Alright, alright, I know what you must be thinking: "Damn, Green, you sure must be a dedicated professor to do that!" As it happens, you'd be partly right and partly wrong. In fact, the students are great, the trip is fun and a little unpredictable in nice way, and there really still is a wee bit of genuine candidate accountability remaining in the New Hampshire retail politics process.
That said, however, it's absolutely true that the field of GOP candidates is stunning in its sheer capacity for selfishness, dishonesty, and plain old meanness, and that listening to them for too long without wearing noise-cancelling headphones could surely burn off both of your ears. It's the political equivalent of staring at the sun, and the cult-like gaga-bots one can observe among these audiences seem to have spent quite some time doing just that. If you know just a bit about history, just a bit about context, or just a bit about the dark arts of rhetorical legerdemain, listening to a speech by Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney will leave you wanting to pop up just about every half-sentence and loudly disclaim "That's a lie!", "That's wrong!", or "That's complete bullshit!" It's a truly painful experience in that regard.
Moreover, given that American politics has now been reduced to a "choice' between two gangs of nearly identical corporate water-carriers, yet still masquerades as a genuine election in a democracy, I feel more than a little complicit in the fleecing of the country just by attending these events and thereby implicitly helping to legitimize this kabuki process. It's not like my individual presence matters a bit, of course. On the other hand, what if no one came, boycotting the entire process as an insult to our intelligence?
The most obvious indicator of the current state of the party is given by a quick look at the presidential field. Even Republicans -- even, I think, the vast majority of Republicans -- are dismayed by the quality of candidates they have to choose from. You could get several careers worth of stand-up material from the likes of Trump, Bachmann, Palin, Cain, Perry and the rest, but last I checked your party's leading lights are meant for other purposes than cheap comic fodder. But -- too bad for the GOP, and too good for the rest of the planet -- they are what they are. And what they are is an endless procession of witless buffoons, shoddy charlatans and societal rejects. It goes without saying that you could do better in terms of intelligence and integrity just by randomly choosing ten individuals out of the phone book for any given American city. But I'll go further. I think you could do better by randomly choosing ten individuals from any given sixth grade civics class. Or perhaps even ten crooks from the mellower wings of any given medium security prison.
Nobody epitomizes the scraping of the bottom of the GOP barrel right down through the Earth's crust better than Newt the Gingrich, until just recently the candidate du jour among desperate Republican voters. He's a big beached whale of an alleged humanoid, but it's still almost unimaginable that anyone could've possibly stuffed so much hypocrisy within the confines of a single epidermal sack. One of my favorites concerns Gingrich's recent lament that he was roughed up unfairly by his competitors in Iowa. If one were to make a list of the most destructive politicians and political operatives of the post-war period, Gingrich would certainly be among the top five, along with Joe McCarthy, Dick Nixon, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. (Note that for all its other pathetic qualities, the Democratic Party can at least rightly claim that it does not begin to compete in that particular ugly contest.) It has therefore been amusing in the extreme to see him turn into a whining crybaby as hardball politics, funded by unrestrained corporate money no less, was used to unravel his presidential aspirations once and for all. Golly, it almost seems like Newt has different ethical standards for the practice of politics, depending on whether he is giving or receiving. But that would be disingenuous.
But enough said. You can get most of what you need to know about the current state of Republican Party politics just by stopping for a second to realize that a month ago this fool was the favored candidate among GOP voters to be the next president of the United States. Before Rick Santorum, that is, a guy who doesn't have a problem with the government outlawing birth control (no, as a matter of fact, I'm not joking), and who left Congress with no money but somehow miraculously became a millionaire with a couple of years. Now Gingrich came before Santorum, but after Herman Cain -- stay with me here -- who might have seemed to you a lot like a guy with a severe zipper problem, but of course that critique was just a "high-tech lynching', don't you know. And Cain's 15 minutes of fame followed that of one Rick Perry, last seen skipping down the Yellow Brick Road whistling a certain tune about cognitive organs on holiday. And, of course, Perry came after Michelle Bachmann, who...
Well, you get the picture. But not quite. A little historical analysis suggests that the tawdry state of the Party's current leadership choices is less anomalous than Republicans might like to believe. Ronald Reagan (The Name Which Must Be Spoken Every Thirty Seconds By Republicans Everywhere), who, like John Kennedy, was a lot less a great president than a subsequent fabricated religious icon for the party faithful, was at least a strong presidential candidate (though not one who was at all above the use of ugly tactics). Look at what the party has thrown up since then: Bob Dole, John McCain, and two guys (Whose Name Must Never Be Spoken By Republicans Anytime Anywhere) who go by the oh-so-appropriate appellation of Bush. Even leaving aside the abhorrent politics, these candidates are to national politics what Reagan was to acting: strictly B-rate.
