophobic vote to the GOP, while the closeted queers dressed up as the bible-thumping moral arbiters of our culture rail against the very sins they commit when the sheep in their congregations aren’t looking.