But let's be bold and actually talk about the Bushes, shall we? It's ever so instructive to do so. Bush the Elder was the first victim of the wholesale sanity purge that has infected the GOP in the Age of Reagan. He broke the cardinal rule -- in truth, the very raison d'etre -- of the party by raising taxes, and so they turned on him and both destroyed and embarrassed him by helping Democrats show him to the door after a single term. That was Poppy. On the other hand, his son, the Boy Wondering, is actually guilty of precisely the opposite sin. Republicans these days can never stop telling you how conservative they are and how much they revere Ronald Reagan. Conservative, conservative, conservative. Reagan, Reagan, Reagan. Which makes for a bit of a mystery (for six seconds at least): If that's true, how come they never, ever, mention the guy who was the most conservative president in American history, who was more Reagan than Reagan, and who happened to have been in office only just the other day? Hmmm. I wonder why that could be?
The answer, of course, is that Bush's rodeo clown presidency demonstrates precisely what are the fruits of pursuing conservative (actually, kleptocratic) policies. Those choices were disastrous, and we are only beginning now to even realize how much damage was caused. So today's Republican Party candidates have to pretend that Bush never happened, and that we've never had a very good and very recent empirical test of what would happen if we followed their identical policy prescriptions. Someday, of course -- perhaps in a decade or two -- they will try to give W the same makeover they've given to Reagan, but right now even the otherwise all too idiot-prone American public can't yet be fooled into remembering how much they liked 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, No Child Left Behind, global warming, global hatred, torture, Constitution shredding, polarized politics, doubling the national debt, massive wealth concentration, global depression and TARP -- all the gifts of a single president.
If I could put the current crop of Republican presidential candidates on the spot and ask them a single question, I would have them rate the Bush presidency and indicate how theirs would be different. They're all slick as an oil spill, of course, so they'd find a way to finesse the question. Surely they'd say that they'd balance the budget, but of course, so did Reagan and so did W. It turns out that trying to do so while cutting taxes, spending more on the military, and without borrowing is ... what did that one guy call it? ... voodoo economics. But here's the central point, even if it requires multiple iterations for Americans to learn it: The so-called conservative policies advocated by the Republican Party today are manifestly disastrous. They have been precisely so under every president -- most definitely including Clinton and Obama -- since Reagan, and they will continue to be so in the future. Even KenDoll Romeny knows that tax cuts for billionaires, war with Iran, environmental destruction and putting Christ back into Christmas won't revive the country. It's just that he doesn't give a sh*t. Getting to be president is all he cares about.
Beyond this nightmare of its pathetic leading figures, the GOP is also in trouble demographically. It has painted itself into a narrow corner such that its primary appeal is to pretend pious old white men who are fearful of everything (and thus constantly act as though they are fearless), but most especially afraid of independent women. It's funny to watch these guys rail against Muslim religious fanatics in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, without the slightest sense of irony or recognition of who they're looking at in the mirror each morning. No matter. They're finished. The young generation coming up in America today is far less sexist, far less homophobic, far less racist, far less xenophobic, far less religious, far less conservative and far less Republican than the ones headed for P.T. Barnum's "This way to the Egress" sign over the next couple of decades. The GOP will face some wrenching choices as it becomes increasingly unelectable with time. Likely there will be a civil war between those who demand ideological purity and those willing to compromise for electability. Quite probably the Romney-versus-the-rest motif we're witnessing in the current cycle is already the opening salvo in that war.
One could argue that Republican Party orthodoxy is already under assault from the Ron Paul campaign. It's truly amazing what Paul is saying on questions such as the astonishingly destructive war on drugs campaign, or American foreign and military policy, which he rightly describes as imperial in nature. He's far to the left of any namebrand Democrat, let alone compared to the chickenhawk cowardly hypocrites (as he himself accurately calls them) of the GOP, like Bush, Cheney, Gingrich, Romney and all the rest. More importantly, much of what he says on the campaign trail is jarringly truthful for any prominent American politician circa 2012. If only his economic prescriptions weren't so dishonest and just plain bizarro (and if only he didn't have that stinky racist, Bircher, background), I could honestly get excited about Paul, despite even his party affiliation. But Ron Paul is far more a strange mutant aberration in the Republican Party today than the leader of one of the warring camps likely to define the party in the coming decades. That battle will be between (alleged) moderates and hard-liners -- between Bush 41 and Bush 43, if you will -- and Paul is neither. He is far more a Libertarian than a Republican, but he's also strategically smart. Millions more people are being exposed to the Republican candidate's radically heterodox and absurdly truthful critiques of American government than would never hear them if he was running instead for the Libertarian Party's nomination. In any case, by telling such truths right in the belly of the beast, and by attracting so many votes, Paul makes life that much harder for an already besieged Republican Party.
In addition to its candidates and its demographics, the GOP has another problem, as well: Itself. I'm shocked that anyone else is shocked at what's going on within the party right now as the various candidates scramble for advantage. Of course Gingrich and Perry and the others are saying anything in order to take down the front-running Romney. What the hell else would you expect from an ideology which has been peddling extreme individualism, unfettered greed, filthy campaign practices, and endless deceit at least since the era of Joe McCarthy? Of course they are eating their young. Why wouldn't they? Because of moral qualms? Concerns about integrity? Putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the one? Very funny, people. Very funny.